“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”: a Flawed, Fantastic Return to the Wizarding World

***WARNING: This post does not #KeepTheSecrets. Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ahead.***

A particular perspective has been absent in reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

All critics are familiar with Harry’s story; some — even most — must be fans. But for phenomenons such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, fans come in different degrees. Unlike the most prominent reviewers of Cursed Child thus far, I am a peak Harry Potter fanatic.

I’ve read every book from the original seven-volume series as well as the companion works, Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I have Hermione Granger’s robe and wand, which I’ve worn at least twice in the past year. I want to write children’s books because of Harry Potter. Not infrequently, I trace my decisions, opinions and values to lessons learned from Harry and his friends. I’ve already bought my ticket, four months early, to the film version of Fantastic Beasts. And I spent all my money and took a week off work to travel more than 3,700 miles to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child performed onstage in London, England.

So understand while reading this review that unlike most professional critics, I can’t just comment on the work itself. Watching and reading Cursed Child, I see most intently how this eighth story fits into Rowling’s Wizarding World.

In most ways, it’s a wonderful addition. Cursed Child begins where the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the original series, left off: with Harry (Jamie Parker) and Ginny Potter’s (Poppy Miller) middle son, Albus Severus Potter (Sam Clemmett), embarking for Hogwarts. So, too, do Rose Granger-Weasley (Cherrelle Skeete)— daughter of one literature’s great couples, Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley) and Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni)— and Draco Malfoy’s (Alex Price) son, Scorpius (Anthony Boyle). From there, Cursed Child takes a turn anticipated for nine years by fanfiction writers across the world: Albus and Scorpius become best friends. They bond in part because of strained father-son relationships, as both Harry and Draco struggle to relate to their children, and remain close after both are Sorted into Slytherin House and become, in Scorpius’ words, “true and total losers.”

From there, the play unfolds, with new threats of Dark magic and even Voldemort’s resurgence. Cursed Child poses a particular problem for avid Potterheads: as much as we — or at least I — want to immerse ourselves back into the Wizarding World, it hurts to see our heroes face more hardship. When I first read Deathly Hallows, I cried when I reached the last sentence: “All was well.” Its simplicity, its peace filled me with joy. For the first time since he was a year and three months old, Harry Potter’s life was good. He had a loving family, wonderful friends, no Dark wizards trying to kill him. After thousands of pages and millions of words, for Harry Potter, all really was well.

Cursed Child’s existence necessitates the end of that lovely line. A new play about Harry and his family wouldn’t exist with a point of tension, challenges to face. Here, a few arise, all difficult to watch. All I want for Harry is peace — so seeing his scar hurt set my mouth in a sour grimace. All I want for Harry is love — so seeing him and Albus fight made me wince.

But, as I said, Cursed Child is wonderful. It wouldn’t be if Harry and his friends didn’t emerge safe and happy once more. As intended, Harry even grows from the struggles he faces, mainly his relationship with Albus. The other characters grow, too — Albus and Scorpius, this play’s protagonists, in particular.

Albus and Scorpius provide a touching, lonely, adolescent core to this story. Their relationship is the best part of Cursed Child. (Although, as a Rose/Scorpius shipper of nine years and counting, I was thrilled by Scorpius’ crush on her.) Albus’ veiled sensitivity, dry humor and boldness mesh well with Scorpius’ awkward, nerdy, funny character. In truth, Scorpius was my favorite character in the play. Together, he and Albus form an unlikely pair that makes perfect sense, especially as played by Boyle and Clemmett.

In general, Cursed Child is strongest when it explores relationships: Albus and Scorpius’, Albus and Harry’s, and Scorpius and Draco’s are most prominent. In these emotional scenes, Rowling’s touch was most evident. Although her writing improved during her original seven books, Rowling, who helped create but did not write this play, has always had an extraordinary gift at representing humanity. The emotional core of her series lives in its characters, whom she makes so familiar, and how they interact with one another and their world. I loved Harry Potter, as a fragile six-year-old, because I saw my insecurities in Ron; I felt like an outcast, like Harry; and as a bossy, dark- and bushy-haired, brainiac girl with brown eyes and large front teeth, I was Hermione. Potterheads love Rowling’s series as much for her characters as for her world, and sure enough, I loved Cursed Child’s new faces.

But in reflecting old characters, the play had one major flaw. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany did immense disservice to Ron Weasley. Yes, in the Potter series, Ron fulfills the funny sidekick role, providing monkey barrels of comic relief. But he has always been more than that. He was a boy immensely relatable to readers, riddled by insecurities and self-imposed pressure. He’s not Hermione, but he’s smart in his own right, providing important knowledge and common sense. Most of all, he’s a fiercely loyal and brave friend. During the chess tournament in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Ron was willing to sacrifice his life for Harry and Hermione— at just 11 years old.

That full, complicated character is more than a sidekick.

Yet Cursed Child continued the Harry Potter films’ process of reducing Ron to that one guy who makes the audience laugh. Ron served no purpose in the play except to crack jokes and serve as Hermione’s love interest. He should have been given more to do. Why did Harry not confide in his best friend about his trouble with his son? Why did no one consult Ron, a brilliant chess player, for strategic ideas about how to take down the play’s villain? Why was Ron drawn as less perceptive and helpful than in Deathly Hallows, undoing seven books of earned character growth? I love Ron’s jokes, and he and Hermione are my favorite couple, but I reject Cursed Child’s version of Ron. Owning Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, instead of being Head of Magical Law Enforcement like Harry or Minister of Magic like Hermione, should not make him less important.

Cursed Child’s other character flaws were less striking, but more important to the play’s convoluted plot. In short: it turns out that Voldemort had a daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange who calls herself the Augery (Esther Smith). Calling herself Delphi Diggory, Amos’ supposed niece, she tries to reverse her father’s defeat by convincing Albus and Scorpius to go back in time and stop Voldemort from killing Cedric Diggory in the Triwizard Tournament.

Using the last remaining Time Turner, Albus and Scorpius indeed try to save Cedric, creating alternate realities as a result. By humiliating Cedric during the second Task, the boys make him as much of a loser as they are. Cedric grows so resentful of his unpopularity that he becomes a Death Eater and kills Neville Longbottom in the Battle of Hogwarts. This murder, which prevents Neville from destroying Voldemort’s last Horcrux, Nagini, lets Voldemort kill Harry and establish his fascist, Muggle-killing dictatorship.

A lot more happens in the five-plus hours of Cursed Child — in fact, that alternate reality only emerges at the end of Act Two. Eventually, Albus and Scorpius and their families defeat the Augery and save the Wizarding World. But the plot is riddled with holes, two of them being the revelations about Cedric and Voldemort.

Cedric Diggory was honest and fair-minded, saving Harry during the Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament and earlier, in the series’ third book, trying to arrange a Quidditch rematch when his team won because Harry fell off his broom. He was, as Albus Dumbledore put it, “good, and kind, and brave.” That person would not become a Death Eater, particularly with mere humiliation as his influence. Indeed, claiming Cedric Diggory could become a Death Eater insults his rightly lauded memory. A boy as good as him does not start advocating genocide because he’s become unpopular. That insinuation badly revises his character: it makes his sacrifice less significant, and his death less tragic. Although Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany make it a point to honor Cedric’s memory, they dishonor his personhood by presenting such a twisted version of who he could have become. Their version does not fit with the Cedric readers know, nor with the son whom Amos Diggory still mourns and loves.

In addition — and all you fanfiction writers who long ago predicted Voldemort’s child, skip this part — claiming Voldemort and Bellatrix would have a child together stretches belief. Of course, Bellatrix would be willing to carry Voldemort’s child: she’d give her life for the opportunity. But I find it hard to believe Voldemort would ask her to carry one. It’s not that he would reject the idea of progeny — in fact, I find the logic of him having a child entirely believable. A man obsessed with immortality would embrace any chance to continue his bloodline, and a man who did not comprehend love would not consider a child a weakness.

However, during his months at Malfoy Manor, Voldemort would not have thought that step necessary. One of Voldemort’s biggest faults was pride, which led him to underestimate his opponents and draw incorrect conclusions. He knew Harry sought to destroy his Horcruxes, but did not think he could find them all. He knew Severus Snape loved Lily Potter, but did not consider him capable of being a spy. He placed so much stock in the dichotomy of life and death, he did not understand why the Elder Wand would not work right for him. Only at the very end of the Battle of Hogwarts — possibly only when his own Killing Curse rebounded towards him — did Voldemort understand that he had lost. Up until then, because of his pride, he had little doubt he would win: he would not have taken the extreme caution of creating an heir. Besides, even if he had greater doubts, an heir wouldn’t have served his purpose. Voldemort didn’t just want to create a pureblood world; he wanted to rule that world. He didn’t want his spawn to do it.

The main fault of Cursed Child, then, is that its plot’s central premise doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit into the Potter series’ existing puzzle, and like most plots, it gains more jagged edges along the way.

How, then, can Cursed Child still be wonderful, with a mess of a plot and a gross disservice to a main, beloved character? To start off, even with fuzzy logic, Cursed Child is fantastically entertaining. The staged version, in particular, is stunning. The actors all play their parts well, particularly the younger ones, and the transitions and effects are nothing short of magical. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Hogwarts degrees on many of the crew members’ walls.

What’s more, there’s a reason I spent so much time discussing characters: they leave the biggest impression. When I left the Palace Theatre, I didn’t spend too much time mulling the plot. Rather, I thought about Scorpius’ endearing silliness; how much Rose takes after her mother; the ways Albus, during the play, had grown. Yet again, Rowling’s characters are as important as her plot, if not more. For this tried and true Potterhead, despite the play’s faults, those characters made Cursed Child spectacular.

Other Thoughts:

  • After that ridiculous hullabaloo about Ron and Hermione supposedly being a poor match a few years ago, which I won’t link to because it’s disgusting, I’m glad Rowling re-emphasized Ron and Hermione’s relationship in Cursed Child. In every alternative reality, Ron and Hermione were in love. In actual reality, they decide to renew their marriage. Ron and Hermione are my OTP — One True Pairing, for fanfiction novices — and I was thrilled to see them enjoying a healthy, loving relationship.
  • I’m equally happy Hermione is Minister of Magic. Boy, does she deserve it. And I like Rowling breaking gender roles, with Ron as the primary caretaker because of Hermione’s work. (And, later, with Harry cooking instead of Ginny.)
  • There’s another possible character flaw, which I didn’t include in my main review because I haven’t decided what I think yet. In the alternative reality where Voldemort triumphed, Severus Snape is still alive — and is secretly an active member, with Ron and Hermione, of Dumbledore’s Army. After failing to save Lily’s son, he says, he committed to her cause and even came to believe in it himself. Severus Snape is undoubtedly a hero in the Harry Potter series, and deserves his commendation and namesake. However, I’m not convinced he would continue risking his life for Lily after Harry’s death. Maybe I’m just not used to open bravery from Severus Snape, let alone him being chummy with Ron and Hermione, but his character in Cursed Child seemed a bit discordant to me. Like I said, though, I haven’t decided what I think.
  • I can’t imagine Voldemort having sex, no matter the purpose. If he did have a child with Bellatrix Lestrange, I imagine there must be a spell or potion for something like artificial insemination.
  • Cursed Child did an excellent job expanding Ginny’s character and showing her relationship with Harry as his wife. She comes across every bit as strong, brave, witty and determined as she wasn’t in the movies.
  • The play also does good, necessary work redeeming Slytherin House’s image. Albus and Scorpius both clearly belong in their House, and are equally obviously not evil. Cursed Child goes a long way towards fixing the fandom’s understandable but inaccurate anti-Slytherin bias.
  • It turns out that Harry Potter is afraid of pigeons. Join the club, Harry. They’re dirty, creepy and poop on people’s heads.
  • This seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone to read the Harry Potter books. They are better than the movies in every way, and if you want to read Cursed Child, it won’t be as good without the books as background: the movies don’t suffice. Additionally, if you’ve only watched the movies, please don’t judge Harry Potter based on them. Read the books. They’re one of our world’s great lights.

R.I.P. Rachel Goldberg, “UnREAL’s” Antihero Gone Bland

“UnREAL,” Lifetime’s dark drama behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-esque reality TV show, has always held one main attraction for me: its starring character, producer Rachel Goldberg.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Quinn King, too. She’s a fearsome femme who runs “Everlasting,” the aforementioned “Bachelor” parallel, with an iron gaze and a grip as tight as her dresses. But Quinn, for all her biting one-liners and dictatorial rule, is a more familiar creature than Rachel. The manipulative genius who serves as Quinn’s protégé and “UnREAL’s” molten core, Rachel’s of a breed both common and rare. She’s an antihero as potent as Tony Soprano or Ray Donovan — but she’s one of the only female antiheroes to make her mark on television.

At least, she was. Until Monday’s fiasco of an episode, “Fugitive.”

The eighth episode in “UnREAL’s” uneven second season, “Fugitive” found Rachel under self-imposed lockdown, willingly medicated by her mother, a shifty psychiatrist whom she hates, after accidentally orchestrating the police shooting of a black man. Rachel’s character, up until this episode, has remained consistent: she believes in television’s power to make a positive difference in the real world, but her own selfish, duplicitous, morally compromised nature binds her to “Everlasting,” a show revolting and exploitative.

Sometimes, Rachel tries to turn “Everlasting” into her culture-changing platform, like by casting the show’s first black suitor, Darius, this season. But oil and water don’t mix: Rachel’s attempt at changing society explodes with the bang of a police officer’s gun. She takes and deserves blame for the bullet that hit Darius’ cousin Romeo. After he and Darius, rightly annoyed at “Everlasting’s” producers, took a car for a joyride with two white female contestants, Rachel called the cops, hoping to broadcast police bias against black men for the masses. She was too right about the bias she’d see.

After her plan falls apart, with Romeo and Darius in the hospital, Rachel lets her mother — who has claimed Rachel suffers from an assortment of mental ailments throughout the series — medicate her beyond coherence. I won’t rehash the rest of the episode for you; you can look up a review for that. But if you’re wondering why Rachel’s psychiatrist mom is doing something as unethical fas treating her own daughter, “UnREAL” answers your quandary with one of the worst twists ever: when Rachel was 12, one of her mother’s patients raped her, and her mother has treated and medicated her ever since then to protect her psychiatry practice.

And with that revelation, Rachel the Antihero died.

On the surface, revealing that one of Dr. Goldberg’s patients raped Rachel adds some value to the show. It explains why Rachel has always reviled her mother, and why Dr. Goldberg has always vaguely resembled a villain from a horror movie. Within that slim storyline, the twist works — it even helps.

But making Rachel a rape victim destroys much more than it explains “UnREAL’s” protagonist. The beauty of antiheroes is in their complication: they are both good and bad, likable and repulsive, smart and stupid, moral and corrupt. They contain contradictions, and in doing so, they resemble real people more than almost any other character type. Antiheroes work as plausible characters precisely because we see ourselves in them: we, too, consider ourselves somewhat inscrutable, a mix of qualities both desirable and unwanted.

That’s why there are so few female antiheroes. In general, women have been seen as vessels and stock characters rather than as full humans, in TV and real life. We’re chastised if we stray from gender norms; we aren’t allowed the same depth and complication.

Rachel was the rare exception — a product of “UnREAL’s” equally rare female showrunners, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon. Sadly, Shapiro and Noxon fell victim to the same tired trope so many men have employed. By making Rachel a rape victim, long-suffering in silence, they made all of her miscalculations, ambiguities and deficiencies a result of her rape. She can’t be blamed for her mistakes: they stem from suppressed childhood trauma. She can’t be reviled: now, we’ll always have her victimhood in our heads.

The Rachel we knew is gone, replaced by a character much more familiar, much less interesting and no longer important in the modern TV landscape. Male violence made her multifaceted: Rachel, like nearly every other woman in TV and film, couldn’t just be a person because she’s a person. She had to be Created by her nameless rapist. Yet again, a man became God.

I’m going to keep watching “UnREAL,” at least for the rest of this season. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer continue to give Emmy-worthy performances as Rachel and Quinn. Their characters’ relationship continues to intrigue me. Maybe Shapiro and Noxon will even come up with an ingenious way to make their rape twist worthwhile.

But I doubt it. And until that miracle happens, I’ll mourn the death of Rachel Goldberg: a woman of limitless television promise, taken from viewers too soon.

Near Work’s End, Tackling a Pachyderm-Sized Problem

It’s strange that as of today, July 21, I have about one month left working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo — really, less, since I’m taking a pre-planned vacation August 7-12. My individual days don’t rush past me, but every time I look back, weeks seem to have flown by.

My responsibilities so far haven’t changed much. I still do regular observations of the elephants, and still delight in seeing their individuality. I still watch footage of the elephants at night, documenting their instances of play and recumbent sleep. (I wish everyone could see Moshi and Martika play-spar with each other, I really do.) I still do assorted conservation assignments, helping out with FutureForWildlife.org and other work.

Currently, though, I have one big project — not my last one, but still significant. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the nonprofit accrediting body which includes more than 230 institutions in the U.S. and abroad, provides some resources for zoos and educators to teach the public about conservation issues. Yet AZA members do not currently have easy access to educational materials and resources about the second-biggest threat to wildlife worldwide, the fourth most profitable global crime: the illegal wildlife trade.

The illegal wildlife trade has contributed to the demise of not just my loves, elephants, but also rhinos, tigers, orangutans, pangolins, snow leopards (Cleveland has a baby right now!), Asian turtles — the list goes on. Dozens of species are threatened by poaching to meet human greed, not to mention those species’ environments and the livelihoods of people who live there

Unlike many of our world’s problems, such as Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, the illegal wildlife trade is solvable. We can stop it. Public awareness reduces demand for wildlife products. Trade bans actually work if they aren’t sabotaged. The trick is raising that public awareness: to lessen demand, to encourage lawmakers to pass trade bans and to make it harder for corrupt politicians to circumvent those bans for personal interest. (Unashamed plug: if I’ve now made you aware and you want to reduce demand, go here. If you want America to have one of those lovely trade bans, go here.)

Because AZA’s zoos and aquariums receive more than 183 million visitors every year, AZA has a unique opportunity to influence the public’s views about the illegal wildlife trade. Hence my big project right now: writing a proposal for AZA to develop resources about the illegal wildlife trade for its member institutions to use.

It’s important work, and I’m honored my supervisor Kym is trusting me to write it. It’s also, as you can probably guess, very challenging. I’ve never written a formal proposal of this sort before. As I write, I’m figuring out how I want to structure my proposal; how many facts I can include without sounding overbearing; which sources I should cite; what resources, exactly, AZA should make. And that’s just the beginning: because I work over-carefully, I’ve confronted far more quandaries, large and small, than just those. (Focusing on the proposal without going on Facebook is a whole issue in and of itself. I’m working on it.)

Even though this proposal relies most on my existing skills — writing; organization; persuasion, to a degree — it’s become my hardest assignment. That’s been an important reminder of humility, and an even better opportunity to improve as a student and worker. This paper is far from my last assignment, but for the first time this summer, I feel my job winding down.

After all, I just have three weeks left. I’m at the end of this column now, and that’s still bizarre.

Donald Trump, Schmuck in Chief

Donald Trump is a piece of drek.

That fact has been clear throughout this entire election cycle, but it became especially obvious yesterday. You know, when Donald Trump tweeted a blatantly anti-Semitic image accusing Hillary Clinton of corruption. The poster had a background of money and a red badge declaring Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” — shaped like a Star of David.

As Andy Borowitz put it, right as always: “Trump doing an anti-Semitic tweet about someone who isn’t Jewish combines two of his signature qualities, racism and inaccuracy.” So meshuge.

Trump deleted the tweet, which seemed almost like an admission of wrongdoing. But of course it wasn’t! A k’nocker like Trump doesn’t apologize. No, instead Trump waited until today to tweet: “Dishonest media is trying their absolute best to depict a star in a tweet as the Star of David rather than a Sheriff’s Star, or plain star!”

That’s because it was a Star of David, Donald. Sheriff’s stars have circles on their points. Plain stars usually have five tips.

As always, Trump deliberately or genuinely just doesn’t get it. Because of that, I realized: why bother writing a column in English for this am horets? He’s earned the language of my people, the language with the best insults in the world: Yiddish.

And here’s the thing: Yiddish is the most appropriate language to write this rant in anyway. Yiddish became the language of Ashkenazi Jews in the ninth century. No matter where in Eastern or Central Europe these Jews lived, their language united them. My grandmother’s family came from modern-day Lithuania, my grandfather’s family from modern-day Ukraine. Those two countries are more than 1,100 miles apart. Yet both my grandparents spoke Yiddish. Instead of Lithuanian or Ukrainian, Yiddish was their families’ native language.

That’s because being Jewish added a formative layer to their identity. Both an ethnicity and a faith, Judaism has defined its adherents for thousands of years. It’s not the only thing that defines us: I, for example, am also a white, upper-middle-class woman from Suburbia, USA. But it’s an intrinsic part of our identities — a link that Yiddish, for more than a millennium, exemplified.

Donald Trump can’t understand what it means to be part of a persecuted minority, because he’s not part of one. He particularly can’t understand what it means to be Jewish. The poster he tweeted, whose anti-Semitism he later denied, epitomizes an old Yiddish saying, born from centuries of persecution and mistrust: Dos ken nor a goy. “That, only a gentile is capable of doing.” Only a non-Jew with Trump’s chutzpa could parrot such narishkayt.

Here’s the thing: Trump almost certainly doesn’t think of himself as anti-Semitic. His daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism; three of his grandchildren will receive B’nai Mitzvot. They’re related to him, so in theory he cares about them.

But that doesn’t preclude him from being an anti-Semite. In fact, Trump is anti-Semitic. He may not think Jews’ association with money is a bad thing — he’s tried to cultivate that same association for himself — but he does think it exists.

Let’s look at his great seykhl of the Jewish people:

  • “I’m a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators. . . . Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them — perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.” — Trump, assuming all Jews are money-obsessed hagglers, at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Presidential Forum in 2015.
  • “Stupidly, you want to give money. . . . You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” — There he goes again with the money stereotype at the RJC!
  • “I promise you that I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz – I mean Jon Stewart @TheDailyShow. Who, by the way, is totally overrated.” — A tweet from The Donald in 2013, with his insinuations about Stewart’s Judaism plain.
  • “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”As told to John R. O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino. Trump probably thought this was a compliment.
  • “I don’t have a message to the fans. . . . A woman wrote an article that’s inaccurate.” — This quote would seem innocuous if Trump wasn’t defending his anti-Semitic supporters, who were sending vile, vulgar death threats to Julia Ioffe, a Jewish reporter who wrote an article about Melania Trump. Wolf Blitzer gave Trump an opportunity to denounce those fans; Trump didn’t take it.

From those five quotes alone, Trump’s record is clear: he believes in the stereotypes about Jews and money, plus a few others. Even worse, he spreads and encourages those stereotypes among his millions of followers. He bears direct blame for the neo-Nazis attacking Jews, journalists or otherwise, online. There’s a reason David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, enthusiastically endorsed him.

Donald Trump is an anti-Semite.

It doesn’t matter that his daughter and grandchildren are Jewish. It doesn’t matter that there are some rich Jews, or Jewish accountants. Trump’s stereotypes about us remain prejudicial khaloshes. They’re garbage, responsible for millions of Jews’ deaths.

And this oyf kapores zhlob wants to be president of the United States.

Happy Fourth of July, everybody. Don’t vote for Donald Schmuck Trump in November.

Tusks, Tails and Tales

One of my favorite parts of my summer job at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has been learning to identify the elephants.

The Zoo has five African elephants, four female and one male. Because part of my job involves observing and recording their behavior, I have to know which elephant is which. More than a month into my job, I’ve achieved that — and I thought you might find it as cool as I did.

Let’s start with the easiest elephant to spot.

Willy

Willy standing near a tree in the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo's Mopani range.

Willy standing near a tree in the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Mopani range.

At 11 feet tall and almost 13,000 pounds, Willy, the bull elephant, isn’t just the biggest animal the Zoo has ever housed: he’s also one of the biggest in America. Because of his size, he’s easy to tell apart from the female elephants, all of whom weigh at least 2,500 pounds less than him and stand several feet shorter.

However, Willy would look distinctive even compared to other bull elephants. His trunk has deep, muscular grooves. More notably, for an unclear reason, Willy only has one tusk. His other one was surgically removed after an unknown injury, presumably a break deep enough it reached the nerve/pulp cavity. When a tusk cracks that deep, it must be removed to prevent infection. Whatever the incident spurring that surgery, it happened before Willy came to Cleveland — before, even, he went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where he lived from 1998 until  2011.

Another unknown is how 37-year-old Willy became sterile. Like losing his tusk, it happened decades ago: possibly at the now-defunct Four Bears Water Park in Michigan or at Zoomotion, a private entertainment company which provides animals for films. (Fun fact: Willy and Kallie, one of the Zoo’s females, lived in those two locations together. More on that later.) Willy’s keepers do not know how or when Willy was sterilized, although they do not think he was born infertile.

Willy reaches for hay from an elevated feeder in an indoor paddock.

Willy reaches for hay from an elevated feeder in an indoor paddock.

But at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Willy’s inability to breed comes in handy. All of the Zoo’s female elephants are past a healthy reproductive age: although they could bear calves, it would not be safe for them to do so. Willy being sterile means he can mate with the females, but with no possibility of reproduction. That certainty keeps both him and the females safer.

Altogether, Willy is the epitome of a gentle giant: laid-back, but bigger than you can imagine. The features he lacks don’t make him any less impressive.

Kallie

Kallie investigates the ground in the Mopani range.

Kallie investigates the ground in the Mopani range.

The next-largest elephant is Kallie, the biggest of the females. On loan from the Philadelphia Zoo, 34-year-old Kallie actually arrived from the Pittsburgh Zoo’s International Conservation Center. She is distinctive among the females for more than her tall stature. She has even, long tusks and a long, straight tail. More notably, she hangs her head unusually low: from any angle, you can see her shoulders above her ears. This trait, more than any other, helps me identify Kallie.

Her arrival in Cleveland in 2011 was a reunion with Willy and two of the other females, Martika and Shenga. All four elephants lived as calves in the “Jumbo Lair”: eccentric millionaire Arthur Jones’ property in Ocala, FL. Jones, founder of the fitness brand Nautilus, flew 63 orphaned baby elephants from Zimbabwe to his 600-acre estate in 1983. Most African elephants in American zoos today come from Jones’ collection, including Willy, Kallie, Martika and Shenga.

Kallie stows hay in between her tusk and her trunk.

Kallie stows hay in between her tusk and her trunk.

Jones sold Martika in 1984 and Shenga in 1986. Kallie and Willy have the longest history together: Jones sold them both to Four Bears Water Park in 1989. Then, they both moved to Zoomotion, a private entertainment company, where they lived together until Willy went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998. Kallie went to the Philadelphia Zoo a year later, where she stayed until 2009, when the Zoo closed its elephant exhibit and moved her to Pittsburgh.

Just two years later, she reunited with Willy, her longtime companion. Kallie gets along well with all the elephants. If you go to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, you may well see her with hay wedged between her tusk and trunk for safekeeping — a behavior Martika shares.

Martika

IMG_3548

Martika hangs out in the Mopani range.

Playful and clever, Martika came to Cleveland from the Erie Zoo in 1997. Like Shenga, Tika has lopsided tusks from breaking them — an occurrence as common as breaking a nail. The one in the photo, at left, is her longest; her other tusk, which she broke more recently, is barely visible.

Because of their similar tusks (and size), Shenga and Tika can be hard to tell apart. I’ve come up with two ways to do that. The first, and easiest, is their tails. Tika’s long tail has a kink near the end; Shenga’s, however, is shaped like a backwards question mark. When I can’t see the elephants’ butts, I use their foreheads. While Shenga has a wrinkled, gravelly forehead, Martika’s is unusually smooth, with only a few grooves. Noticing this difference between their foreheads has become essential for me as an observer: of all the elephants, Shenga and Tika are the hardest to distinguish.

Martika approaches grass in the Savannah range of the Zoo's African Elephant Crossing.

Martika approaches grass in the Savannah range of the Zoo’s African Elephant Crossing.

In personality, however, Tika is distinctive. She enjoys her baths, playing with the water and making bubbly noises. She plays games with Moshi, one of the other female elephants, during the day and at night: they stick their trunks through bars in the indoor paddocks to poke each other. She also developed the habit at one of her previous residences of tucking her treats and hay in between her tusk and her trunk, to stop other elephants from taking them. Wild elephants don’t do that: Tika came up with the behavior herself. The fact the Zoo’s other elephants now use that same trick means they learned it from Tika or coincidentally came up with it themselves.

Either way, that food-storing behavior exemplifies two of elephants’ greatest traits: their intelligence and ingenuity. With her smart, lively nature, Tika may be my favorite of the Zoo’s elephants. Only maybe, though: I love them all.

Shenga

Shenga eats grass in the Mopani range.

Shenga eats grass in the Mopani range.

As I described earlier, Shenga and Martika look similar thanks to their size and tusks. However, Shenga’s gravelly forehead and question mark-shaped tail help me tell her apart. So, too, is her demeanor unique.

Another calf from Arthur Jones’ Jumbo Lair, Shenga left in 1986 and eventually ended up in the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE. Her keepers moved her to Cleveland in 2010 after Shenga’s sole exhibit mate in Omaha died. All elephants need companionship, as sensitive, social creatures. Shenga in particular thrives best in a herd.

That social nature shines through in her interactions with the other elephants. Shenga is friendly with the other females, but can also display dominance: at night, she sometimes wakes Martika up to take her sleeping spot. Most of the time, however, she is sweet and gentle.

Shenga rubs Willy's head; then, he rubs his trunk across her back.

Shenga rubs her head against Willy’s. Then, Willy runs his trunk across Shenga’s back.

In particular, Shenga has a loving relationship with Willy. The two elephants enjoy one another’s company, and I am told she likes playing with him. I was lucky enough to see one of the pair’s interactions during an observation. Willy stood by one of the gates, looking antsy and ill at ease. Shenga walked over and began rubbing her head against him, touching him with her trunk — making sure he was okay. In response, Willy rubbed his trunk across her back. The two elephants then stood together for a few minutes, heads against one another, tusks all but intertwined.

It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever witnessed.

Moshi

Moshi stands in the Mopani range.

Moshi stands in the Mopani range.

Last in this list but first in life, 40-year-old Moshi is the oldest of the Zoo’s elephants. She’s also the smallest, standing feet shorter than Kallie, and the roundest: for some reason, her stomach is particularly rotund.

Moshi has two long, almost-even tusks: her right was filed down when she broke its tip. Like Martika, she also has a particularly smooth forehead. But her most identifiable feature, besides her size, is her cropped tail. Moshi’s tail was broken in an altercation with Jo, one of the Zoo’s former elephants, who was aggressive. (Jo died in 2012.) Yet Moshi has retained a sweet, fun demeanor, easily cooperating with her keepers and playing games with her fellow elephants.

Moshi approaches Shenga in the Savannah range.

Moshi approaches Shenga in the Savannah range.

Moshi and Martika are perhaps the closest among the female elephants: in addition to playing together, they also sleep side-by-side. Martika often stands sentinel, in a guard-like position, while Moshi sleeps, as a sign of protection and camaraderie. However, Moshi gets along with all the elephants. She often eats hay that they drop on the ground, as the elevated feeders are hardest for her to reach.

The Zoo’s only elephant not from Jumbo Lair, Moshi was born in South Africa. She lived in the Wildlife Safari in Winston, OR from 1979 until 1997, when she came to Cleveland. Since then, she’s been a staple of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s herd, providing friendship and an elder’s wisdom.

Now that you’ve read this whole post, I’d like to ask for a favor: the next time you go to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, don’t use male pronouns for the females. You have no excuse for making that mistake — one of my biggest pet peeves — anymore. Willy looks distinguished enough: you’ll know him when you see him.

And if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe try telling the females apart, too. If I can do it, you can. You may even have fun with it — I know I have.

The Juggler’s Act

Several weeks later than I intended: hello again, dear readers.

My blog posts about my summer job, working on conservation and elephant research at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, have come less frequently than I had wanted. To be frank, ever since my introductory post, they haven’t come at all.

That drought, however brief and unnoticed, stems from how busy I feel. I work less than most adults; still, this job is the closest I’ve had to a full-time position.

I wake up at 8:00 a.m. every weekday morning so I can start driving to the Zoo by 9:20. It takes more than half an hour to get door-to-door: from my house, in Shaker Heights, to my desk in the Zoo’s veterinary hospital, the Sarah Allison Steffee Center for Zoological Medicine.

From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., I work steadily. Until recently, I spent between one and two hours outside most days conducting surveys with zoo visitors about conservation. I also spent about an hour and a half outside most days observing the Zoo’s African elephants and recording their behaviors.

Those two responsibilities have since changed. I finished conducting the surveys, so I can cross that duty off my list, and I’ve passed reliability testing for elephant observations. That means, actually, that I’ll formally observe the elephants less often. I’ve observed the elephants every day during the last month as practice, to learn to identify the elephants and their behaviors with speed and accuracy. Last week, my practice paid off: my research supervisor, Bonnie Baird, decided I could reliably record the elephants’ behaviors by myself. Now, I observe the elephants in accordance with the department’s schedule, which only gives me time slots two to three times per week.

I still see the elephants every day, though. I can take my lunch breaks in the African Elephant Crossing; I watch the elephants any time I walk through the Zoo. Not doing elephant observations every day merely means that I fill my six hours-per-day with other work.

And believe me, there’s plenty of that. To my surprise, most of my assignments come from the Conservation Department. I’ve been thrilled to find the Cleveland Zoo dedicated to national and international conservation efforts, led by Dr. Kristen Lukas, the Zoo’s Curator of Conservation and Science, and Kym Gopp, the Curator of Conservation. With Bonnie, Kristen and Kym round out my supervisors this summer.

When asked what I do for the Zoo, I often say, “Everything.” That’s not true, of course — I have no role in the vast majority of the Zoo’s activities, including those in the conservation department. But I’ve gotten so many conservation assignments, it can be hard to keep track of them.

My work may make the most sense as a list. So far, I’ve…

  • written content pages about the illegal wildlife trade for FutureForWildlife.org, the Zoo’s conservation website;
  • designed pages for FutureForWildlife.org about opportunities to take action for conservation;
  • helped plan World Giraffe Day, which was June 21 (the longest day of the year — yes, that’s on purpose);
  • consolidated and organized the Institutional Conservation Strategy;
  • started designing a new bulletin board for the public area of the Steffee Center;
  • written social media posts and an in-the-works proposal for future social media accounts;
  • created a framework for Future For Wildlife events and activities; and
  • begun planning a possible collaborative program about illegal wildlife trade and wildlife trafficking in cooperation with other zoos and international experts in 2017.

And that’s just what I’ve started. I’ll also help plan activities for World Tiger Day (July 29) and World Elephant Day (August 12); continue work on FutureForWildlife.org; create a mini database about the Zoo’s conservation partners; help identify ways to communicate Future For Wildlife; and draft a pre-proposal for a possible collaborative initiative for Association of Zoos and Aquariums zoos to collectively communicate about and combat the illegal wildlife trade.

In addition, I learned how to record elephants’ behavior from their nighttime videos Thursday. So even though I’ve finished the surveys and I’m doing fewer daytime observations, I have plenty of work to do.

That’s been more stressful than I’d anticipated. As most of you know, I fit the textbook definition of overachieving. I’ve never shied from working hard, I get good grades, and I get less sleep than I should. Even so, this summer has been a new kind of challenge for me. I’ve never held a full-time job before, and I’ve been able to spend most summers relaxing until now. (My summer commitment to getting healthier doesn’t help in that respect: I spend about two hours exercising after work each day. That’s not exactly an afternoon cat-nap.)

But that new responsibility is a big reason why this job is so important for me. The work I’m doing, in addition to teaching me new skills and information, comprises a leap forward in what I call Adulting: the quasi-imaginary journey more than five billion people around the world embark on every day, with a range of failures and successes.

I may be writing blog entries later than I’d wanted, and I may feel like a juggler sometimes. Overall, though, a month into this endeavor, I’d call this step in Adulting a success.

Psalm 23: A Psalm of Cleveland

LeBron is our shepherd; we shall not want.

He maketh us to scream in amazement: he leadeth us on the banks of Lake Erie.

He restoreth our hope: he leadeth our Cavs in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though we walk through the valley of the Lineup of Death, we will fear no evil: for LeBron is with us; his blocks and assists they comfort us.

He preparest triple-doubles before us in the presence of our enemies: he has anointed our city with championships; our cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives: and we shall dwell in the house of LeBron forever.

Composed by my dad, Joe White, and I in honor of the Miracle at the Oracle.