As Summer Fades, Hope Rises: What I Learned at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Somehow, my 12 weeks working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo have come to a close.

That feels strange to write. Three months into this job, it’s become part of my routine. I’ve gotten used to my 30-minute drive every morning; I’ve become accustomed to hearing about exotic animals like tigers and gorillas in everyday conversation; I’ve adjusted to the once-awful wake-up time of 8 a.m. (Okay, that one still sucks.)

I’d say that’s part of what I learned this summer – how to adapt to something new. It may sound odd to have worried about the change in my routine, but three months ago, I did fret about whether I’d be able to get to work on time and join in office chatter. Having succeeded on that count feels peculiarly grown-up, although I probably have about 80 years to go before I feel adult.

Yet my experience this summer has thrust me farther along that path of growing. I still want to be a writer: working at the zoo isn’t an obviously relevant experience moving towards that career. I did gain experience in new, formal types of writing – websites; proposals to large organizations; midyear reviews – but most of what I gained this summer is beneficial on a personal level. The skills I’ve nurtured these past months will aid me in a career, but will have equal or more effect on my general outlook and habits.

One of the most significant skills I’ve gained has been research. This past summer, I spent hours watching elephants, both in person and through video footage. Through my training and practice, I learned how to notice slight variations in elephants’ actions which indicate change in behavior; I learned about which behaviors are more notable, and which are less. This experience gave me new confidence in my research abilities, which I previously lacked due to my distinct natural leaning towards writing and the humanities. Science has never been my strong suit. I now feel more comfortable with the idea of taking science classes, and surer of my capacity to successfully fulfill Columbia’s science requirement.

More significantly, though, I learned how to pay attention. Or, rather, re-learned it. I’m sure that years ago, in the pre-phone era, looking at a beautiful, beloved creature without distraction would have been easy. However, I’ve spent the past decade so surrounded by technological bells and whistles that I lost that ability. To observe the elephants this summer, I had to regain it: if I went on Facebook while I watched the elephants, I might miss something. So over the past weeks, I haven’t just learned how to best watch the elephants’ behavior. I’ve learned how to only watch the elephants’ behavior. That concentration has been an important re-lesson, one vital to my general schoolwork as well as my writing. More importantly, I hope it will make me a more aware, attentive person. As helpful as phones and computers may be, I needed a reminder on how to separate myself from them – and, in general, how to look in just one direction.

In addition, I’ve improved my ability to take on challenges. For years, I’ve struggled with stress: most people handle it poorly, and I think I handle it about 30 times worse than most people. My work at the zoo has presented several challenges which, in years prior, might have made me a puddle. I had to write a draft proposal, destined to be presented to the huge, prominent Association of Zoos & Aquariums. I had to research not one, not two, but 35 conservation partners and projects to figure out what they had achieved in 2016. I had to observe elephants with the focus I previously described, a departure from my usual scatter-brained self.

I was proud that this summer, I rose to those and more challenges. Each gave me stress to a degree, of course – if your conservation review grew to 10,000 words, you’d be a little stressed, too. But I didn’t let it overcome me. Rather, I used that stress to motivate myself, finishing my assignments on time and doing them well. I have heard for years, with heavy skepticism, that stress helps people do work. This summer was one of the first times I believed that, because for one of the first times, it happened to me. My work at the zoo this summer has helped boost my confidence in my ability to handle challenges and stress. I’ve still got a ways to go to attain full control over my stress, but this summer, I made leaps on my way there.

Something else I learned this summer may be best summed up as renewed faith of a kind. Many people, I think, want to change the world. I’m one of them. Yet few things seem to change for the better – I bemoan the Tea Party, then Donald Trump takes the Republicans’ mantle; I fear climate change, and the Arctic continues to melt. As I’ve observed this relentless pattern, I’ve come to feel that I cannot, in fact, change the world. The goal is too grandiose. The world will continue its course, blowing straight past me and my best intentions.

This summer, I’ve regained some of my naïve hopefulness. Most – nearly all – of my work these past months has revolved around conservation. I’ve helped bolster Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s conservation program, Future for Wildlife; I’ve learned about the zoo’s conservation partners and their work around the world. And over and over again, in the work I’ve done, I’ve seen individuals changing the world. From rescuing slow lorises from the exotic pet trade in Vietnam to training dogs to find ivory and rhino horns so they can catch poachers, individuals join the world’s course as it zips past. In small ways and large ones, they make a difference there. They don’t change the world in the grand, famous sense I imagined as a kid. That doesn’t matter: the change still happens.

Once again, I think I can do that, too. I like to imagine that I’ve even made a dent already. Maybe someone will take the Smart Shopper pledge I designed; maybe the AZA will start providing resources about the illegal wildlife trade to its member institutions. Those changes wouldn’t change the world in an obvious way, but they’d make a change that matters nonetheless, and I would have been part of making them happen. I think I can continue “using my powers for good,” as a teacher of mine used to say.

Just as – forgive the cliché – we all can. Those three, broader lessons I’ve learned all fit, somewhat paradoxically, into a more specific one: we can all contribute to conservation. We can protect orangutans’ habitats through easy shopping choices, like avoiding all but the most sustainable palm oils. We can protect slow lorises from being captured by refusing to share viral videos of them being tickled – which, actually, puts them in pain. We can protect elephants from poachers by refusing to buy ivory products, new or old, and signing petitions for stronger ivory bans wherever we live. I will carry these little acts with me wherever I go, whatever I do, and in doing so I will change the world, just as we all can.

And every time I act for conservation, I’ll have the elephants I’ve grown to so love in mind. I won’t and can’t forget Willy and Shenga’s love, and Kallie reaching for grass outside her habitat, and Moshi and Martika sparring at night. They give me a constant motivation to act with wildlife in mind.

If you want the same motivation, go to your nearest AZA-accredited zoo. Take an afternoon and visit the animals there. Let yourself feel wonder at all the amazing creatures our world can hold. At the end of your trip, you’ll want to help them – I do, and I can, and I will.

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