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.

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.

Of Pachyderms and Plotzing

The Pachyderm Project: Entry One

Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve hung out with elephants.

Okay, maybe “hanging out” is an overstatement. Usually, the elephants were munching hay; I was snapping photos and plotzing. But for ten consecutive weekdays, I’ve spent between 30 minutes and four hours watching elephants.

I’ll keep up that routine for nearly the entire summer thanks to my work with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

I’m working on the Zoo’s elephant behavioral research projects from May 23 through August 19 as a summer research volunteer. One of the projects involves observing the elephants in person, during the day; the other involves observing the elephants at night, through video footage. I’m also helping launch an awareness initiative around the Zoo’s conservation efforts, Future for Wildlife, and the programs entailed therein.

The whole time, I’ll be writing blog posts about my experience — both by choice and by requirement. To afford to participate in an unpaid program this summer, I applied for and earned one of Columbia University’s Work Exemption Program grants. My WEP grant covers the “summer contribution” — approximately $3,000 — which I would otherwise have to pay as part of my financial aid package. In exchange, I have to complete a reflection project: writing blog posts about my experience as the summer passes.

Luckily for me, I had an elephant-themed blog at the ready. So here we are: halfway through my shoddy first entry, explaining the work I’ll write about for the next 11 weeks.

Because of my lifelong passion for elephants, this opportunity fulfills one of my dreams. I will spend nearly 60 days not just watching elephants, but also helping them. My research will help assess the elephants’ wellness at the Zoo and find ways to improve their environment. My conservation work will raise awareness of elephants’ plights in the wild, in addition to those of other wildlife species.

In brief: if I do my job well, elephants at the Zoo and in the wild will benefit. Yes, I will also learn new research skills — by which I mean all research skills, since I know none. However, the biggest reward of this experience has little to do with my personal betterment. On August 19, I aim to feel that I have made a positive impact for elephants at the Zoo and wild elephants in Africa.

That’s a lofty goal, and one that I likely won’t be able to ensure when the time comes. But at the very least, I will gain tools to keep helping elephants in the future. Although I know little about my career path, I will always advocate for elephants. I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: we cannot allow the extinction of such a beautiful, important species. We must show we are better than that. We must try to match elephants’ humanity.

I’ll get to spend my summer living out that principle. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.