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.


Caring about Conservation, I Support Zoos

I often find my jobs timely.

This past school year, I worked at the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization — and, right on cue, a pro-BDS group formed on campus. This summer, while working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, national debate about zoos resurged after a child fell into the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla exhibit, leading to a male silverback gorilla, Harambe, being shot and killed.

We’ve heard the questions before: whether zoos should still exist; what role zoos play in conserving and aiding wildlife; how zoos can care for wide-ranging, intelligent animals in necessarily compact space. This time, though, I’ve approached the debate over zoos with a unique perspective. Working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, I’m not just another occasional zoo visitor; I also know, to an extent, how a zoo works behind the scenes.

What I’ve learned this summer has convinced me that good zoos — note the adjective — are important conservation organizations, playing a necessary role in species survival.

A general mark of a good zoo is AZA accreditation. Approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors have USDA licenses in America — but less than 10 percent of those exhibitors are AZA-accredited. The distinction recognizes the highest standards of operations and animal care. More specifically, though, I use the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as my model. A zoo like Cleveland’s employs staff who care genuinely, deeply, about the welfare of all animals in its care. Moreover, they turn that care into action. In the early 2000s, staff worried the Zoo didn’t care for its African elephants well — so they spent $25 million to build a state-of-the-art elephant exhibit. Concern for the Zoo’s Amur tigers led to the new, stunning Rosebrough Tiger Passage, which opened this summer. That doesn’t mean every exhibit is good — they’re not. Because of how much money it costs to build new exhibits, they can’t be. But the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has recognized its weaknesses and combats rather than ignores them. Our Zoo has improved, and will continue to, instead of remaining stagnant. Our animals benefit from that drive and awareness.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo also supports conservation in the wild. I would know: as my last assignment, I’m compiling a midyear report about all of the Zoo’s field partners and key projects. Altogether, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo runs, partners with or funds 35 organizations and projects, ranging from Education for Nature – Vietnam’s work combating wildlife trafficking in southeast Asia to the Ruaha Carnivore Project, which mitigates human-wildlife conflict to help prevent livestock losses and retaliatory killing of carnivores by local pastoralist people in Tanzania. Our field partners work to protect species as large as elephants and as small as turtles. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is securing a future for wildlife by helping to protect dozens of species around the world.

To me, a good zoo must exhibit those features: active commitment to its animals’ welfare and to wildlife’s survival around the world, in word and deed. Not all zoos match that model. I feel lucky every day I go to work that the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the zoo I grew up knowing and loving, does.

But for many people, those commitments aren’t enough. Some people think keeping wild animals in captivity, no matter how fair the conditions, is morally wrong. Some people reserve that opinion for animals of particularly high intelligence and sensitivity, such as gorillas, dolphins and my beloved elephants.

I understand this position — and often, its holders are right. Too many zoo exhibits serve its animals, particularly sensitive ones, poorly. For two main reasons, however, zoos provide a necessary service in keeping these creatures in human care.

The first is that, to put it frankly, humans suck at respecting other species. Through unsustainable hunting, habitat destruction and other exploitations of the environment, humans have caused the endangerment of hundreds of species, intelligent creatures such as gorillas and elephants among them. To help combat these problems, American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions contribute more than $150 million each year to wildlife conservation efforts worldwide, according to the 2014 AZA Annual Report on Conservation and Science. Zoos have also been involved in the bolstering and reintroduction of more than two dozen species, including the scimitar-horned oryx, black-footed ferret, California condor and the Wyoming toad.

I wish, of course, that humans didn’t leave such carnage in our wakes. Yet here we are, with climate change roaring full-speed ahead and dozens of animals extinct because of us. Until we allow our values to undergo a radical shift, we must support zoos and other conservation organizations working to help protect and secure wildlife and habitats to prevent the disappearance of species. And frankly, judging by our broad environmental apathy even today, that point of change won’t come any time soon.

In addition, I consider zoos important for a somewhat more abstract conservation purpose. I believe fully that seeing an animal up close — witnessing just how much larger it is than you, smelling its fur, admiring its habits — is the single best way to make people care about that animal. No photo of an elephant can substitute for seeing one of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s pachyderms in person. I’ve witnessed this effect a few times this summer: young children gazing in awe at the elephants, being dragged away but turning back for one last look.

One instance, however, stands out. A few weeks ago, while observing Willy, the 13,000-pound male elephant, an older couple walked into the building with a baby in a stroller. When they reached the fence in front of Willy’s enclosure, they lifted the baby — a tiny creature, with big, blue eyes and wisps of brown hair — out of the stroller. The older woman held that baby in her arms, facing Willy, and started telling the child about elephants.

The baby interrupted her, with one word: “Wow.” Instantly, the older man and woman began freaking out: that “Wow” was the baby’s first word. And Willy had earned it.

That child didn’t say her first word when she looked at a photo of an elephant. She wasn’t moved to wonder over an illustration. She experienced true awe and amazement when she saw Willy in person — when his wrinkled skin, his floor-length trunk, his reaching tusk were all right there, so close she could almost touch him.

That experience is magical. That experience is what makes people, from infancy to adulthood, care about animals and their conservation. And for the vast majority of individuals, that experience can only happen in the presence of wild animals at zoos.

When I think about my summer at the zoo, I think about that little girl’s beaming grin, with dimples just beginning to bloom. Her instant wonder justifies both my support for zoos and the work I’ve done these past few months. Good zoos can produce as much magic as Disney World, which many more real-world impacts. I’m grateful they exist to help protect species worldwide, and that I’ve been able to contribute in some small way.

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.