Was it just coincidence that the smoke cleared and the rain stopped for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) glamorous gala? Or a sign G-d is on their side. After all, they seek to protect what he created, “wildlife and wild places.”
Entering the Central Park Zoo they run, we found faux fauna and flora lit from within, well-decorated grounds and long tented tables.
And Chevy Chase. “We’re just coming to see the sea lions,” he told me, “the one that’s out there I used to own.” “Is that true?” “No! Nothing I’ve said yet is true.”
But, this is: “I grew up in the city, and Woodstock. I’ve been coming here ever since I was a baby.”
Besides the sea lion he doesn’t own, what does he love about the zoo? “What’s not to love,” Jayni Chase joined in. “This is my wife Jayni,” he said. “Wife of 41 years,” said she. “Together for 43,” he added.
So, what’s he like at home? “Funnier than he is in the movies,” she said, “because he can say whatever he wants with me.”
He pulled her close for a hug. “I love her,” he said. That, too, felt true.
Others under the tents included Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie, Diane and Andreas Halvorsen, John and Jeanet Irwin, Alejandro and Charlotte Santo Domingo, Tony and Amie James, Tom and Ingrid Edelman, Gillian Hearst, Cristián Samper and Adriana Casas, Barry Sternlicht, Ann and Andrew Tisch, Priscilla and Ward Woods, Don and Barbara Zucker.
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez was honored for conservation work in his native Costa Rica, and now, for the world, as CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility.
Board of Trustees Chair, Alejandro Santo Domingo, introduced the new WCS President and CEO Monica P. Medina. Hard to imagine a more qualified pick. She comes to WCS from serving the State Department, where she was US Special Envoy for Global Biodiversity and US Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs under Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Her career in conservation and environmental policy spans two other administrations, the US Senate and the private sector (Georgetown University, National Geographic and the Walton Family Foundation).
I asked her what it was like working in The White House. Does everyone talk as fast as they did in the Bartlet West Wing? “Ah, the good ol’ days,” she deadpanned.
“I was never lucky enough to work in the actual White House,” she began, “but I do know that in the administrations I worked for, there were, and are, an incredibly dedicated group of patriots who work long hours, love our country and believe in what they’re doing. The State Department was wonderful for me, because I met government officials from around the world. During my tenure, we rejoined the Paris Agreement and engaged in every international environmental negotiation and meeting. Just bringing our expertise made a difference. And Congress was generous enough to give us funding for things like biodiversity laws.”
Why should city folk care about the ocean? “We call it oceans but it’s just one ocean, the one thing that is everywhere, connecting every part of the planet,” Medina continued. “It provides the oxygen for one out of every two breaths we take. It is critical to our weather. Our droughts and inundating rains are a result of climate changing our weather patterns, predominantly because of the way it’s heating up the ocean. It made places in Canada that used to be pretty soggy, prone to droughts that caused huge forest fires. The ones that are burning now, we think were started by lightning. These kinds of fires have long impacted citizens in the West.”
“Even healthy people are impacted by smoke on the levels that we had recently. Breathing in that soot is not good for your lungs. People should take warnings seriously.”
That apocalyptic yellow sky should have driven home the impact of nature out of balance. The zoo is a happier way to teach our kids.
“We have so many animals here,” Medina continued. “You can see how we are part of a bigger natural world, from the top predators, all across the animal kingdom. You can see it in our aquarium, from sharks in their majesty to rays to jellyfish — floating with an extra-worldly look — to beautiful corals. That helps open people’s imagination to the wonders of nature, to inspire them to live more sustainably.”
Unless you are living under the sea, you probably know the basics Medina recommends, such as reusing plastic, cleaning beaches and reaching out to elected officials.
But, did you know about the “amazing wonder of nature 100 miles off our coast,” the Hudson Canyon? “It was created from the Ice Age, when the continent and the Hudson River system extended much farther out,” Medina said.
“We can now preserve an incredible wonderland of ocean biodiversity, which the government is considering making into a national marine sanctuary, only the fourth on the Atlantic seaboard. That would be amazing. And we have a wonderful Hudson Canyon exhibit at our aquarium.”
So there you go. Central Park Zoo is not a stand alone. It’s one of four zoos and an aquarium in New York run by the WCS, an international conservation organization so sweeping, it takes an expert from the top tier of government to do it justice. Grab your kid and check it out.
When G-d gave us this glorious natural world, that was just an introduction. It’s a co-dependent relationship. We need it and it needs us.
Be sure to visit wcs.org to learn about how they’re working to save wildlife around the globe.
Photographs by Zach Hilty/BFA.com & Julie Larsen Maher.