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Empathy in Action: Can Human Emotions Save Species?

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications and Laurel Abbotts, Learning and Innovation, Woodland Park Zoo.

Empathy is an emotion that is very useful to coexisting with other people. In its most basic definition, empathy is an understanding of experiences or perspectives of others. Whether those ‘others’ are kids sharing the swing set with you or a fellow commuter stuck on I-5, we can all pretty much agree that empathy is an important tool to getting along with your fellow humans. But what about empathy for animals, and even more so, what about using empathy to inspire conservation action? If the opposite of apathy is empathy, surely we can harness our very human emotions to collectively take action on behalf of wildlife, ecosystems and the planet.


"Woodland Park Zoo has co-created Advancing Conservation Through Empathy for Wildlife, a learning network with 19 zoos and aquariums from around the United States to study how empathy is sparked, nurtured, and ultimately how it can help people take conservation actions that benefit all of us" explains Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO Alejandro Grajal. "We are in the very first stages of this research to measure and identify the ways our zoo can inspire empathy. We want to invite you with us on this journey of discovery—you can find updates on our findings and our work at"

To learn a bit more about this initial research, we chatted with Laurel Abbotts, who is helping lead Woodland Park Zoo in empathy research. Here’s our discussion about what might be the most exciting new thing in conservation psychology—and how your zoo is diving into this topic to save species.

WPZ: You began your role as Project Manager, Empathy Project, in October, tell us about your jobwere you always interested in empathy as a subject?

LA: I am so excited to be part of a conservation organization and project manager of the Empathy Project, led by Wei Ying Wong PhD, the Vice President of Learning & Innovation here at the zoo. My background is in engineering and public health, so prior to my position here at the zoo, empathy was only something that I knew about as a way that people related to each other. Now I am learning about the importance of empathy and how it relates to both humans and animals and how it can inspire conservation action.

Empathy staff, Laurel and Nicole visit the International Crane Foundation's build site for the new visitors' center.
WPZ: You are part of an entire team of staff within Woodland Park Zoo's work to foster empathy for wildlife, tell us a bit about their role and how you work together.

LA: Woodland Park Zoo is currently working on two multi-year grants to foster empathy for wildlife, so we have staff across the zoo working to integrate these practices into everything that we do. We also work closely with other AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums interested in bringing this work to their organizations, and we are working to build out a learning network that facilitates collaboration on both the implementation and evaluation of empathy practice. We are researching the interrelationships between animal welfare, perceptions of animal welfare, and empathy. We have designed an experimental study centered around the role of choice and control for ambassador animals and interpretive messaging in programs to better understand the effects of those programs on both the visitors and animals.

Laurel meets Tootie the tortoise at New Zoo and Adventure Park on her travels to connect with other AZA institutions on empathy and conservation action. 

WPZ: Tell us more abut Advancing Conservation Through Empathy (ACE) for Wildlife, the new network being facilitated by Woodland Park Zoo.

LA: ACE for Wildlife is a network of zoos and aquariums focused on fostering empathy for wildlife. There is a lot more to learn about empathy, and our experience tells us that working with a network of other zoos and aquariums can help us learn and grow together. This is a topic where learning together, and capitalizing on the different strengths, audiences, and perspectives of a variety of zoos and aquariums allows us to understand so much more than if we were solely focused on one organization.

The goal of this network is to advance the knowledge and practices of fostering empathy for wildlife in zoos and aquariums and to collaborate with our peers. By building empathy for animals in our visitors and communities across the country, we are creating a social movement to inspire conservation action and protect the animals and wild spaces that we call care about.

WPZ: How can empathy save wildlife?

LA: A person’s motivation to take action comes from a variety of internal and external motivators. In zoos and aquariums, we often talk about a person’s connection to nature or relatedness to nature. But when we talk about empathy, we are taking this one step further. We’re not just seeking to connect to wildlife and animals, but to understand the animals that we share a planet with. Empathy is something that people develop over the course of their lives, and it is a skill that can be taught and practiced. Research suggests that increased empathy has the potential to lead to an increased likelihood that people will take compassionate or caring action. When people feel more empathetic for animals, they will be more likely to take conservation action on their behalf. To put it simply, we protect what we love, and we love what we care about.

WPZ: Woodland Park Zoo recently hosted the Creating Change Symposium: How Empathy Can Advance Your Mission. Can you tell us a bit about the event?

LA: The Creating Change Symposium was the kick-off event for ACE for Wildlife. It was held in Seattle over three days in January. It brought together representatives from 19 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums from 7 states in the Western U.S., as well as 11 experts representing a span of disciplines including animal welfare, humane education, behavioral science, visual arts, and clinical and conservation psychology. Over the course of the symposium, attendees learned about foundational empathy practices, how empathy plays a role in cultural organizations of all kinds, and how empathy inspires caring action.

WPZ: What was the most inspiring moment during the symposium?

LA: One of the most inspiring moments for me was during a session where we learned about how fostering empathy leads to caring action. Jennie Warmouth, PhD is a second grade teacher outside of Seattle, WA. Every week, the PAWS animal shelter sends her a photo of one if their animals up for adoption. With her class, they discuss this pet, their story, and what the pet could be thinking and feeling, then write an article for the animal’s adoption. This perspective taking is especially powerful because it allows many of the kids to have a space to relate to animals, as well as process their own experiences. Dr. Warmouth and her classes have helped hundreds of dogs get adopted, and has shown the students that through their action they made a difference in the life of an animal.

WPZ: Now that the symposium is over, what happens next?

LA: The symposium was just the beginning of this network! This spring, we will be visiting all of the ACE for Wildlife organizations. At each site visit, we will be getting to know each organization, their goals and how they are fostering empathy in their guests and communities. By understanding their current practices and goals, we can build a learning network and resources that will help organizations collaborate, highlight their strengths, and share their knowledge with the network.

WPZ: Getting to travel to meet with colleagues all over the nation sounds really amazing! What's the best thing you've experienced so far?

LA: Traveling to see the different zoos and aquariums has been so cool! We spend an entire day at each site, which means we get to learn so much about all the ways that each organization is involved with their community, providing care for their animals, and supporting conservation of wild spaces. The fact that each organization is spending so much time with us demonstrates the commitment that each organization has to this work and to inspiring conservation action through fostering empathy for animals. One of my favorite experiences so far was getting to meet Aayla the Aardvark at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI. One of her favorite foods is avocados.

WPZ: How can folks at home use empathy in their own conservation actions?

LA: When we talk about empathy for animals, we want to help people understand the perspective of another animal, their wants and needs, and how this is similar or different to ourselves. Once they are drawing these connections, they can take action to help or care for these animals in their natural environments. There are no limits to the things you can do at home, but here are some of our favorite ways to include empathy in your daily actions:

  • Provide experiences in nature and take the time to observe. Help your friends and family see or interact safely with animals and nature. This could be taking a trip to the zoo where you can learn about animals from all over the world or going to the park and talking about what you see. For instance, how are the birds in the park similar or different from yourselves?
  • Think about animals as individuals. Even though a lot of animals may look similar, they all have unique experiences and personalities. Some dogs like to be petted by strangers while others don’t. Here at the zoo, our keepers care for our animals every day, so they get to know all about their personalities and preferences, even their favorite foods!
  • Use your imagination and take the perspective of animals, like the ones that live around you. Think about an animal like a raccoon or snake that not everybody likes. Encourage storytelling and role playing to see things from their perspective. To them, you might seem scary or dangerous, and they are learning to adapt to your environment too. You could even start with a story about someone’s favorite animal at the zoo.
  • Learn about needs of the animals in your backyard. Once you know more about their basic needs (e.g. shelter, food, water), think about what you or your family can do to help these animals meet their needs to thrive. For example, build a backyard habitat for native birds or toads.

WPZ:   Is this your dream job?

LA: I am so excited to be joining the Woodland Park Zoo for this project. The work being done on this project is fascinating to me and it empowers people to take actions on behalf of the animals who live on this planetsaving species is what it’s all about!

Thank you Laurel, for sharing your work with us, and we look forward to hearing more about the Empathy Project as it evolves! Check out to learn more.


Anonymous said…
All of this talk about 'empathy' with animals is well and good. But what is much more important is the reasons we have to have zoos in the first place to save some breeding pairs from extinction. These are 1) overpopulation of the planet by humans 2) habitat loss and destruction as a result of 1)above and greed/being able to provide food for the family, etc, 3) the destruction of native animals by people's cats and dogs 4) the destruction of native animals for 'fun' (i.e. hunting) and 5) the inability of people to understand we only have one planet and we are destroying it. Once we can tackle these major obstacles maybe then can we start dealing with things like 'empathy with animals' although I imagine it can help a little. However, it is extremely unlikely that we will deal with the main problems at all although I wish it were otherwise.