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How Zoos and Aquariums Are Harnessing Empathy to Save Species

Posted by Wei Ying Wong, Vice President, Learning and Innovation

Zoos and aquariums inspire wonder and forge connections to nature, but that emotional journey may be more powerful than we imagine. Most people can recall, in vivid detail, a time they experienced an emotional connection to an animal—whether visiting a zoo or aquarium or in your own backyard—we call that connection empathy.

Increasingly, research shows that our connection with the natural world, and the creatures in it, inspire us to commit to making sustainable choices. Woodland Park Zoo has embarked on a journey to scientifically interrogate the mechanisms that lead people to emotional empathy and how those connections lead to sustainability actions. We are now analyzing how zoos and aquariums can intentionally inspire everyone to take meaningful actions on behalf of a healthier planet.

Research tells us that human beings often make decisions that are driven by a complex interplay between emotion, environmental and societal context and cognitive thinking. We are also increasingly aware that one of the strongest predictors for making decisions that result in behaviors that benefit others (prosocial behaviors) is empathy, a stimulated emotional state that relies on the ability to perceive, understand, and care about the experiences or perspectives of another person or animal. Our zoo’s research indicates that zoos and aquariums are uniquely suited to create vivid emotional connections with animals and nature that lead to empathy—that, in fact, zoos and aquariums have the potential to be empathy machines.

Up until quite recently, the empathy triggered by zoos and aquariums has often been a beneficial side effect rather than an intentional response elicited to inspire conservation behaviors. Woodland Park Zoo co-created the Advancing Conservation Through Empathy for Wildlife (ACE for Wildlife) learning network with 19 zoos and aquariums from around the country to more clearly understand how empathy can be stimulated, nurtured, and catalyzed into behaviors that enhance our communities and the planet. With a multidisciplinary board of advisors from different academic disciplines including cognitive psychology, zoology, visual arts, among others, we are applying scientific rigor to answer questions about how zoo and aquarium settings can uniquely foster empathy to save wildlife.

Our empathy learning network—ACE for Wildlife—allows us to share best practices and learn from each other to create a robust dialogue that continually innovates. We are taking the first steps on this journey of discovery. As we explore and identify best practices, we will be keeping our learning network, and you, appraised of our efforts at
I encourage you to join us on this journey to harness the power of the empathy machines we call zoos and aquariums for a better world for all of us, and the creatures we share it with.