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Empathy for wildlife a driving force for conservation

Posted by Sydney Dratel, Empathy Initiatives

Imagine a virtual classroom full of kindergarteners staring at a Madagascar hissing cockroach. You might imagine grimaces and comments such as "Scary", "Gross!" or "Freaky". However, by the end of such a session with the 6-legged critter, not a single one of the 154 students who participated expressed a negative or even neutral emotion about this bug. They even said they would be happy to see the cockroach and would help it if it was in danger! Why? Because staff focused on building empathy for the cockroach by working with the students to name her 'Sophia'. This project was just one of Woodland Park Zoo’s pilot round grants to build organizational capacity to foster empathy in partner zoos and aquariums.

Did you know that Woodland Park Zoo has a team in our Learning & Innovation department dedicated to developing and carrying out a range of Empathy Initiatives? Empathy is a powerful emotion that drives our connection with those around us. Empathy can be developed, strengthened and reinforced throughout our lives, and can be an important driver for positive social change. Our Empathy Initiatives work to foster empathy for animals in order to empower our guests and the community to make conservation a priority in their lives.

One piece of this initiative is the Building Organizational Capacity to Foster Empathy for Wildlife Granting Program. Supported by a private funder, this grant program provides funding to 19 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited organizations from a seven-state region (Alaska, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin). These grants support these zoos and aquariums in their efforts to plan, build and/or expand programs aimed at advancing empathy for animals and wildlife.​ The ten projects we funded during our first round of grants span multiple focus areas, which include: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium growing empathy by connecting local elementary schools to nearby nature, Lake Superior Zoo fostering empathy for Ambassador Animals through choice and control and Minnesota Zoo working to pilot culturally responsive empathy programming for diverse audiences in a virtual environment.

Acting as a funder while also working on a grant-funded project has been a unique and rewarding experience, as former grant writers the team has been able to approach the experience from both sides. We began the pilot round of our Capacity Building Grant program in 2020, which was an incredibly challenging year for all of us. Working with our grantees to keep empathy themes a priority at their institutions during the pandemic meant constantly adapting, and we’re proud that we were able to provide our network partners with some stability throughout this chaotic time. 

Our goal in working with these zoos and aquariums is not only to build their empathy programs, but also to help develop their capacity in applying for grants and evaluating programs. We are proud to be working with both smaller zoos, with limited grant experience, as well as larger institutions with multi-million-dollar budgets. We love to hear our partners’ feedback on the granting process which helps us make the components like applications, check-in calls and reports more accessible. And of course, we also love to hear how these grants are connecting communities! We can’t wait to hear the stories and impact the grants have had on our current grantees, who began their projects this fall.

Want to learn more about our Empathy Initiatives? Explore, read a Q&A about empathy in action with our Project Manager, Laurel Abbotts, or email us at