Building Networks

July 2018

By Elly Schofield and Dr. Kathayoon Khalil

Developing Empathy in Aquarium and Zoo Visitors

Since 2015, three Pacific Northwest institutions—Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle, Wash.,  the Seattle Aquarium, in Seattle, Wash., and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash.—have been working together to improve our understanding and capacity to foster empathy for animals. In this time, we have learned a lot about the constructs of empathy and have benefitted from the unique skills and capacities of all three partnering institutions as we implement and share what we’ve learned. Now, we are embarking on an empathy-network building effort to make sure all who are interested can benefit from, and build on, this work.

Empathy Research: Better Together

The desire for zoo and aquarium experiences to foster caring attitudes and empathy towards wildlife is neither rare nor recent. Encouraging empathy for animals is often a stated goal across the field, and our three institutions were no exception. However, in our discussions about the specific ways we foster empathy, we realized we still had many questions about how our institutions could best achieve this shared goal.  

Guests enjoy an encounter with one of Woodland Park Zoo's porcupines © Woodland Park Zoo

Recognizing we would be most effective working together, the Seattle Aquarium, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and Woodland Park Zoo launched Measuring Empathy: the Collaborative Assessment Project (MECAP). This grant-funded partnership aimed to create a collective understanding of the best practices for building and measuring empathy at zoos and aquariums. Over the two-year project, we set out to answer some of our most pressing questions:  

  • What is empathy in the context of zoos and aquariums, and how does it differ from other emotional connections with nature?
  • How can we make empathy-related work more specific, intentional and effective, both within and across our institutions?
  • How do we know that we’re being successful in building empathy towards wildlife among our visitors?

By the end of the project, the partnership had developed a shared set of definitions, a list of research-backed best practices for fostering empathy, and measurement instruments for assessing these practices. The Seattle Aquarium also developed an empathy workshop to share these principles and practices across the Association of Zoos and Aquariums community. These resources and instruments continue to inform empathy-related practice at all three institutions, including educational programs and communications.

Foundations of an Empathy Learning Network

As we embarked on this project together, we aimed to take a collaborative approach that not only helped our own successes among our institutions, but also gave us a starting point to share and collaborate with zoos and aquariums all over the continent. There were some key strategies that were foundational to our work and the work that is to come in growing the learning network around fostering empathy for animals.

  1. Establishing a Shared Vision. When this project was initially conceived, all three institutions identified their shared interest in incorporating empathy more intentionally into their educational programs and other work. However, upon beginning this work, we quickly realized that our specific visions of how this might look, and even our starting definition of empathy, varied greatly. Though we were all keen to dive into designing new programs and assessments, we held off for a few months in order to clarify our definitions, goals, and scope. This initial work was essential to our ability to share our instruments and approaches down the road.
  2. Leveraging Our Strengths

Though the three partnering institutions have overlapping audiences, they differ significantly in size, assets and specific practices. Rather than attempting to complete parallel projects across all three institutions, we took advantage of our differences to learn to achieve greater success collectively. We took stock of each institution’s strengths, either in our own knowledge and abilities or in our institutional capacity, and worked together to decide when and how to leverage these strengths for the benefit of our project.

  1. Reflecting on Our Successes—and Our Failures

From the beginning of this project, we presumed that none of our individual institutions alone would be able to answer all of our questions or solve all of our problems. This grounding assumption removed the pressure to always show our best face to our partner institutions, which made it easier to openly discuss the challenges we were facing and how we could move through these challenges together.

  1. Communicating Continuously

Even a few hours a month can seem like a big demand on time during a busy season. But when contact is less frequent, it’s easy to fill the entire agenda with updates, leaving little time to dive deeply into new strategies or collective problem-solving. By maintaining steady contact through regularly scheduled calls at least once every two weeks, when we did gather together it opened up the time to truly collaborate and dive deep into meaningful discussions.

Of course, working across institutions naturally posed some significant challenges, as we were taken out of the comfort zone of our internal approaches and cultures around research. However, this partnership made it possible to collaboratively develop tools and approaches that would be useful not only for each member of the partnership, but also across AZA-accredited institutions of all shapes and sizes. For example, studies have shown that certain animal attributes are more likely to elicit empathy in young children. Therefore, when staff members talk to our youngest visitors about animals, it can be helpful to emphasize characteristics they can relate to such as arms, legs, faces and, in particular, eyes. These are simple but effective practices that can be taken up by any institution and are relevant to many staff, from keepers and educators to video producers and marketers.      

A Growing Community

Now that the initial grant term has ended, we’re working to sustain the momentum of our work inside our institutions while also broadening our learning alongside the rest of the AZA community. We’re heartened to see that enthusiasm continues to build for work focused on empathy for wildlife, reflected by record attendance at recent AZA conference presentations focused on the topic. 

The Seattle Aquarium continues to lead workshops across the United States on empathy best practices. Having already worked with over a dozen AZA institutions, these workshops have taken several forms. Some institutions prefer to house empathy practices in the work of one department. Others find value in building cross-departmental capacity, often including staff from marketing, philanthropy, education, animal care, and executive leadership. Regardless of the structure, the workshops have catalyzed deep discussions around the role of empathy in zoos and aquariums.

With all this momentum, there’s no better time to begin your institution’s own path to critically examining how empathy ties in.

The Pacific Northwest is not alone in our interest and dedicated effort to better understand the role of empathy in our field. In 2013, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., began developing and testing a survey instrument to measure empathy and curiosity as part of assessing visitors’ overall conservation learning process during an aquarium visit. Given previous research linking affective reactions like empathy and curiosity to conservation learning outcomes, these two domains were a critical aspect of this tool. In 2015, Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill., partnered to further establish the validity and reliability of this instrument across AZA-accredited institutions. These organizations are now in the final stages of testing this instrument for broader use, and will launch a final instrument this fall. They hope to further utilize the instrument at over a dozen zoos and aquariums across the nation next year. Additionally, other AZA members are developing educational initiatives that are intentional in their goal to foster empathy, including Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, Milwaukee Zoo in Milwaukee, Wis., and St. Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo. These are just a sampling of the institutions who are doing this kind of work, and the list continues to grow—and with it opportunities to share and grow our impact.

Join the Network

Looking ahead with renewed funding, Woodland Park Zoo is excited to begin a larger cross institutional effort that will support further work, conducting research of empathy outcomes across zoos and expanding the network of zoos and aquariums doing similar work. In the coming months, we will begin visiting a number of AZA-accredited institutions in our region to determine the unique goals, capacity, and needs of each around fostering empathy for animals. Based on our findings, we will collaborate to plan a strategy to support and sustain a larger network of institutions who can share empathy-related resources, experiences, and expertise. In early 2019, we will host a symposium to bring together people working both within AZA-accredited institutions as well as those working in other disciplines such as conservation psychology or humane education.  Through this work we aim to broaden our understanding of empathy and identify opportunities to expand our collective impacts as empathy building institutions.

With all this momentum, there’s no better time to begin your institution’s own path to critically examining how empathy ties in. Please join us for future AZA sessions and wider discussions about how we can build AZA-wide capacity to foster empathy among zoo and aquarium visitors across the continent. We look forward to learning with you.

Elly Schofield is the training designer for wildlife empathy at Woodland Park Zoo.

Dr. Kathayoon Khalil is the principal valuator at Seattle Aquarium.

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