This is an Open Thread / Coffee Hour and all topics of conversation are welcome. Today's suggested topic is Empathy for Animals. One of the highlights of the September 2, 2023 Empathy Summit was the presentation by Jim Wharton on Fostering Empathy for Animals.
Jim Wharton’s presentation starts at 1 hour and two minutes into the video embedded beyond the fold. Here is the link: https://youtu.be/HVxRDLFI8jM?si=bG2RYrmqH7FSQrln&t=3721. And below the video is a transcript of the presentation. I also included some screen grabs of the video. I did not put the transcript in quotes to improve readability.
What is for dinner? How are you doing? What is on your mind. If you are new to Street Prophets please introduce yourself beyond the fold in a comment. This is an Open Thread / Coffee Hour and all topics of conversation are welcome.
Edwin Rutsch Speaking: Jim is from the Seattle Aquarium where he's fostering empathy for what wildlife and he's vice president of the conservation engagement and learning at the Seattle Aquarium and doing empathy teaching there. So take it away Jim.
Jim Wharton Speaking: Thank you Edwin can you see my slides okay yes see the slide now. Yep great. Well thanks. As Edwin mentioned I'm Jim Wharton. My pronouns are he and him. I'm the vice president for conservation engagement and learning at the Seattle Aquarium.
And now we're going to talk about something completely different uh my goal is to share a little bit about the content and the kind of how the workshops flow for us but uh what I'm sharing today what we're sharing is probably going to be a little different than most of the presentations we hear today because we are specifically interested in how we can encourage empathy for non-human animals.
I'd like to start by introducing you to our friend Rialto. so this is Rialto or at least the way we first met him Rialto was a sea otter pup that was found abandoned and alone on Rialto Beach along the Washington coast it's not uncommon for Seattle pups to strand but it is relatively uncommon for them to find their way into our care.
The campers who found Rialto made the right calls connected the right people and a few weeks later Rialto looked like this. And I can practically hear the aws coming through the screen. Thanks to the work of the teams at the Seattle Aquarium and their partners. Rialto, who came to us very sick, made a remarkable recovery and now lives in his forever home at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Rialto is not why we got interested in empathy because all I have to do is show you two pictures and tell a half-hearted version of his story and you all have empathy coming out of your ears for Rialto.
So when we were approached by a funder a few years ago who is interested in fostering empathy for animals and children we got to thinking about some of our less I think what we would say uh traditionally charismatic animals. Animals like Barnacles and sea anemones. Or even aversive animals like sharks or eels.
We became interested in whether we could generate empathy for these animals in service of their conservation. And that's just the thing for us. We are not just interested in empathy although we certainly believe that more empathy makes the world a better place but we're interested in how empathy might facilitate conservation and conservation outcomes.
We are the most disconnected connected society in human history. We could reach each other to answer a question with a couple of clicks. But we don't know where our food comes from. We don't know where our waste goes. The more metropolitan and digital we become the less connected we feel to animals and habitats and nature. We believe empathy could be a tool to help reconnect humans with nature and each other.
So to be fair those are not different things humans didn't become unnatural when we started building things or creating technology. That connection to nature may feel distant but that's an illusion and it's one that we've created. In the end conservation is not a habitat or an animal problem. It's a people problem. People are both the problem and the solution. Not to mention the beneficiaries. So we think empathy is part of that solution and a tool that can help us sort of re-establish or reveal that connection with the natural world.
So while I know you're going to hear a lot of definitions of empathy today I'm going to give you one more but I'm going to explain one important way that it's different so we believe that empathy is a stimulated emotional state that relies on the ability to perceive understand and care about the experiences perspectives of another person or animal. Most definitions of empathy are about people sharing emotions or perspectives with other people we felt it was important to expand the idea of perspectives to be more inclusive of the experiences of non-human animals.
So as an example a sea star may not have a brain to gene rate complex thoughts and emotions but if you try to pluck one off of a rock it'll catch your shadow it'll hold on tight. I'm not suggesting that the sea star is afraid of your hand but it has a predictable experience of the world through stimulus and response and we can understand that and appreciate it.
So in our workshops we distinguish four constructs under that empathy umbrella we've heard a little bit about some of these today already. Affective and cognitive empathy are about perspective taking. Motivational and positive are really about what you do about it. Of course affective empathy is about that shared emotional state or shared perspective. I feel what you feel. This relies on social mirroring and it it honestly may not be all that realistic between humans and most non-human animals.
While we understand what a shared smile between us may mean. Chimp smiles, as an example, are very different. When a chimp smiles that represents fear and stress. So if you smile at a chimpanzee and they smile back you are not having a shared emotional experience. Motivational empathy is also sometimes called compassionate concern. And that's a response to suffering. Also not ideal in Azure aquarium setting for these reasons and others. we really hone in on cognitive and positive empathy.
This is the poster hippo of positive empathy for aquariums. You may know this adorable little hippo as the social media superstar Fiona. Fiona was born prematurely at the Cincinnati Zoo and made him the zoo made this brave choice to share her struggle and recovery. From the very beginning that was risky but it paid off big time. The sight of feeling like prancing and playing in her habitat brought so much joy to people's hearts that they couldn't help but want to help her. So their reaction or this reaction to or desire to extend the Joy or well-being of others that's what we call positive empathy or empathic joy. Not only did people line up to support the zoo and Fiona's care they also donated to support the zoo's work with hippos in the wild.
When you look at animals like Fiona and Rialto you begin to see patterns and the characteristics that typically engender empathy for animals people. People feel more comfortable empathizing with animals that have agency. Affective coherence and continuity agency just means that an animal takes an action to meet its needs. It Grooms or it plays. People can recognize this and relate to it affectivity.
People would be like facial expressions or body language that works for some animals but by and large people misattribute activity for affectivity. So an active animal is happy and healthy. A sedentary animal is sad or depressed. Now, coherence just means that it looks like an animal it has arms legs a face. You may never have seen a pangolin before in your life but if you're presented with a pangolin you immediately accept that this is an animal.
An anemone is a totally different story that looks as much like a flower as it does an animal. An anemone has a coherence problem. Now finally continuity is just the time we spend with animals. his is the why we we're sure that we know exactly what our pets are thinking and feeling now the reason these characteristics and gender empathy for Animals is because they're characteristics that we see in ourselves we naturally see connections and kinship with animals but that's not always a perspective that's encouraged it's why we also talk about anthropomorphism in our workshops.
So the attribution of ostensibly human characteristics to non-human animals and objects this is a very hot button topic for zoos and aquariums. Especially now these images show you both the perils and opportunities of anthropomorphism. It's hard it's likely hard for you to describe these animals as doing anything other than kissing. In fact these fish are called kissing gourami for this behavior specifically.
On the one hand anthropomorphism is just a way that we understand animal behaviors just you know what we call learning we're using experiences or for our phenomena that we're familiar with to understand new experiences what these marmots are doing is is very analogous to kissing. They're doing it to experience closeness exchange smells to reinforce pair bonds. To look at this and think of it as kissing is pretty accurate it's actually a very useful metaphor.
The gouramies on the other hand they aren't bonding they're fighting. This is a dominance display. It's not kissing in the same way that chimps aren't smiling. And it it illustrates how thinking anthropomorphically can be dangerous when you don't understand the animals and their biology and behavior. So this kind of framing leads to feeding animals in the wild or rescuing seal pups off of beaches.
We also discussed these six practices or techniques they could use when you're developing programs or exhibits or experiences. These are things that research has shown effectively help our audiences engage in perspective taking see animals as individuals with a lived experience. And generally just feel more empathy in connection with animals so those practices are our proper framing.
Building the knowledge of animals engaging the imagination providing rich sensory experiences modeling and of course because empathy is a skill practice so our typical audience for workshops or zoos and Aquariums and other settings with live animals but they would be interested in uh interesting and appropriate for any setting where you're exploring the relationship between humans and the natural world.
Now today we've done 30 workshops for institutions in 32 states in the District of Columbia. So like 70 zoos and aquariums 80 orgs total. With a combined annual attendance of over 75 million.
You can see here is kind of the typical layout of a workshop we spend day one just tearing apart and examining concepts of empathy and anthropomorphism we do that through activities and dialogue day two is all spent taking what we've just learned and applying it in settings and projects that are relevant to the host institutions and their work. Every workshop is different tailored to that particular setting and participants.
If you'd like to learn more about our workshops or any of our empathy work please do come visit our website
. You can read about the workshops. View a schedule and recordings for our empathy cafes which are a one-hour conversation with professionals. In the empathy space you can also see materials and presentations from the last two developing empathy for conservation outcomes conferences. So talks and other other materials that came from those conferences. Plus our our publications workshop materials a suite of evaluation tools that were developed for this work and a lot more. So please see us there if you have any questions. please reach out.
Edwin thank you so much for including us and our animal focus in this amazing group of speakers.
Edwin Rutsch Speaking: Thank you so much Jim for joining us and for your presentation.