How the Puget Sound region is changing the way zoos operate

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“A lot of it felt natural, like we were putting words to things that many of us just kind of already knew and felt,” Woodland Park Zoo’s Salant says.

But in some ways, these new practices have required some fundamental shifts in how animal caregivers do their work. 

Because ambassador animals can elect not to participate in shows, caregivers keep backup animals on hand and tweak their presentations so that they can talk about a specific issue, no matter which animal ends up joining in that day. “If we want to talk about a conservation issue on a tropical island in Indonesia with our North American porcupine, we can absolutely do that,” Salant says. They rarely get nos from the animal actors. 

Giving animals control during a pandemic, Salant says, could be especially powerful for building connection: A lot of us have lost control over our lives in ways that make life hard. “The same goes for animals,” she says. And helping people empathize with animals could even improve their relationships with other humans. 

“Sometimes it feels easier to empathize with animals than people, especially with everything going on in the world right now, so a lot of our program is focused on … talking about the role that the aquarium can play in building communities,” Wharton says.

Monitoring empathy

In her 15-plus years at the zoo, says audience research and evaluation manager Mary Jackson, empathy has been the hardest variable to quantify. Jackson’s team looks for indicators of empathy through visitor observation and self-reported surveys, while assessing how well the zoo itself is applying empathy practices. She watches to see how often people take the perspective of or show care for animals, including whether people report feeling more positively about animals after talks and shows. And she looks to see whether parents model empathetic behavior to their kids after seeing keepers using it. 

Determining whether visitors actually take helpful action — signing petitions, contacting legislators about conservation policy, recycling — is harder, so the zoo measures intention to act. Jackson says it can be a useful indicator, “but that’s definitely still a limitation in our measurement strategy.” 

Analysis shows changes are happening. Zoo visitors who watch ambassador animal programs featuring stigmatized animals like snakes and vultures report feeling improved attitudes toward them. In some programs with children, Jackson found that kids became more able to articulate what individual animals need to live happy, healthy lives by first considering what they need to be happy in their own lives. 

Since 2014, the zoo has hired 19 people to work on empathy programs, trained more than 1,000 employees and volunteers, and reached more than 131,000 visitors. Wharton says the aquarium’s Beach Naturalist program reports seeing participants using empathetic language and perspective during 75% to 80% of program conversations these days, possibly as a result of programming shifts. 

But they have also experienced challenges to making empathy part of the process. 

Getting people to identify with alien-looking sea creatures is a feat, Wharton says. Even if a starfish doesn’t express fear in the way we understand it when exposed to a predator, it has the sensory ability to act in ways that protect itself.

Figuring out how to give ambassador reptiles choice has been tough, Salant says. “It’s harder, not gonna lie. They don’t eat as often, so you can’t just give them treats” for positive reinforcement, she says. 

People who reject that zoos and aquariums should have a place in modern culture may wonder — how can places where animals are kept captive promote empathy? But the zoo’s Farrah Paul says they’re ultimately all on the same page in believing in animal welfare. “We just think about it in a different way,” Paul says. 

Concerns also abound around how exhibit design does or doesn’t increase empathy toward human communities that live alongside animals in the wild. Jackson says the zoo is actively exploring ways to authentically share the stories of communities — at home and abroad — that coexist with and value animals, through their own perspectives, and face the same environmental concerns that the animals do. 

They could also do a better job giving visitors direct, actionable direction for what to do with their empathy after visiting the zoo or aquarium.

“We want to provide an outlet,” Jackson says, “and make sure we’re closing that loop that sometimes I would say isn’t always there.” 

The day of the Heroes of Tales performance, when potbellied pig Annabelle stole the show, the piece was ended with a call to join a citizen science project through the zoo’s Living Northwest program

Getting caregivers themselves on board with (some) anthropomorphizing has also been a process. Historically, employees say it was a faux pas: potentially causing animals distress by inaccurately assuming how they’re feeling. 

“It was like, ‘Oh man, anthropomorphizing, but I’ve been specifically told for so many years not to do that!’” says Andrew Asaki, the zoo’s empathy collaborative manager. 

But keepers have always had close individual relationships with animals. “Getting this confirmation that, ‘Hey, not only can you do that, but you should be doing that, felt really good,” Salant says.

The impact

The zoo launched the ACE for Wildlife Network in 2019, and it now includes 20 animal care groups accredited by the AZA. Both the Seattle Aquarium and the Woodland Park Zoo have launched grant and training programs to help other animal care organizations practice and develop empathy programs. Since 2020, the zoo has given out more than $1.2 million in grants to 18 organizations. 

All three organizations in the Measuring Empathy: Collaborative Assessment Project launched programs and hired people to engage local communities, in places like Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill, in co-designing empathy programs that work well for them. 

“We realized that our typical approach [to community partnerships] was not as empathetic as it could be towards our collaborators,” says Craig Standridge, education program coordinator at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Memorably, in 2018, he noticed a second grader at Arlington Elementary who had learned about ants in the Wildlife Champions program redirect his classmates around an anthill during a park field trip. “When I asked him why he did that, he simply said, ‘Because of empathy. Ants are cool,’” Standridge says. 

Ultimately, the zoo’s Johnson says, they have a lot to learn and are just at the beginning of this work. But the work they’re doing is having an effect.

Audience member Brynlee Ramsey, 7, says she loves to play in the mud. After watching ZooVentures and learning pigs also like mud, she says, she likes pigs more. Her friend Mar, 8, says the performance’s storyline really resonated with him, and he wants to do something to help animals. 

“I was afraid of the falcon,” Brynlee says. “But now I know I shouldn’t be! I think my favorite animals is [sic] everything and I love them the same.”