An Educator's Guide to Fostering Empathy for Wildlife through Community Science


An Educator's Guide to Fostering Empathy for Wildlife through Community Science

When did society decide that emotion has no place in science? During my time in school, I've read many dry scientific papers, and been taught how to track populations and identify many different plants and animals. It is a very rigid and clinical subject with no room for emotional investment. Not until my career as an environmental educator did I start to wonder how people felt about the environment.

The Importance of Empathy in Environmental Education

Empathy is "... a stimulated emotional state that relies on the ability to perceive, understand, and care about the experiences or perspectives of another person or animal" ( Young et al., 2018). Studying people's emotional states and empathy for wildlife and pro-environmental behaviors is a limited and relatively new area of study. The research suggests that empathy for others relates to pro-environmental values, intentions, and donations to environmental organizations (Pfattheicher et al., 2015). Furthermore, people encouraged to empathize with animals exhibited a growth in biocentric concern and a higher likelihood of commitment to pursue conservation actions on behalf of the animal (Schultz 2000; Berenguer 2007).

Traditional teaching methods that encourage pro-environmental behaviors often involve scare tactics like frightening statistics of species decline or data representing how human development is overtaking natural landscapes. I even catch myself doing it: "We have lost over 3 billion birds in the last 50 years!" But, using this statistical call to action often overwhelms people and pushes them into hopelessness. The media now refers to this as “climate anxiety,” a feeling of uncertainty stemming from the knowledge of climate change regardless of direct personal experience with its effects (Clayton et al., 2020). Focusing on creating empathy for our ecosystems may decrease climate anxiety and instead build positive relationships with the environment.

How can we create a perfect harmony between science and empathy? My solution has been a tool many environmental educators already use: community science. Community science takes many shapes and forms like counting birds, monitoring water quality, studying animal behavior, and more. Community science can get anyone involved in research and conservation by increasing their knowledge and appreciation for the environment and creating a community with a shared sense of responsibility and stewardship toward the natural world.

Six Best Practices for Developing Empathy

The Seattle Aquarium is a lead proponent in the study and implementation of empathy in environmental education. They have developed the six best practices for developing empathy for wildlife: framing, modeling, increasing knowledge, providing experience, practice, and activating imagination (Wharton et al. 2018). Below is what each best practice means and how you can use community science to accomplish it:

Framing intentionally presents animals with unique experiences, needs, jobs, and intentions. This can look like using pronouns when describing animals and allowing for discussions about how an animal may feel or think (Wharton et al., 2018).

  • Example: In community science, this is a significant communication component. Framing can be used in training about the upcoming project and as the facilitator leads the participants throughout the project.

Modeling is physically demonstrating how empathetic behaviors can be performed. This practice helps parents and guardians act as role models by interacting, asking questions, and talking about animals with their children(Wharton et al., 2018).

  • Example: As the facilitator, YOU are the model. In a community science project, express how you care about wildlife and exemplify behaviors like respecting the wildlife you study and respecting the wildlife habitats you're on.

Increasing knowledge involves sharing information about the animal's needs, experiences, behaviors, and life history to help others empathize. It can be done by showing similarities between human and nonhuman experiences (Wharton et al. 2018).

  • Example: All community science projects involve sharing resources about further engagement with wildlife. Participants may even learn this information in training or by asking explanatory questions about the wildlife in a project.

Providing experiences allows participants to watch, touch, and observe wildlife (Wharton et al., 2018).

  • Example: Providing experiences is practically written into most community science projects. Participants should engage in one or all of those experiences during a project.

Practice provides an extra step and opportunities for people to practice empathy and receive positive feedback when observed (Wharton et al. 2018).

  • Example: Practice can be done by providing additional conservation actions for wildlife. This is something that your participants will take away from the experience. An example is the National Audubon Society sending home a pamphlet about the seven bird-friendly actions that participants can do after the project, like keeping cats indoors, using UV stickers on windows, turning their lights off at night, etc.

Activating imagination encourages others to take the perspective of another to build empathy for their well-being (Wharton et al., 2018).

  • Example: Activating imagination is done by storytelling in community science. As the training facilitator, tell stories about why we study the animal and what the animal has gone through. Go beyond listing facts using activating imagination.

Empathy is a universal feeling, and community science is made to be inclusive to everyone. As environmental educators, we facilitate scientific communication and promote pro-environmental behaviors. You can choose to implement all of the strategies described above, or you can pick and choose the practices that you think will best fit your project’s goals. Join me in putting emotion back into science!

About the Writer

Megan Schulz lives in Denver, Colorado, and is the Adult Programs Coordinator for Butterfly Pavilion. Being an environmental educator is a lifelong journey for her and something she works on improving daily. Megan holds a bachelor's degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in the Arts of Biology through Miami University Project Dragonfly. Previously, she served as the Nature Center Naturalist for Denver Audubon, where she decided to start researching the role of empathy in environmental conservation.

Works Cited

Berenguer, J. 2007. “The Effect of Empathy in Proenvironmental Attitudes and Behaviors.” Environment and Behavior 39(2): 269–83. ——— 2010. “The Effect of Empathy in Environmental Moral Reasoning.” Environment and Behavior 42(1): 110–34.

Susan Clayton, et al. “Climate Anxiety: Psychological Responses to Climate Change.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Pergamon, 26 June 2020,….

Pfattheicher, S., C. Sassenrath, and S. Schindler. 2015. “Feelings for the Suffering of Others and the Environment: Compassion Fosters Pro Environmental Tendencies.” Environment and Behavior 48(7): 929–45.

Schultz, W. P. 2011. “Conservation Means Behavior.” Conservation Biology 25(6): 1080–3. ——— 2000. “Empathizing with Nature: The Effects of Perspective Taking on Concern for Environmental Issues.” Journal of Social Issues 56 (3): 391–406.

Wharton, J., Khalil, K., Fyfe, C., Young, A. (2019). Effective Practices for Fostering Empathy Towards Marine Life. In: Fauville, G., Payne, D., Marrero, M., Lantz-Andersson, A., Crouch, F. (eds) Exemplary Practices in Marine Science Education. Springer, Cham.

Young, A., Khalil, K.A. and Wharton, J. (2018), Empathy for Animals: A Review of the Existing Literature. Curator, 61: 327-343.

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