How the Puget Sound region is changing the way zoos operate

A local movement to help people empathize with animals is changing the way zoos around the country do their work.

children with back to camera looking at a cow

A family at the Woodland Park Zoo visits a cow at the Family Farm petting zoo, where people are encouraged to interact with the animals,  Aug. 24, 2021. (Chloe Collyer for Crosscut)

It’s usually an emergency when a theater actress goes off-book during a live performance — but when Annabelle does it, it adds to the experience. 

In Woodland Park Zoo’s “ZooVenture: A Hero's Tail,” Annabelle — a spaniel-sized potbellied pig in the zoo’s animal ambassador program — is supposed to help a human actor hide a powerful magic wand. She’s part of a 15-minute quest to help magically debunk fear-inspiring misconceptions a villain is spreading about animals. Annabelle’s part usually lasts only a few moments, long enough to trot out and take a treat. But on a bright August afternoon in front of a crowd of four dozen parents and kids, she increased her stage time.

“Annabelle, we’re going over here,” her human counterpart laughs. But as Annabelle happily bounds in another direction, the actor shrugs and leans into the chaos. “Sometimes the sidekicks go a little rogue.… She likes to hog the spotlight,” he riffs, children clapping as Annabelle takes initiative. “All right, see you later.” 

This process — of highlighting Annabelle’s individuality and agency, and helping zoo visitors appreciate that she can make choices that meet her own needs — is part of a yearslong initiative to increase visitors’ empathy toward animals and maybe even toward other humans.

Zoos and aquariums are some of the most accessible conservation spaces where people and animals meet. Employees say it’s incumbent upon them to inspire visitors to help conservation efforts that protect zoo animals’ wild counterparts (and human communities animals share space with) from threats like climate change and habitat loss. 

A burgeoning group of conservators at zoos and aquariums believes honing empathy through their work is the way that will happen. 

“You can think about zoos and aquariums like empathy gyms — places in our community where we can go and feel connections with animals. And those opportunities are increasingly rare because we remove ourselves so much [from nature],” says Jim Wharton, the Seattle Aquarium’s director of conservation engagement and learning. 

Woodland Park Zoo and other animal care institutions around  Puget Sound started this trend toward building empathy for animals at zoos and aquariums around the country, with a strong backing from scientific research. 

How it started

It seemed like easy money.

Around 2014, a philanthropic group approached three Puget Sound organizations — the Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and the Seattle Aquarium — for help creating a grant program for zoos and aquariums around empathy. “Obviously, empathy happens at a zoo or aquarium. But the more we started to look at and think about it, the more we realized that we weren't being as intentional or strategic as we could be,” Wharton says. 

Grants followed and so did more ideas and questions: What does it mean to have empathy toward animals, they wondered, and do we even know the best ways to inspire it in zoo settings? 

woman with stuffed opossum on shoulder

The host of ZooVenture: A Hero’s Tail, Lindsay Simpson, is seen with a stuffed animal on her shoulder as she introduces the audience to animals at Woodland Park Zoo on Aug. 24, 2021. (Chloe Collyer for Crosscut)

The host of ZooVenture: A Hero’s Tail, Lindsay Simpson, is seen with a stuffed animal on her shoulder as she introduces the audience to animals at Woodland Park Zoo on Aug. 24, 2021. (Chloe Collyer for Crosscut)

Calling themselves the Measuring Empathy: Collaborative Assessment Project, the local partners looked at the scientific research that had already been done on the topic of empathy toward animals. By 2018, they had received an award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for developing best practices and getting other zoos and aquariums involved.

Leading psychologists like Paul Ekman parse out empathy into three different categories: affective, cognitive and compassionate. Respectively, these types help us sense other people’s emotions, understand why those emotions are bubbling up and — most important for zoos and aquariums — prompt concerns that drive our desire to help. 

Zookeepers and program presenters model the kind of compassionate behavior they want audiences to use toward animals. They show empathy by treating animals as individuals who have traits we can relate to: names, pronouns and favorite snacks and activities. They react calmly to animals that popular culture makes out to be scary or gross, like cockroaches and opossums. And they support animals in making choices that meet their needs and show off their free will. In the ZooVentures programs, for example, animals are trained to show when they do and don’t want to participate in performances. 

“Kids really seem to understand when we ask them, ‘Hey, how many of you guys like when your parents force you to do something you don’t want to do?’ The same goes for animals,” says Rachel Salant, curator of behavioral husbandry and ambassador animals at Woodland Park Zoo. 

With visitors engaged, keepers and presenters then share their knowledge to help audiences perceive animals’ emotions and understand why they’re acting certain ways, and to correct misinformation. 

“It’s not just about listing things you can find on Wikipedia,” says Erica Johnson, the zoo’s vice president of learning and innovation. Ways to do this include pointing out similarities and differences between people and animals, using storytelling to explain possible reasons for animal behavior and helping audiences connect to animals like Lola the Aplomado falcon during the ZooVentures program. 

As Lola alights on an actor’s gloved hand, the actor points out the dark marks under her eyes, which keep solar glare from blinding her while she hunts — and how baseball and football players use eye black for the same reasons. He also mentions falcons aren’t scary and, in fact, are important for pest control. “If you want to help them, please limit or eliminate your use of rat poisons. Let them be the rodent population experts,” he says.

To be really effective, audiences need multiple chances to practice empathy. Keepers ask audiences to watch animals and explain their behavior, and feed and interact with ambassador animals. Personalizing things further, they ask visitors to take the perspectives of animals in storytelling and role-playing games. It’s harder to get adults to act like a snake, says Woodland Park Zoo's Jackson, but it can happen. 

The zoo hosts four programs a day with its 80 or so ambassador animals, in addition to its camp programs, mobile events and pandemic-era virtual events. The work is similar at the aquarium, where exhibits are also being redesigned to encourage visitors to physically and mentally take the perspective of sea creatures. Across the animal care facilities, keepers are trained on empathy, and empathetic signage abounds. It ranges from simply mentioning animals’ names and pronouns on the marquis signs at performance areas to revising warning signs. The aquarium Beach Naturalist program's signs that ask people to avoid sensitive salmon habitat now call these places salmon’s homes, Wharton says. 

“While we don't necessarily have data that says that they're more effective at keeping people out of those spaces, what we do see is that the signs create conversations, and no ‘keep out’ sign has ever created a conversation on the beach,” Wharton says. 

child peering into penguin exhibit behind glass

A child visiting the penguin exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo points to the birds as they swim by, Aug. 24, 2021. (Chloe Collyer for Crosscut)

A child visiting the penguin exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo points to the birds as they swim by, Aug. 24, 2021. (Chloe Collyer for Crosscut)

“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.”

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