Developing Empathy

Definition: “Empathy is simulated emotional state that relies on the ability to perceive, understand, and care about experiences or perspectives of another human or animal” (Seattle Aquarium, 2015).

Why empathy? Having empathy for wildlife can help foster affective attitudes and a concern for the protection of wildlife because it allows people to think outside of themselves and develop an understanding of a species and what it needs to survive. If people have empathy for wildlife they are more likely to think about how their daily actions may affect wild animals.  Wildlife rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries have a lot of opportunities to teach empathy because these organizations are often established because one individual or a group, feels concern and compassion for animals. These actions model what empathy looks like and how one human can have positive and negative impacts on the environment and the wild animals that we share our homes with.

Example: Many people have misconceptions about large carnivores such as wolves. Media portrays the wolf as a ferocious monster and in doing so, many people, especially children, believe that wolves will attack and kill any human they come across. Developing empathy for  wolves could help break these misconceptions. Role-playing could be used to help students realize that wolves are not monsters, but are trying to feed themselves and their cubs.

  • Have children use their imaginations to play a game in which they pretend to be part of a wolf pack.
  • Each participant plays a role in the pack (hunt, defend / mark territory, watch over the pups, etc.)
  • Monitor the game and ask questions about each participants role. Assess each students perceived wolf role and how they are acting it out, and compare it to natural history / facts.
  • Redirect, as necessary.

Best Practices:
Seattle Aquarium Best Practices for Developing Empathy

  • Framing:
    • Frame conversations about animals as subjective.
    • Intentionally choose words that encourage children to see animals as animiate others like pronouns and names.
    • Provide space and time for students to talk about an animal’s personability, experiences, and intentions in comparison and contrast to their own.
    • Verbally acknowledge an animal’s experience in conversation and allowing for questions about animal’s perceived thoughts or feelings.
  • Modeling:
    • Physically model the empathic behaviors we want students to perform.
    • Support parents as moral role models by engaging them and modeling ways of interacting, asking questions and talking about animals with their children.
    • Develop consistent messaging in programming with students to better reinforce moral learning over time.
  • Increasing knowledge:
    • Share information that helps guests understand how and why an animal behaves a certain way.
    • Facilitate conversations that share information about individual animals, their place in the aquarium and their wild relatives.
    • Draw on similarities and differences between an animal’s experiences and our own.
  • Providing experiences:
    • Provide opportunities for guests to watch, touch and observe animals.
    • Deeper affective connections with animals will occur if the animals are allowed to show agency (like eating, grooming, exploring, etc.). Show agency while interacting with guests (during trainings of feedings), or interact with the guests without the staff presence (on exhibit).
    • Repeat experiences, if possible, to widen opportunity for empathy.
    • Provide information about intent, motivation, and purpose of behaviors the guests are observing.
  • Practice:
    • Provide opportunities for children to care for, feed, train, and interact with animals in ways that require accessing empathy.
    • Have discussions about how to know what different animals need.
    • Call out and positively acknowledge when desired empathic statements, questions, and resulting behaviors are displayed.
  • Activating imagination:
    • Engage in perspective taking dialog.
    • Mimicry is physically moving or perceiving the world through another’s perspective.
    • Role-playing involves taking on the identify of the animal, either based on concrete observations or species knowledge, and then interacting with others or the environment as that animal.
    • Storytelling creates empathic responses as people identify with the characters.



Seattle Aquarium Best Practices for Developing Empathy
Humane Society Empathy Connection


  • Schultz, P. W. (2000). Empathizing with nature: The effects of perspective taking on concern for environmental issues. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), 391-406.
  • Stern, P. C., & Dietz, T. (1994). The value basis of environmental concern. Journal of Social Issues, 50(3), 65-84.