Empathy has always come easy to me, for better or for worse. I feel deeply and whole-heartedly. I clearly remember being a very small child, standing pressed up against the glass at the San Diego Zoo. The sun was beating down on my head as I gazed through the tendrils of my matted curly brown hair at creatures with orange hair much like my own. I lost myself in the similarities between them and me. I watched the orangutans swing from ropes, bounding through the exhibit, with eerily human eyes surrounded by fleshy faces and intricate hands. The young orangutans running around their mothers, tumbling as they learned how to climb, looking up to their family members and in that moment, I felt that these giant beings simply wanted to play and eat, just like me! My trips to the incredible San Diego Zoo inspired a deep fascination and love for animals, specifically primates, which are now the focus of my Honors Anthropology research. For me, it is second nature to love those I’m surrounded by, making no distinction between people, animals and nature.
I recognize that these empathetic tendencies do not come naturally to everyone, so I have found myself asking, how does empathy work? How can we inspire others who might not have this background of exposure or natural inclination to feel connected towards the natural environment and the creatures within? In my opinion, the first step is to create an opportunity for someone to see themselves as a part of an “other”, and the “other” as a part of them. A space needs to be created in order for a person to feel connected with something. In a study titled “Perspective Taking, Environmental Concern, and Moderating Role of Dispositional Empathy”, it was found that, for example, “taking perspective of a bear did not just lead to an increase in concern for the welfare of that specific bear nor bears in general, rather taking perspective led to a general increase in concern for the welfare of living organisms.” Mike Cash, entomologist at the Woodland Park Zoo, has taken this idea and has implemented it in exhibits centered around evoking empathy in children towards insects. This is quite the task considering the example adults set by uncontrollably screeching and flinching away from any insect, big or small. He explained that when working with children, it is important to gauge what will be a meaningful experience for them. If the child is a tactile learner, having a butterfly come up and land on them will make them feel connected with the insect and thus open up a space for the child to be empathetic towards various forms of life. The child will most likely not remember the details of the specific species or even the moment itself, but what they will recall is how they felt being gentle and connected with the butterfly. In my experience, after finishing a hike or visiting a National Park, the names of the trees and waterfalls slip my mind, but I always remember that feeling of being more engaged with the land and myself. Facilitating these moments of connections creates the space in our minds and hearts for empathy to expand.
If we can evoke feelings of connection and empathy in people for national parks, our cultural history, and landscapes, then we can inspire generations to work as stewards of these spaces and in turn, the planet. For example, many advertisement campaigns and art installations rely on evoking feelings of connectedness and empathy. iTunes’ famous ads featuring colorful background with lively black silhouettes dancing with ear buds, allows the viewer to place themselves in this moment of musical enjoyment. The lack of identity of the individuals opens up space for self-reflection and connection with the experience. Similarly, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in Seattle uses portraits of people from around the world intricately placed around the exhibit, interspersed with mirrors. Seeing the diversity and beauty in this wide range of individual’s faces, including your own, allows each person to see themselves as worthy of a portrait while simultaneously recognizing the value in the faces around them.
With respect for inspiring empathy towards the land and creatures within National Parks, it is important to incorporate experiences of connectivity when engaging others. For example, by highlighting the interconnected aspects of national parks and how they can be compared to the human body can allow the participant to engage with the intricacies of national parks on a more intimate scale. Just as blood flows and brings oxygen throughout the body, streams and lakes are lifelines of some national parks, nourishing wildlife, trees and plants as well as the humans who visit. Muscles hold up the body and ensure that movements and motions go smoothly, just as National Park rangers work with visitors to educate and support them as they travel throughout the parks. If the participants are able to experience what it feels like to be in a National Park, experiencing nature, educational and cultural heritage, that experience and the empathy that it evokes can be transferable to all.
–Dana Needelman, IMBY Intern