Developing empathy is a complex process that is facilitated by age, language, behavior, social norms, and life experience. When we look at how to foster empathy in people who visit animal sanctuaries, we need to consider the various genetic and social components of empathy that can nurture and impede this process. The purpose of this article is to provide sanctuaries with information on what empathy is (and isn’t), why it matters, how it develops, as well as some of the contributing factors and barriers to fostering empathy towards farmed animals.
What Is Empathy?
The ability to put oneself in the place of another and try to understand how the world looks to that other, not from one’s own perspective, but from the perspective of the individual going through it. (Lori Gruen, Entangled Empathy)
Empathy Is NOT:
Sympathy: recognizing the plight of another and feeling sorry or pity for them. Sympathy may or may not consist of real understanding of the other’s experience and it may or may not lead to action.
Projection: attributing one’s own emotions and state of mind onto someone else. When we project, we make assumptions about another’s experience that may or may not be true for them.
Why Empathy Matters
Empathy is an essential building block of social connection and prosocial behavior – behavior intended to help others. Many individual studies have been done on empathy and its relation to the well-being of animals. Research has shown that developing empathy for animals results in behavioral and attitudinal changes that can include abstention from eating them. In short, the more we develop empathy for animals, the more likely we are to protect them.
How Empathy Develops
Humans are genetically inclined to develop and practice empathy toward those with whom they are connected and have close relationships. Like other emotional and mental capabilities, empathy varies by age and brain development. Here is how empathy develops by age:
Infancy – Pre-Kindergarten
At this age, young children see animals as anthropomorphic peers and think and behave as if animals feel just like them. They struggle to recognize realities and perspectives that differ from their own.
Kindergarten – Early Elementary
At this age, children are naturally inclined to form very close relationships with animals. They can read animal behavior and interpret meaning from them. They also understand that animals can choose with whom they want to interact, so being chosen by an animal can create and greatly strengthen child-animal bonds. At this stage, however, children continue to project their own anthropomorphic wants and desires onto animals.
Early Elementary – Adulthood
During this time, children develop the ability to understand diverse perspectives that differ from their own. They can see animals as unique others with similarities and differences. This ability continues to expand into adulthood as they practice their understandings of relationships with others and social norms.
In addition to being a genetic process that is affected by age and brain development, empathy is also an emotional and mental skill that can be taught and nurtured over time through life experience and practice. In supportive social and educational environments, empathy requires a person to be present, focused, and reflective. Researchers have found that if people are asked to take time to consider and reflect on the perspective of a nonhuman animal, they are more likely to express empathic concern for them and invest in ways to protect that animal.
Our capacity to empathize can also be hindered by life experience and unsupportive social environments. When we look at how to foster empathy in animal sanctuary visitors, we must consider the various social environments and cultural contexts from which they could be coming.
Barriers To Developing Empathy
Before we dive into the various research-supported practices that help foster empathy for farmed animals, let’s explore some of the factors that can hinder the development of empathy for animals.
Barrier: Evolutionary Distance To Humans
Nonhuman animals have differing abilities to elicit empathy in humans. Research has shown that empathy towards a nonhuman animal gradually decreases with their evolutionary distance to humans. In other words, humans prefer animals who look, think, and act more like humans. So, larger more human-like beings tend to attract more empathy from humans than beings that are small and less human-like. As a result, humans tend to care more about the life of mammals like orangutans than the life of birds like chickens.
Barrier: Negative Emotional States
Creating negative emotional states by showing and using distressing images, videos, and rhetoric can be influential when it comes to developing empathy towards nonhuman animals. However, eliciting too much negative emotion for too long can also have the unintended consequence of hindering empathy development. When people are in a negative emotional state for too long, their brains can erect an emotional barrier that protects them from continuing in this state. This is called moral disengagement and usually entails people removing personal responsibility from distressing events, disregarding the events as out of their control, and sometimes blaming the victims. Takeaway: while animal exploitation is an urgent and important issue, be mindful of the rhetoric and graphic images you use in your educational spaces. Sometimes the louder you yell, the less people hear you.
Anthropomorphism is a naturally occurring human process of projection. It occurs when we (mis)attribute human experiences, characteristics, emotions, needs, and desires onto nonhuman animals in an effort to understand them better. However, nonhumans do not experience the world in the same ways we do and projecting our own understandings onto them can lead to inaccurate and harmful conclusions about their experiences, perspectives, and needs. Sometimes, it manifests in actions like: rescuing animals that don’t need to be rescued, creating a false sense of closeness with potentially dangerous or uninterested animals, projecting negative human stereotypes onto animals, and having certain social expectations that animals cannot meet.
Barrier: Cultural Stigmas
There are a lot of false harmful cultural narratives that inaccurately stigmatize some nonhuman animals (e.g. roosters are aggressive, pigs are filthy, turkeys are unintelligent, etc.). Usually, harmful cultural stigmas occur as a result of a lack of accurate species-specific knowledge and experience that is replaced with fear. And fear blocks empathy!
Research has shown when we remove animals from their more natural living environments and prohibit them from participating in their natural behaviors, we reduce the ability to elicit empathy towards them.
Overcoming these barriers to empathy can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the ways we can effectively foster empathy towards farmed animals.
Contributing Factors To Fostering Empathy Towards Farmed Animals
Sanctuary spaces offer animal advocates unique opportunities to spark and nurture people’s empathy for animals. But how do sanctuaries effectively guide visitors to understand, recognize, and empathize with the experiences and needs of animals? How do you provide information and experiences that encourage prosocial behavior and compassionate action that benefit the well-being of nonhuman animals?
Model Empathetic Behavior
As a skill, empathy can be built through modeling and dialogue. So, how you interact with your residents and your visitors matters. It’s important to physically model the empathetic behaviors you want your visitors to develop. Visitors, especially children, pay close attention to how adults behave and notice when their actions don’t align with their message. Research has shown that adults with strong environmental morals credit childhood role models as the most influential factor with regards to their love of the environment**. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of the way you handle, move, and transport your residents. How you talk about those actions also makes a difference. It’s helpful to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it so you don’t unintentionally reinforce something potentially harmful. By modeling the empathetic behavior you want your visitors to develop, you can help encourage more nurturing relationships with farmed animals.
Modeling isn’t exclusively about direct actions. Carefully consider the messages on your clothing, signs, walls, fences, gates, etc. and ensure that they also align with your desire to nurture empathy.
How you talk to and about your residents also affects the development of empathy towards them. As aforementioned, there are a lot of harmful cultural narratives, phrases, and words out there that stigmatize and hinder empathy towards farmed animals. One way you can help foster empathy is by re-framing those narratives! Re-framing can include:
- Replace the pronoun “it” when referring to residents with their names and pronouns he/she and they. “It” supports objectification and commodification. Using resident names and pronouns like he/she and they acknowledges them as subjective others or living beings who experience the world from their own unique perspective.
- Shift harmful cultural narratives based in fear with narratives based in accurate species-specific knowledge. Empathy for farmed animals increases the more people correctly understand their needs, behaviors, and lived realities. You can help facilitate this by sharing all the accurate and wonderful qualities of your residents. Explain their place at the sanctuary and their relationship to their wild relatives. It’s also helpful to share some of the false harmful narratives and point out the misinformation and inaccuracies in them. Invite visitors to point out misrepresentations they’ve heard of, too, especially as they observe, hear, interact with, and learn about your residents’ personalities and experiences.
- Help visitors understand that farmed animals are sentient. Contrary to many false narratives, they do have the capacity to feel and perceive.
Engaging visitors in experiences that allow them to consider the perspectives of farmed animals is a powerful way to build their capacity to empathize with them. There are many ways you can invite visitors to do this:
- Storytelling: Stories are a wonderful way to illuminate the lived realities, experiences, and perspectives of your sanctuary residents. While you share the stories of how they arrived at sanctuary, it’s helpful to ask and answer empathic questions about residents’ perceived thoughts and feelings as they went through those experiences. How would it feel to be that animal going through that? What do you imagine they felt? Would you have liked to be them? Why or why not? Verbally acknowledging an animal’s experience in conversation can increase visitors’ connections to your residents and spark empathic responses towards other farmed animals as they might personally identify with some of their experiences and feelings. It’s also important to share positive stories of your residents (e.g. what’s their life like in sanctuary? Who are their friends and family members? What do they like to do during the day?, etc.), as well as examples of empathic behaviors and events that had a positive impact on farmed animals. You could also share animal-friendly stories in print or via video that share the unique perspectives of farmed animals, explain their experiences, and encourage compassion towards them.
- Role Play: Considering the perspectives of farmed animals can sometimes be enacted more literally. We can activate our empathy by imaginatively assuming the role of a particular animal in a process called “embodied simulation” or physically moving through another’s experience or perspective. This is a form of empathy that involves kinesthetically taking on the identity of an animal based on direct observation, video footage, guided visualizations, or species-specific knowledge, and then acting or interacting with others or the environment as that animal. It activates our mirror neurons and helps us better understand the motor intentions and perceptions of an animal simply by moving like they do! Some sanctuaries incorporate this type of role-play for negative animal experiences such as crowding several people inside a tiny space to help them understand what it might be like as a hen trapped inside a battery cage. However, this exercise is also incredibly powerful when we have people simulate positive animal experiences. This could be mimicking a cow walking in the grass, wagging their tail, and feeling a light breeze on their face or a bunny running around in the grass doing binkies in the air! Either way, role play and embodied simulation can help sanctuary visitors engage in perspective-taking and imagine the feelings and emotions of farmed animals. Research has shown that perspective-taking activities are at the core of empathy development and much more impactful than simply showing images.
Observation And Interaction
Many individual studies have shown that people, particularly children, who have more frequent interactions with animals develop more connection to them. And connection is one of the seeds of empathy. This is one reason why so many animal sanctuaries have on-site tour programs. They can invite visitors to observe, get to know, interact with, and celebrate farmed animals. However, it’s important to first determine whether on-site tours are feasible for your sanctuary and if so, establish and maintain appropriate emotional and physical safety measures for your residents and visitors. Research has also shown that animals who are allowed the autonomy to show agency (e.g. move the way they want to, including moving away from and towards the visitors of their choosing) and behave naturally without human intervention or handling, elicit more empathy in visitors. The more time people responsibly spend with farmed animals, the more likely they are to build deep connections and relationships based on familiarity and shared experiences.
Service-Learning Opportunities And Practice
In addition to spending more time with animals, sanctuaries can invite their visitors to go a step further and practice their empathy for farmed animals by participating in service-learning opportunities that help them. Service-learning can include opportunities to care for farmed animals (e.g. cleaning their housing structures and living spaces, feeding them, giving them water, brushing them, etc.). If your sanctuary is able to responsibly implement projects like this, it’s helpful to provide positive feedback to your participants and acknowledge their empathic actions, statements, and questions. This encourages their belief in their ability to empathize and work towards building an identity as an empathic person.
Service-learning opportunities can also include learning events like workshops, where visitors can listen to folks directly involved with farmed animal care and advocacy, learn new skills, engage in dialogue, and develop creative ways to help farmed animals.
Nurture Self-Empathy And Give People Time To Reflect
Learning about animal exploitation is challenging and can sometimes lead to moral disengagement, compassion fatigue, stress, and burnout. Studies show that taking care of ourselves and practicing self-empathy is linked to our ability to more accurately understand and empathize with the emotions and experiences of others, which is why it’s so important to model this kind of behavior for your visitors as well. This can be as simple as letting folks verbalize their emotions and allowing them to process how they feel as they go through your educational programming. Reflective exercises can also encourage your visitors to identify the connections between their own emotions and experiences with those of farmed animals.