Animal Tales

Animals & Empathy:
Making an Emotional Connection

Animal Connections Continuum

Instructor Samantha Martinson helps Kaia J. of Summit View Elementary School learn about animal enrichment.

A field trip to the Zoo is always exciting, but the second graders from Summit View Elementary School are doing much more than visiting exotic animals today. The Waukesha students are working in groups in the Zoological Society’s education building to learn about enrichment items for the animals. “Enrichment” might seem like a big word for a 7- or 8-year-old, but the children understand it indicates something given to an animal that encourages it to play, investigate, exercise or behave as it would in the wild. It’s something Zoo animals need in order to stay happy and healthy.

The polar bear group has chosen a ball for its animal. The students watch a video of the Milwaukee County Zoo’s former polar bear, Zero, playing with a hard plastic ball. “Who has done this in the pool before?” instructor Samantha Martinson asks. “Why might a polar bear do this for enrichment?” The penguin group has chosen a bubble machine. “And why would they be using bubbles?” Martinson asks. “So they can exercise and move around!” a student answers enthusiastically.

The children are taking part in a pilot program called the Animal Connections Continuum. This cuttingedge, grant-funded program teaches children how to develop and show empathy for animals and others. It launched in spring 2017 with second graders from five partner schools in the Waukesha and West Allis- West Milwaukee school districts. Students will stay with the program through fourth grade, and the program will add a new group of second-graders each year.

Animal Connections Continuum

Instructor Rachel Hahn shows students from Summit View Elementary School food and training items the zookeepers use with the harbor seals.

Emotional and social intelligence are important topics in the education world right now, but the definition of empathy is still fuzzy, says Rachel Hahn, a Zoological Society educator who helped develop the program. The educators came up with a working definition of empathy as “the ability to identify with and care about the needs of another living thing” and researched how animals have been used to develop empathy in other settings. “We’re on the forefront,” Hahn says. “There are few programs in the nation that focus on developing empathy in youth and ways to assess its growth.”

The Zoological Society works closely with the Milwaukee County Zoo for the program. The grant allowed the Zoo to purchase and care for three ambassador chinchillas used for the continuum. Zookeepers are trained to incorporate the curriculum into talks with participating classes. “We discuss the individual animals, their personalities and how we develop a relationship with an animal,” says zookeeper Laurie Talakowski, who gives seal talks. For example, she tells the students how Sydney, the matriarch of the seal group, has been trained to lie on her back and present her belly for an ultrasound. “It’s very trusting of her to cooperate with some stranger (the veterinary technician) and this weird machine,” she says. “She’s putting her faith in us, the zookeepers, because of the relationship we’ve developed over the years.”

Each year of the program includes three visits from educators to the classroom and two field trips to the Zoo or a partner organization. In second grade, the curriculum focuses on familiar animals such as pets. It introduces students to the program’s ambassador chinchillas, Chloe, Cleo and Calypso, and a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Students are asked to reflect on how they feel about meeting the animals and how they think the animal might feel about meeting them. They learn about animals’ basic needs and how people have many of the same needs, including food, physical exercise and mental stimulation. They attend zookeeper talks about elephants and harbor seals and create a poster with “empathy promises” to people and animals.

In third grade, students learn about their community by studying plants and animals native to Wisconsin. They visit the Mequon Nature Preserve in addition to the Zoo and build butterfly gardens at their schools. In fourth grade, the program widens to a global focus on conservation. Students will study the rainforest, the challenges it faces and how it affects nearby communities. They also will learn about the Zoological Society’s Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative, which studies and protects bonobos and other wildlife in the rainforest of the Congo. “You have to build a strong foundation in second and third grade and lay the groundwork of empathetic actions before you can have that conversation about global conservation in fourth grade,” says Martinson, who is helping develop the program with Hahn.

Using animals as a way to teach empathy to young children is perfect, says Lori Marshman, a second-grade teacher at Waukesha’s Bethesda Elementary School. “When you’re talking about animals, the students can relate to it, and then you can transfer that knowledge to people,” she says. Paul Orgas, a second-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in West Allis, says the program reaches kids in a way that a regular school setting can’t. “My students are sharing more about how they care for their pets at home. I have also noticed that when a student is feeling down or upset, other students are going to them and checking to see if there is anything they can do to make them feel better.” Both teachers say one of their favorite parts so far has been watching the students build their own chinchilla habitats. “It is such a joy to watch as they work together to build the best habitat,” Orgas says. The teachers have been able to expand on what the students learn in the program as they talk about feelings in the classroom.

The schoolteachers, students and zookeepers are all helping the Zoological Society refine the program through their feedback. The Society is constantly assessing program components and sharing what it learns with the larger community, says Averia Flasch, Zoological Society grants administrator. For example, the Society is an active member of Milwaukee Succeeds, a network of community partners focused on social and emotional learning. Hahn and Martinson have provided resources for other Milwaukee-based organizations regarding the assessment process and implementation of empathy-based curriculum. The Zoological Society is looking for new funding partners to continue the empathy-focused program, Flasch says. “We’re looking to not only sustain this program but expand it and continue learning as we grow.”

By Stacy Vogel Davis
From the Spring 2018 issue of Alive