Developing Empathy and a Culture of Self-Care

This past week, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference centered around empathy and empathy research to promote conservation actions, held at the Seattle Aquarium. Called Developing Empathy for Conservation Outcomes, the two-day workshop focused mainly on ways to promote empathy to zoo and aquarium visitors. Some of the innovations and ideas are ground-breaking. Some are just a matter of listening, really listening to others and finding out what they need rather than zoos and aquariums shoving their agenda for conservation down people’s throats.

I love that their animal “mascot” is a barnacle…

I am intrigued by the progress many organizations are making in this field. Empathy is important to understanding how we can combat some of these pressing challenges we’re facing on the planet. These challenges require us to work together, ALL of us, but if someone’s needs aren’t being met on a personal level, it’s hard for them to worry about issues outside of their hierarchy of needs. We have to meet people’s needs if we want them to get involved in conservation action.

Meeting Them Where They’re At

I spoke about this a few times on my Zoo-notables podcast with Planet Palm, Blue Mind, and The Secret Lives of Bats. In fact, these books helped push me down the rabbit hole of best empathy practices for myself and with ZooFit. How can we expect those who are struggling to make ends meet, or struggling to provide a better life for their family, to care what happens to orangutans? It sounds harsh, but really. If you had to choose between feeding your entire family by poaching a sea turtle or watching your child starve, or have to work on a food plantation for $6 a day, which would you honestly choose? As I’ve said before, it really makes you think who is the bigger threat to wildlife— poachers or the food industry?

There’s also the fact that communities most affected by climate change are NOT the ones producing a majority of the pollution and carbon emissions. Marginalized communities are also facing the brunt of responsibility to do anything about the problem.

Up until this past year, I was all on board with raising gas prices to $7 a gallon, even $10 a gallon. My thought process was if we raised the price of gas so high, eventually we would be “forced” to find alternative fuels and cut away from our insane addiction to oil. However, think about that. If we raise the price of gas, who is most likely to be affected by it negatively? The filthy rich with their expensive cars? Or the lower/middle class folks who live paycheck to paycheck? The rich will just shell out the money to fill their hummers or pick-ups. The poor will have to find other ways to their two jobs– riding the bus (which often takes twice as long as driving), riding their bike (I say this sitting in my comfy house while it’s 38 degrees and pouring down rain outside), or possibly sharing rides (which helps cut down on the gas, but doesn’t eliminate it enough to produce the desired effect of a boycott). All the while, the oil companies are just making BANK and discovering that if they keep raising prices, we’ll keep paying it.

This is why we must meet people where they are. We have to come to solutions where everyone in the community can benefit, not just the environment.

Self-Care and Conservation are Not Mutually Exclusive

Which brings me full circle back to ZooFit. This is why ZooFit is so important to me, and I feel it’s so important to conservation efforts. It’s not important that you don’t have the capacity to focus on your carbon footprint, or saving the rainforest. When we come around with a mentality of self-care, the other components fall into place. So, when we take care of ourselves by drinking a delicious hot beverage, we inadvertently are also protecting the rainforest with sustainable teas, coffees, or cocoa. Or eating locally to support your community and eat healthier foods, we inadvertently cut down on our carbon footprint.

But it also means, don’t worry about the carbon footprint aspect, or the rainforest aspect. You can’t take care of the planet if you aren’t taking care of yourself. It’s okay to put your well-being first. In fact, I encourage it. The other aspects— fun, empowering, impactful— they are the icing on the proverbial cake.

During the networking events of the DECO conference, I introduced myself as a “zookeeper for humans.” And I’m proud of this distinction. I apply everything I learned as an animal trainer and zookeeper to make self-care accessible and sustainable.

More importantly, I have shifted away from focusing on “fitness” (although I’m keeping the FIT part of my brand name) and “losing weight” or fitting into society’s expectations of beauty. I just want people to be the best version of themselves. When we shift from a culture of caring too much about others to caring for ourselves, we can make a bigger difference— in our communities, with our families, and yes, a bigger difference in the conservation of endangered species and saving the planet.

But it starts with us. It starts with me, and you. Self-care IS saving the planet. Self-care IS a conservation act.

Creating a Culture of Self-Care in Zoos

The DECO conference also inspired me to start a research project of my own, to benefit zookeepers/animal care professionals. I noticed, especially during the pandemic, that the turnover rate at many zoos went through the roof. Many professionals, some having been in the field for decades, were experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. I want to be a resource in turning that around.

The Hummingbird exemplifies empathy– doing what we can!

So, I am looking for professionals in the field who would be willing to work with me and evaluate how a self-care/well-being program might increase your job satisfaction, decrease injuries (on and off the job), and improve animal well-being and overall job performance. I am reaching out to facilities that may want to participate, not just for their keepers but entire staff (vets, education, horticulture, maintenance, operations, guest services, etc).

One way you can help is by answering this quick survey: (3 questions, only have to answer 2)

Zookeeper Self-Care Survey

New ZooFit

It’s been a long time coming, but ZooFit seems to be on its way back, much better than ever. We’re not changing the world, we’re helping change ourselves…and THAT will change the world.

If you want help in creating a culture of self-care for your facility or team, reach out, and together, let’s see how far we can really go!

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