“Encouraging, inspiring and constructive:” our first-ever Developing Empathy for Conservation Outcomes conference

Developing empathy for conservation outcomes conference banner

Despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and our temporary closure to the public, the Aquarium continues the important work to fulfill our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment. We do this in a variety of ways, including engaging the community through activities on our website, hosting virtual events like our upcoming Lightning Talks: Octopuses and Ocean Career Series, advocating for policies that protect the ocean and the animals that call it home…

…And even hosting a sold-out conference that has the potential to inspire marine conservation action in hundreds of thousands of people around the world!

A sellout (virtual) crowd
In late November 2020, we hosted our inaugural Developing Empathy for Conservation Outcomes (DECO) conference, transforming what had been envisioned as an in-person event to a virtual, two-day convening. The sold-out conference attracted over 130 professionals representing over 60 zoos, aquariums, universities and other conservation organizations from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Denmark.

The power of empathy 
Research shows that encouraging and developing empathy for animals in people is an important motivator toward action on the animals’ behalf. Seeing animals receiving exceptional care at the Seattle Aquarium and learning about the importance of a healthy habitat for their well-being helps our visitors transfer their resulting feelings of goodwill to marine animals in the wild, as well as Earth’s one ocean.

Screenshot from the virtual octopus feeding during the DECO conference.Conference attendees participated in multiple activities including a virtual encounter with the Aquarium's giant Pacific octopus, Kraken.

Sharing knowledge and understanding to protect animals everywhere
Now imagine the same thing happening at zoos and aquariums all around the world, creating a powerful ripple effect for marine conservation. Collectively, those millions of visitors could make a real difference in the health of the world’s ocean.

The DECO conference sought—and will continue to seek—to fulfill that vision. The 2020 event focused on facilitating dialogue between researchers and practitioners interested in exploring the role of empathy in influencing attitudes, behaviors and intentions toward conservation. Participant-contributors from academia, as well as zoos and aquariums, shared knowledge of current and emerging research and imagined opportunities for collaboration to collectively advance our understanding of empathy as it relates to conservation.

Activities included a viewing party of empathy-rich documentary My Octopus Teacher, a series of five-minute “lightning talks” on the state of empathy research, and case studies highlighting local efforts to foster empathy with the goal of inspiring conservation action. B.N. Horowitz, M.D., the author of Zoobiquity and Wildhood, gave the keynote address on the species-spanning nature of empathy, which sparked an interesting discussion about anthropomorphism (defined, for our purposes, as assigning human emotions or characteristics to animals). 

The reviews are in
Participants described the convening as encouraging, inspiring and constructive. One participant noted, “It reaffirmed how important I think empathy is in the zoo/aquarium field. It was very interesting to hear research findings and projects that have been done by both experts and people like me.”

What’s next?
In the coming months, we’ll continue the DECO conference’s momentum by sustaining the event webpage as a hub for colleagues to connect with relevant research and learning opportunities, as well as planning for the second DECO conference to be held in 2022.


Purchase your own copy of Catastrophy by the Sea from our online gift shop!

The conference was funded by an anonymous donor as part of the multi-million-dollar, multi-year Expanding Empathy for Marine Environments grant project. Other projects include the empathy fellowship program that began in 2020, as well as exciting plans for a puppet show version of Catastrophe by the Sea (a children’s book facilitated by the Seattle Aquarium and available online from our gift shop!); an animal care play space for our younger guests; a new haul-out space for our northern fur seal habitat; a teachers’ resource; and a planning process for an empathy outreach vehicle. Look to our blog for updates on these projects as they near completion!

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