Fostering empathy through perspective

Fostering empathy for animals is one of the most powerful ways a zoo can inspire visitors and the community to thoughtfully engage with the natural world, particularly animals.

Cameras in hand, 11 teens between the ages of 13 and 15 arrived on the first day of the Wonder in Nature photography camp, which was co-designed in partnership with the Woodland Park Zoo’s Empathy Collaborative in south Seattle. The hands-on camp had one main goal: to build connections between youth, wildlife, and community through photography.

Students learned how to use DSLR cameras, created mood boards to showcase what inspired them, sun printed with materials from nature, participated in team building activities, went on nature walks, wrote artist statements, and engaged in daily reflections about their experiences.

Together, students and staff discussed how to ask for consent when taking photos and explored our comfort in nature and around wildlife. Students learned from experts in the field about their careers, skills, and passions.


Photo by River

“For me, nature photography means capturing plants, wildlife, and natural material equally, because nature cannot exist if one of those things is not there. I want my photography to make people think about how dense and alive the world around them is. I want to capture things that people wouldn’t even think to look for and would probably step over if they were hiking. I want to capture the perspective that a wild animal or a bug would see. I like close shots where you can see every beautiful detail of the subject.”

—  River, age 15 and photography camp participant


Sharing Insights, Sparking Interests

The culminating project for the camp was a photography gallery exhibit at the zoo.

One of the camp participants, River, is currently in conversations with coffeeshops to display and sell their artwork and has become more interested in conservation.

For Woodland Park Zoo, the program provided an opportunity to build trust with community partners and help young people build skills and develop deeper connections with nature and empathy for wildlife—right in their own backyards.


Building Accessible and Inclusive Experiences with Communities

Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies has been a long-term partner with the Woodland Park Zoo and is a major funder for the Woodland Park Zoo’s Empathy Collaborative.

The Empathy Collaborative is a three-year project working in partnership with south Seattle communities and Antioch University Seattle to co-design opportunities for youth and families. The Collaborative develops co-created, culturally relevant, empathy-focused programming that is responsive to community interests and priorities and builds long-term, authentic relationships with communities that the zoo seeks to better serve.


The Wonder in Nature camp success was only made possible by the intentional process arranged by the Empathy Collaborative, which involved nine organizational partners engaging in program design for more than five months. And for a year before the codesign process formally launched, the Collaborative attended community events, hosted listening sessions, and developed relationships with community organizations. Essential program elements were contributed by all involved:

  • The Woodland Park Zoo contributed expertise in nature, wildlife, and camp logistics;
  • A Youth in Focus teaching artist contributed expertise on photography;
  • The Rainier Valley Leadership Academy coordinated a youth focus group to review the program’s content and design;
  • The Cham Refugees Community recruited participants and transported them to camp; and
  • The Seward Park Audubon Society provided activities and advice on local green spaces for nature walks.

MACP’s research has identified educational programs at zoos and aquariums as playing a significant role in fostering strong connections between humans and other animals. As part of our Animal Welfare funding, our Empathy and Compassion for Animals program focuses on helping people of all ages connect with, appreciate, and develop empathy for animals—a strong personal value held by our founder, Margaret Cargill.

Photos provided by Woodland Park Zoo.