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Empathy For Animals And The Environment

People Animals Love is a non-profit helping students understand and care for animals. In turn, students are learning how to understand and care for other people.

By Megan Noack

Megan is a journalism student at Brigham Young University. From a young age she wanted to help poor people on street corners. In Africa. Across the globe. She took international development classes in college and eventually discovered social entrepreneurship and Ashoka. Megan was able to combine her passions of writing and bettering society as she worked on the Empathy Initiative team during the summer of 2013.

December 10, 2013

Empathy is about understanding. When we understand people, we are more inclined to adapt our words and deeds to fill their needs.  

But what about empathy for animals? Empathy for the environment? If we understand them, how will our interactions with them change?

People Animals Love (PAL) is a D.C. based non-profit bringing people and animals together through the belief that the unique bond can help fill some of society’s greatest needs. PAL was founded by Earl Strimple, DVM who witnessed the effects of the human-animal bond with his clients. An early program matched cats with felons in Lorton County prison. Some of the prisoners mentioned that they wished they had had a program similar to this in their neighborhood to keep their kids from making the same mistakes they did--and from that suggestion an animal-enrichment program was born. It started out small, but PAL wanted to expand its scope. So four years ago, PAL began working with D.C.’s Stanton Elementary, then, the lowest-performing school in the District. PAL operates during the academic year and in the summer. Throughout the school year, PAL offers an after-school program where students learn about and interact with a wide array of animals. The purpose is to strengthen the bond between people and animals while improving “educational, social and emotional skills of low-income minority children.”

So what does PAL Club at Stanton look like? PAL partners with the school for a true extended day experience. They start with a nutritious meal and spend time with the kids to help them complete their homework. Then they take the kids who are furthest behind and do small group tutorial, followed by the robust Animal Studies curriculum.  The kids get real hands-on experiences like raising butterflies (beginning at the egg stage) and learning to milk cows by filling surgical gloves with water. There are assemblies that show and tell animals unique to a given area. Last year the students got up close and personal with a hedgehog, a legless lizard and an African wildcat at one of the assemblies that featured desert animals. Fieldtrips to the National Zoo and the Botanical Gardens also take place.

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“PAL uses children’s natural curiosity about the animal kingdom to increase knowledge, make social and emotional gains, inspire higher order thinking and encourage empathy for animals and their habitat,” says Rene Wallis, Executive Director of PAL. “Our focus is on empathy for the animal kingdom and their habitat.”

The outcome of PAL’s programs is another testament of the power of empathy in creating change. Not only do students learn about animals and their habitats, they care for them as well. For example, students have participated in river clean-ups with the Ecological Conservation Corps. But in addition, students also learn how to treat animals and subsequently, other people.

“We have specific rules about how we act around animals: talk in a soft voice, don't touch animals unless an adult is there and says it is okay, never poke an animal or do something to hurt it,” says Eric Reithel, Stanton’s PAL site coordinator. “(These are) all rules that humans should also live by when interacting with each other.”

Reithel also says respect has become a classroom norm where students are accountable for treating each other with the same gentleness with which they would treat the animals. It is an empathy translation from people-animal to people-people.

But it doesn’t end there; academic outcomes have also been noted. It is predicted that 75% of low-income students will be behind grade level by second grade, according to research. Last summer 46% of the students had no summer learning loss, and 20% of them made gains. In the fall of 2012, sixty-nine 1st and 2nd graders were below grade level. Ten of these children achieved grade level; eight of the ten were “cusp” children, that is, children who began the year near grade level reading. PAL also measures student satisfaction, and in a survey 90 percent of students said they have benefitted socially and academically from participating in the PAL program. Click here to watch a video about PAL Club at Stanton.

“We hope that all that exposure to nature and wildlife in a fun, no-pressure way will inspire the kids to be more respectful of their environment and enjoy nature,” says Leslie Giamo, Deputy Director. “Most of these kids will be D.C. residents their entire lives, so it’s important for them to understand what is happening in their surrounding urban environment and how to help contribute to its well-being.”