I apologize to the animals, dead along the roadside, as I drive to work. When I see a furry lump ahead a wave of fear and sorrow, perhaps even a little pain, surges through me. Fear that it was someone's pet, a mother animal or a baby one. Fear that it wasn't killed quickly but suffered. Fear as if I were the one quietly going about my nightly routine and suddenly there is a tremendous roar, perhaps a screeching I don't recognize and suddenly blinding light ...
The sorrow comes from knowing that there are people out there that intentionally aim for, rather than avoid, animals on the road. It wells up from somewhere deep within. I know the feeling that goes along with senseless death by automobile and imagine that it makes no sense to the animals either. I imagine the young raccoons, now stranded and confused on the roadside, sniffing their dead mother, wanting her to get up and show them what to do next. The emotions translate into a deep sorrow for the human race and our increasing lack of empathy.
I admit that I am probably too empathetic. I know the science and the biology, and yet I still anthropomorphize and cast human emotions on living things that may not have them.
Sometimes an animal encounter is the first step toward empathy.
This is relevant, I promise. The Education Department is working on establishing a master plan to guide us through the next decade. One stage of that process is to look at current research and find out what it is saying. An article that jumped out at us was one that pointed out the correlation between empathy and environmental stewardship.
Empathy is ''an affective response, more appropriate to another's situation than one's own.'' Translated, the ability to imagine one's self in a position of another and genuinely feel what he is feeling. The study, in a nutshell, said that if you want to encourage people to care about something outside their immediate world, you need to foster empathy toward other living things, and that this is largely a role that nature educators should play.
I am at one end of the spectrum, but I see the occasional acts of empathy among kids and it gives me hope that there are future stewards of all life. We talk a lot about feelings to and with children, to make them better understand what they are going through and learn to deal with those emotions. It is not a stretch to expand that to others and ask our children to think about how someone or something else might feel. ''Don't hit them, because it hurts; how would you feel if someone did that to you?'' This is a common sentiment when teaching children about how to treat others.
If I ask a 2-year-old how a tree feels when being hit with a stick, he might respond that it is sad. That it hurts. Young children project upon all things emotion. It is only as we grow older and ''learn'' more that we recognize that the giant beech tree in the front yard can't care about anything, that the single daffodil in a field isn't lonely. With that recognition we lose something, we are given permission to no longer take ''feelings'' into consideration.
Yet we all seek empathy - the saying about you don't know how I feel until you've walked in my shoes is evidence of that. We are better able to empathize with other people, and possibly pets, than with wildlife (especially the ''creepy crawlies'') and nature. But we can try to understand what it is like to feel what another might feel, to put ourselves in their shoes. It is not such a far reach to experience it from an animal's point of view.
One of the challenges for the educators as we move into this decade is how to create and foster empathy for the living things that people don't know how to relate to, and beyond. A turtle living in a polluted roadside ditch. A bird poisoned by pesticides. A mouse with one leg caught in a mousetrap. An eroded hillside and cloudy stream.
The most logical part of my brain knows that plants don't feel pain and experience emotions. I know that the reptilian brain seems to lack the structures associated with emotion. Hillsides don't have feelings. But if we treat them like they do, if we nurture the childlike connections to the world, then all life gets better.
Recently at Day Camp reunion, some campers found puddles of stranded tadpoles. Big Pond's water level was falling, trapping them. The campers moved them in cups and hands to safer water, even dug a channel to connect with the receding water. One camper in particular didn't stop, even after the others lost interest or gave up. The naturalist, upon telling me the story, said ''That's the empathy we're going for.''
My mother says I've always been this way, a ''rescuer.'' I'm always going to apologize to the animals hit by cars. I'm never going to be able to kill a wounded mouse in a mouse trap (unless it is suffering more being alive, then I call a friend). Extreme empathy is written into my DNA - it is why I have a houseful of rescued animals, why I am a foster parent, and why I will never hesitate to help someone in need. Those that know me well will read this article, laugh and shake their heads. But my empathy allows me to care for the world and everything in it as if it were my family. As the most powerful animals on the planet, we have the ability to change the world, through empathy. Imagine that.
Come and visit with some amazing living things. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk and the building is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Sundays when we open at 1 p.m. Visit jamestownaudubon.org or call 569-2345 for more information.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.