“Abominable” Film Elevates Empathy

Still image from Abominable

Image credit: Universal/Pearl

I admit it — although my childhood is now far behind me, I can’t resist going to a kids’ movie every once in awhile if it seems to offer something unique. This certainly turned out to be the case with Abominable, a gorgeously rendered collaboration between Hollywood-based DreamWorks Animation and Shanghai-based Pearl Studio. The storyline revolves around a yeti who is snatched from his remote Himalayan homeland by a private collector to be exploited for science and entertainment; we actually see his confinement through his eyes at the beginning of the film. He soon escapes into the streets of Shanghai, where he meets three kids — Yi, Peng, and Jin — who embark on a quest to help him evade his captors and return safely to Everest, the mountain after which they name him. The journey they take together ends up being a psychological as well as a geographical one for each of them.

Is the plot predictable? Mostly. Is Everest anthropomorphized for maximum appeal to children? Very much so. Is there some facile humor? For sure. Is this the first animated yeti-meets-human movie? No. (Missing Link came out earlier this year, and Smallfoot was released last year, so this seems to be a trendy theme.) Given all that, does this film still justify the ticket price? Absolutely. Why? Because in addition to the impossibly adorable protagonist, uplifting tone, and stunningly vivid Chinese landscapes never before captured in a Hollywood animated release, this movie offers something that few others of its kind do in portraying how the characters — both human and nonhuman — interact. As I walked out of the theater, it struck me that the central character of the film isn’t necessarily Everest or even Yi, the teenage girl who first rescues him, but is empathy itself.

Obviously, this is by no means the first film ever to depict symbiotic interactions between a person and a creature, or between people experiencing shared circumstances, but it is relatively rare to see those kinds of interactions transpiring so consistently and frequently, unfolding in a way that demonstrates a keen understanding of what the other is experiencing.

One of the first examples we see is when Yi discovers Everest hiding on her building’s rooftop. In the midst of grappling with her initial shock that this mysterious being could suddenly pop into her life, she manages to quickly discern that he is fearful and injured. Earlier scenes in the film show Yi dashing around in a perpetually harried state, taking on every odd job she can find to earn enough money for a trip she had planned to take with her recently deceased father. Her grief, and the trip she works so hard to save up for, occupy her attention to the exclusion of virtually all else. However, Everest’s compromised condition immediately tugs at her heartstrings and sends her dipping into her precious savings, heading off to the nearest pharmacy, and buying medical supplies to treat his wounds. Without giving anything away, we see that later in the film, he repays her kindness in a manner that is very personal to her and how she copes with her grief.

Peng and Jin, the two boys who accompany Yi and Everest, show a distinct lack of maturity and concern for the needs of others early on, but they soon learn not only to bond with Everest, but also to better understand Yi and how to support her. For her part, Yi discovers a blind spot in her own empathy and resolves to address it. We also see empathetic behavior surface from another character in the film from whom we would not have expected it.

In addition to the interactions between the named characters, I was pleasantly surprised to see empathy demonstrated toward even incidental characters in the environment. In one scene, when Yi’s travel companions pull some fish out of the water to play with them, she insists that the fish be put back in. The three children also repeatedly experience awe and reverence for the beauty of their surroundings as they progress deeper into the natural world.

Although the film doesn’t score perfectly on the animal welfare front (it might have come closer if Yi’s grandmother’s legendary dumplings had been stuffed with vegetables instead of pork), it does more than any recent film I’ve seen to highlight empathy toward one’s fellow human beings, animals, and the environment alike. Particularly in this day and age, when there is so much that divides people and nations, and so much environmental destruction, the cultivation of empathy in children is imperative. In addition to the unprecedented frequency of school shootings and intensity of bullying in recent years that show clear and disturbing evidence of an empathy gap among young people, a University of Michigan study found that empathy among U.S. college students declined by about 40% between 1979 and 2009.

One of the most useful tools to develop empathy, among other components of emotional intelligence, is humane education. The Academy of Prosocial Learning provides this definition of humane education: “Humane education encourages cognitive, affective, and behavioral growth through personal development of critical thinking, problem solving, perspective-taking, and empathy as it relates to people, animals, the planet, and the intersections among them. Education taught through the lens of humane pedagogy supports more than knowledge acquisition; it allows learners to process personal values and choose prosocial behaviors aligned with those values.”

A variety of organizations worldwide — including HEART, where I now work — advance humane education in schools and an array of other settings. Many of these groups are members of the Humane Education Coalition, an international alliance of 126 education-oriented organizations in 27 countries on 5 continents working in the animal protection, human rights, and environmental conservation sectors. Many animal shelters, sanctuaries, and rescue organizations also offer humane education as part of their programming; the HEART Network provides free teaching tools for these groups.

I’m proud to be part of the humane education movement, and am grateful to the Abominable team for reaching beyond entertainment value to highlight the rewards of going the extra mile to support others on their journey, wherever it may take them.

 

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Grants available for animal health research

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Funding Opportunities: Species Conservation and Cruelty-Free Alternatives in Scientific Research

New Study Illuminates Giving Attitudes and Behaviors of Animal Protection Donors

Hot off the presses from the animal advocacy research team at Faunalytics — reanalyzing data from Edge Research with support from the Blackbaud Institute — is the one-of-a-kind study, Giving To Animals: New Data On Who And How. The report offers some unique insights into people who donate to animal causes, with the aim of helping to guide animal protection charities’ decisions about how, where, and from whom to solicit donations.

As I discussed in a previous post, “The Case for Animal Protection Funding,” giving to animals and the environment combined makes up only about 3% of total giving — the lowest of any programmatic field. In the interest of elevating this disappointingly low figure and helping fundraisers attract a greater number of donors to animal protection, Faunalytics sought to learn more about the attitudes and behaviors of animal-cause donors (people who donated to animal causes either exclusively or among other causes) versus the general donor population (of which animal-cause donors are a subset).

With Faunalytics’ kind permission, I am including a selection of the tables from the study that I personally found most informative:

Amount Donated by Cause: Animal cause donors do not give exclusively to animal charities. On the contrary, the majority of their giving — more than two-thirds — goes to human causes, including places of worship, local social services (e.g., food banks), children’s charities, and health charities.

DonationsByCause.GIF

When asked to identify the single organization of greatest importance to them personally, only 24% of animal-cause donors named an animal-related organization at all. Of the animal-related organizations named, the vast majority focus on sheltering/protection for companion animals (e.g., dogs, cats, and other common pets). Organizations focused on animal populations other than companion animals received only a small fraction of donations.

Non-Monetary Support in the Past 12 Months: According to the study, approximately one-third of people who donate money to an organization also donate goods/supplies and volunteer their time. Surprisingly, many activities that would be considered a smaller ask, such as petition signing or promotion of an organization via social media, were much less apparent. Given the popularity of in-kind donations among animal-cause donors, Faunalytics recommends, “Animal advocates may want to consider ways to promote and encourage goods-based donations: for example, to sanctuaries, shelters, and rescues. Psychological research has found that asking people for something easy first (like a small donation of birdseed) increases their willingness to do something larger (like donating money) later. This is known as the foot-in-the-door technique.”

NonMonetarySupport

Donation Methods Used in the Past Two Years: Animal-cause donors and all-cause donors identified a variety of avenues through which they made financial contributions in the past two years, as compared in the table below.

DonationMethods1
DonationMethods2

Giving Habits and Attitudes: Study participants were asked to indicate which of a preselected set of statement choices described them. Based on the results, Faunalytics notes, “Animal-cause donors appear to be above average in their liking for small donations (e.g., at the checkout counter): Almost two thirds (63.8%) say they tend to give this way. Animal advocates might consider looking for more opportunities for this kind of donation. Animal-cause donors are [also] more receptive to direct requests for donations from organizations than people on average: About a third (37.1%) of animal-cause donors say they are more likely to support an organization when approached by friends or family than by the organization itself, versus 44.9% of all donors who preferred to be approached by friends or family. [Additionally] about a third of animal-cause donors (33.7%) said that they prefer to give to organizations that make a difference by changing policies or laws, which is well above average (23.8%). This preference aligns well with the Effective Animal Advocacy movement, aimed at shifting the bigger picture of animal treatment. Finally, it is worth noting that far fewer animal-cause donors are motivated by religion/faith than the average donor is (32.1% vs. 45.3%), although it is impossible to definitively explain why with these data.”

HabitsAndAttitudes

Usage of Popular Online/Social Media Tools: Per Faunalytics’ analysis, “Animal-cause donors were not noticeably different from average in their use of online services: Facebook was the clear frontrunner. Animal advocates who use video advocacy likely already use YouTube, but it is worth considering if not. Use of other services is much less common but including them may get the message to a broader spectrum of users.”

OnlineTools

Interestingly, the study found that despite the proliferation of crowdfunding platforms and campaigns in recent years, they were relatively unpopular among animal-cause and general-population donors alike, with only 14% and 9.9% respectively using these platforms.

Faunalytics has made freely available the full text of the study, which includes an executive summary, an explanation of its methodology and population sample demographics, and a complete set of tables and charts illustrating the findings.

Humane Education Funding Available