Thursday, July 5, 2012

Is Empathy Becoming a Lost Art?

There is one particular journalist in Toronto who consistently writes excellent copy on a variety of subjects and I am a big fan of his work. I even took a course under his tutelage back in the early spring and thoroughly enjoyed it. He is an erudite and intelligent man whose wife is also a journalist; I follow both of them on Twitter but have only met the husband. I know they have a young family and I know they love living in Toronto (they have settled down in an emerging, dare I say "hip" part of town). This family is the very definition of "urbanite", in my opinion, and - judging from their writings, because I don't truly know them "in real life" - they wear it exceedingly well.

Baby Red-Winged Blackbird
Yesterday I read a piece on his wife's blog describing an "incident" that happened to their family this past Monday. If you want the in-depth story, please check it out there; if not, here is a brief summary: the wife and kids met the husband for dinner downtown by the lake and sat at a picnic table under a tree. After dinner they noticed a little bird, apparently a baby, perched on the arm of their stroller and not yet old enough to think of the humans as any kind of a threat. After they moved closer to see if it was hurt (which is where their empathy was most evident, right before it disappeared completely) the tiny bird suddenly jumped onto the shirt of their daughter. At this point the story goes horribly awry as both mom and daughter start to panic and scream and the dad has to come over and knock the bird to the ground. The story degenerates from there as a bigger bird - which one can only presume to be the dad of the injured baby bird, judging from the description - comes down from the tree and starts to dive-bomb the hapless family as they continue to scream and panic.

Adult Red-winged Blackbird
credit: Vidular
Now, I can't honestly sit here and declare exactly how I would have reacted had an adult bird begun to attack me and my kids when they were very young. What I can declare with absolute confidence is that I would not have allowed the situation to deteriorate to the degree it did by either screaming and jumping around or running over to my child and swatting a baby bird off of its clothes. And I would not have followed up the entire incident by posting a photo that showed other people checking out the situation (or "gawkers" as she called them) and that also pointed out the position on the ground of the still-injured baby bird. At no point in this blog piece did she indicate that anyone (from her family or gathered around) had even bothered to check on the well-being of the fledgling. I find this absolutely unconscionable and it really rattled me. But then I started to read some of the comments in her Twitter feed and on the blog piece itself and they seem to be universal in their sentiment that the family was "lucky to be unhurt" because these birds are "crazy". Crazy for what reason, exactly? For defending their injured offspring? Doesn't that seem the exact opposite of "crazy"?

Something else I found quite disquieting about the comments, particularly on Twitter, was the fact that a great many people didn't realize that a "black bird with red marking on its wing" found down by the shore of Lake Ontario is a "Red-winged Blackbird". I don't understand how it's possible to be an educated person living anywhere near a large body of water in Canada well into your adult years and not know exactly what a Red-winged Blackbird looks and sounds like. But virtually every commenter seemed either unsure of what type of bird it was or completely unconcerned as to why the entire incident had transpired. This makes me very unhappy indeed: what could possibly be the explanation for this ignorance?

Tim stroking a dove on a farm in 2001
I'm not trying to single out this family, not by a long shot. For one thing, judging from the comments made by other "urbanites" on Twitter and the blog itself, everything they did seems to be "the norm" among the general population. The piece itself may well have been intended as comic relief, although I could never see it that way as I am still unsure as to what eventually happened to that baby bird and why nobody there - not even in the picture posted on the blog - seemed to make any attempt to help it in any way. And now I am left wondering: is this truly "the norm" among people in the "Big City" these days? Are people so shallow-minded that they can sit under a tree to enjoy "nature" and then react so badly when that same "nature" tries misguidedly to interact with them? Was it really necessary to scream and have a panic attack in front of impressionable youth, who might now be predisposed to mistrusting animals themselves as they grow older? Is it really representative of this city that so many people apparently would have reacted in exactly the same way? If so, maybe I can begin to understand exactly why I am finding it so difficult to live in Toronto - or any "big city" - any more and why I am so anxious to get far away from the insensitivity that is becoming more and more prevalent. I am not going to turn this into a rant about Toronto - I will save that for another day, a day I am sure is not long coming - but I will say that it's not a very big leap at all from losing one's empathy for all other living creatures and losing one's empathy for one's fellow humans. I'd also like to point out that I have lived only in big cities (Montreal and then Toronto) for all of my life and my empathy for animals has been strong for as far back as I can remember. You don't have to live in the country to just have some inkling of how the world around you works.

Jill, Tim and Sarah at the Toronto Zoo
This is precisely why I am such a big fan of the Toronto Zoo. I understand why some people object to animals being in "cages"; I get the sentiment that every animal should be "free" to live its own life. I just happen to think that, in the case of well-run zoos, we need to look at the "big picture". Humans have the most potential of any living, sentient being to adversely affect the lives of every other creature on this planet and if we lose that power of empathy completely, then it will be a very bad situation indeed. If that blog piece tells us anything it's that there is a very great segment of the population that clearly has no idea how to interact with other living beings. The main purpose of a well-run and properly-staffed City Zoo, in my opinion, is to give those people locked in their "urban jungles" an opportunity to reacquire or rekindle that empathy without having to stray too far from their comfort zone. It's clear to me that this is a very important piece to the puzzle, educating and enlightening that segment of the world's population that otherwise would only see the animals around them as a "threat". Quite aside from the fact that zoo animals never have to worry about predators and have access to the best medical care around, they perform an invaluable service to their fellow creatures merely by being accessible to otherwise ignorant humans.

Otherwise it becomes all too easy to get caught up in the steel and asphalt world of the inner city, no matter how much you may enjoy that lifestyle, and completely forget that your species is not the only one on the planet.

And if you want to know how you should handle a fledgling landing on you out of nowhere, take a tip from this guitar player and singer by the name of Josh Williams at a Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina last spring. You can hear the bird cheeping from the very beginning of the video from somewhere up in the rafters, I suppose, but he makes his first appearance on camera at around the 1:30 mark. The video from that point on is almost heartbreakingly sweet.


  1. Empathy in general is a skill that needs to be nurtured and, to some degree, taught. I also will admit that birds sometimes freak me out, but that being said, I picked up a baby bird that had fallen out of the nest early this summer. I had never done this before, and that tiny interaction was quite moving.

    1. I agree. I know your work ran an excellent programme along those lines quite a while back, right?

    2. We were involved in the start up phase of Roots of Empathy, yes. It's worth reading about if you've never heard of it.

    3. Thanks, Sar. I was hoping you'd share that. :D

  2. I was once dive-bombed by a bald eagle (he was resting in the tree by my driveway in Victoria), and I thought of it as an interestring event that doesn't happen often.

    1. That's exactly as it should be, Cynthia. There aren't too many animals that will attack us out of sport; presumably he or she was defending some eaglets or perhaps even a fresh kill. :)

  3. My favourite part of that video is the fact that he still continues singing - like even when it initially drops down on him he only misses like, a half word, MAYBE. And as he's looking for it the guy still sings xD.

    But yes, I agree. I don't understand how it's even possible to be so ridiculous towards _living creatures_. I have a hard enough time hurting plants half the time, let alone animals.

    1. It boggles my mind, too. And it makes me really sad.


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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