Empathizing with nature

Jackie Litzgus, turtles, turtle conservation, nature, nature conservation, ecology, biodiversity, biology, empathy, nature deficit disorder, Laurentian University“I had wild snakes and a turtles in my hands as a kid,” says Jackie Litzgus. “That’s how I built empathy.”

The Laurentian University professor recalls childhood memories of foraging through the ravine and woods for snakes, toads, and turtles with her brother. These early experiences ignited a lifelong passion to study nature conservation and biology, particularly turtle conservation.

“There is inherent worth and beauty in nature that should not be taken for granted,” she says. “I want my daughter and her generation to be able to share in the wonder I felt when experiencing wild species and spaces.”

Earlier this summer, Litzgus participated in a Partners in Research (PIR) Live Event where she spoke to high school summer students about her research.

“I really enjoyed it and hope I can do it again,” she says. “One of my favourite parts was that they asked what they could do as high school students to help the turtles, which was pretty awesome.”

With her mission to build empathy for other species and increase engagement with nature, endangered turtles became Litzgus’ ambassadors for nature conservation. They set the foundation for a greater understanding of one’s surrounding environment.

Putting a live turtle in someone’s hand begins the larger discussion about ecology and conservation, and why it is important.

“I’m a huge advocate of using live animals to showcase research,” Litzgus says. “Everybody can connect with a turtle; everybody knows what a turtle is. They can understand a turtle and appreciate it, and build that empathy. You want that so people can be more engaged.

“The turtle-in-hand then provides a segue into a broader discussion about conservation; people want to do something about saving the turtles. It’s the exact kind of emotion you want to elicit in this discussion.”

Caring about nature is caring about humans

Through her conservation research and public engagement, Litzgus aims to combat the increasing loss of biodiversity (the variety of life in the world, or in a particular ecosystem).

Biodiversity is extremely complex—the extent to which we are all connected remains largely unknown—yet it’s currently suffering dramatic loss due to various human-made inventions and interventions.

“Let’s face it, if the environment crashes, we humans crash with it. We need to be less short-sighted, less selfish, and less consumptive.”

Growing up in southwestern Ontario, Litzgus remembers her adventures in the parks, creeks, and open spaces near her house. Although her childhood was not so long ago, she’s amazed by how much has changed to the natural habitats where she would find snakes, turtles, and toads.

“Many of us, particularly kids, are suffering from nature deficit disorder,” says Litzgus, who already has her seven-year-old accompany her on research excursions to places like the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park. “I want to make sure my daughter can go out in the woods and catch things, and that there are still woods to do that in.”

Encouraging people to care about nature conservation also encourages them to get outside and experience the countless benefits of the outdoors.

Bursting through the academic bubble

Jackie Litzgus, turtles, turtle conservation, nature, nature conservation, ecology, biodiversity, biology, empathy, nature deficit disorder, Laurentian University

Jackie Litzgus

Litzgus hopes more opportunities like the PIR Live Event continue to arise, as further opportunities to talk to people outside the academic bubble helps raise awareness for nature conservation.

“If we want our research to matter to people, we need to converse with them, have a dialogue about what it means so we can reach more people,” she says. “As academic scientists, we’re often preaching to the choir, going to conferences and knowing each other’s language, but we’re a small group. More opportunities to interact face-to-face with others outside of academia is important.”

Just as the high school summer students wanted to know how they could help, many others ask similar questions when Litzgus does outreach events.

She cites volunteering at various organizations as one of the best starting points, or simply helping turtles across a road and being more aware of one’s surroundings. The Toronto Zoo, for example, has monitoring programs and citizen scientist programs that can get people excited about nature.

“In a lot of cases we don’t know what’s out there or where it is, so just participating in those monitoring programs would be great. Anything to build that empathy.”

For more information on PIR Live Events and to find out how your classroom can get involved in the new school year, visit http://www.pirweb.org/pir/en/live-event/.

Tagged: Environment & Sustainability

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