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Fostering Empathy for Endangered Species

"Horny as a Rhinoceros" - India ink portrait by Jon Goldman
"Horny as a Rhinoceros" - India ink portrait by Jon Goldman

Community is a subjective thing. Merriam Webster defines it as people living in the same area or sharing a common trait or interest. That's pretty broad, as it is, but artist Jon Goldman wants us to go one step further and include animals, as well as people, in our sense of community.*

His Aphoristic Extinctions project is a collection of portraits of endangered species in India ink. The paintings are stark - a rhinoceros in profile, a large gorilla, hunkered down and staring viewers in the face - in every case, a single animal appearing to float on a plain white background. Goldman says that ink drips visible in some of the portraits were originally accidents, but he was struck by their likeness to blood drips, and so they stayed.

The portraits are displayed without descriptions of the animals, their habitats, or the threats they face. Goldman says his goal is to evoke an emotional response, and words, he says, can distance us from strong emotions, like fear.**

He makes one exception to his no words policy (okay, it's not a formal policy): the pithy, irreverent titles he gives his works. There's “Eight-Hundred Pound Gorilla," “Horny as a Rhinoceros,” "We are the Walrus," and "Cassowary: Head Out of Sand." Goldman says humor and irony can disarm viewers, provoke discussion, and enable people to realize, for themselves, our role in the extinction of species.

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Alexandra Delis-Abrams - Endangered Species Have Feelings, Too

Alexandra Delis-Abrams has a similar goal, but her audience and tactics are rather different. She's author of a new educational coloring book for kids, called "Endangered Species Have Feelings, Too." The book highlights twenty-six endangered species, with sketches of the animals in their habitats, and first-person narratives that describe each animals feelings about their situation.

In each case, Delis-Abrams endows the animal with one positive and one negative emotion. She acknowledges that she can't know what the animals in her book actually feel, but Delis-Abrams says it's a powerful tool for teaching kids that everyone has a full range of feelings, and a voice they can use to express them. It's also a way to foster empathy for the animals.

* This sentence has been edited for clarity. An earlier version read ".. Goldman wants us to go one step further and take the word "people" out of the equation."

** This paragraph has been edited for clarity. An earlier version read "The portraits are displayed without captions. Goldman says his goal is to evoke an emotional response, and words - especially factual, scientific language - can distance us from strong emotions, like fear."

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