Yulia Karra
January 25

As journalists who work in a digital space, we have noticed that since the start of Israel’s recent war in Gaza, articles and social media posts that feature animals often get a lot more engagement than do posts that feature people. 

Are there underlying physiological mechanisms, and not just tricky algorithms, that cause people to empathize with animals in stressful times?

You must earn our empathy

Empathy is our ability to step into the other person’s shoes and understand his or her point of view.

“Empathy is different from identity,” Shiri Daniels, the professional director of ERAN, which offers mental health support by phone or online chat, tells ISRAEL21c. 

Dr. Shiri Daniels, the professional director of ERAN. Photo courtesy of Shiri Daniels
Dr. Shiri Daniels, the professional director of ERAN. Photo courtesy of Shiri Daniels

“Identifying with others [as opposed to empathizing with them] often prevents us from being able to offer emotional support or help them because we may get overwhelmed with emotions.”

Daniels explains that there are several physiological factors that sometimes prevent people from exhibiting empathy toward other humans. 

“Sometimes faced with situations that cause us anxiety and are difficult for us to internalize, we may respond in a less empathetic way than normally,” she notes. 

“Another factor is compassion fatigue, which may manifest itself in the difficulty to respond empathetically due to the subconscious need to protect ourselves from secondary exposure to trauma.”

Compassion fatigue is characterized by numbness or feelings of helplessness, irritability, withdrawal, aches, exhaustion, anger, or a reduced ability to feel empathy. 

Although the phenomenon is considered to be the result of working directly with victims, non-professionals may also experience compassion fatigue.

Why animals?

In instances where feelings of empathy for our fellow humans may be stunted, people may still empathize with other species. 

“We view animals as pure and innocent, a constant source of unconditional love, closeness and acceptance without judgment or two-facedness,” says Daniels. 

“In the wake of the October 7 horrors, the ongoing war and conditions of total uncertainty, on a subconscious level it can be very difficult for us to allow ourselves to feel our emotions. So animals can be a legitimate channel for us to convey our sorrow without fear of losing control and falling apart.”

Daniels adds that animals generally have a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of children and adults alike. So it makes sense that people seek animal-related media content in times of stress. 

Adopting pets

But it’s not just animals on social media that people turn to. They seek actual animals, too.

Varda Linett, chairwoman of the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA), says the group’s shelter typically houses about 150 dogs and 200 cats. 

A cat at Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter. Photo courtesy of JSPCA
A cat at Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter. Photo courtesy of JSPCA

In September, just before the start of the war, only four cats and nine dogs were adopted from the JSPCA shelter. In November, about 29 cats and 20 dogs were adopted. 

“We’ve seen a dramatic rise in adoptions. Since the start of the war, we’ve emptied out,” Linett says. 

Something similar occurred at the peak of the Covid pandemic. “During coronavirus, most shelters also emptied out of the animals,” she tells ISRAEL21c. 

Linett says that in response to crises, people want to feel that they are doing something for society, whether it’s through volunteering or other means. Adopting an animal gives people a sense of purpose.

A puppy at the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
A puppy at the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

“In times of stress, people tend to feel lonely and hurt. A cat or a dog provides emotional support. Especially since people spend more time at home [during major crises].”

However, once the initial tension of a certain tragedy subsides, people get back to their regular activities and their affection for animals wanes.

“That’s when the returns begin,” Linett says, referring to people bringing back adopted animals “like a pair of shoes” that no longer fits.

“We always make sure we give the animals away to the right hands, but I hear from other animal NGOs that it happened a lot after the coronavirus pandemic.”

She emphasizes that people who are looking to adopt an animal during this time, must understand it’s not simply something cute to look at, but “a lifetime commitment.”

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