Saving Animals and Empowering People Through Humane Education: An Interview With Tod Emko

Tod Emko is a conservationist from New York City. While Emko’s “day job” is as a web developer for Blue State Digital, a cause-oriented agency that managed both Obama Presidential campaigns online, he spends a lot of his time as an educator and changemaker.

After having crewed with Sea Shepherd Global for several years, Emko co-founded Darwin Animal Doctors, a veterinary and humane education organization that helps developing communities around the world. DAD currently serves the Galapagos Islands, Thailand, and now Sumatra, Indonesia.

In 2014, Emko created the humane education comic, A Piggy’s Tale, inspired by his three-legged rescue dog, Piggy.

Emko believes the future can be saved by teaching compassion to children today.

We asked Emko to share a bit about his (and Piggy’s) stories and how he’s using humane education as a tool for positive change.



Tod and Piggy love adventures. Image courtesy Tod Emko.

IHE: Tell us briefly how you met Piggy.

TE: I volunteered in the Dominican Republic with a high-volume veterinary campaign in 2009, in a region without access to veterinary care. One of the worst cases brought to our temporary clinic during the campaign was a puppy who got hit by a bus a month before we had arrived. He was almost dead by the time he came in. The vets were able to amputate his hurt leg, but for him to have any long-term chance to survive, someone had to take him back to the US with them.

I did, and his recovery and spirit has been inspiring me ever since then. I named him Piggy, because he looked like a hairless piglet when I met him.

Who knew he would become such a healthy, fluffy beast?

IHE: What made you decide to turn Piggy’s story into a graphic novel with a humane education focus?

TE: Once we brought him back to the US, he made an amazing recovery, walking and running on three legs in no time. But then, he started doing something none of us expected.

During walks, he would suddenly veer off the path, and single out one person out of the crowd. He’d go up to that person and put one paw on them, and look into their eyes. The person would inevitably burst out crying and saying “How did you know I needed that?” to Piggy. I would ask, “What happened?” And they would say something like, “I just lost my best friend,” or “My dog died this morning,” and Piggy could tell they were hiding pain. And he had the power to make them release it.

Piggy had a super power, and he needed a superhero comic to tell his story.

My friend Ethan Young, who is a graphic novelist for Dark Horse Comics, helped co-write and illustrate Piggy’s story, and we started selling it at comic conventions. Teachers started buying it, and putting it in their school libraries. And then teachers started telling us how kids would read it to each other. When kids would get upset at school, other kids would read A Piggy’s Tale to them, which would calm them down.

We were astounded by this; but the next logical step was to build a humane curriculum around it, teaching empathy as a super power to kids.

New Jersey school teacher Kim Diaz wrote a humane curriculum around A Piggy’s Tale that we premiered as pilot programs for schools like Kim’s Bergen County middle school and the Gillen Brewer School for kids with severe learning disabilities in New York City.

The kids loved the program, and they came up with amazing social justice comics of their own at the end of it: Surprising comics, about marriage equality, and the wage gap, and the Yulin festival.

Kim, and international traveling teacher Michelle Green, expanded the curriculum into a year-long program.

And now, LUSH Charity Pot just gave us a huge grant to teach this year-long program to schools in Sumatra, in the Leuser Ecosystem UN World Heritage Site! We are working with fantastic conservation-oriented K-12 schools like the Bukit Lawang Trust in Leuser.

A Piggy’s tale helps inspire the superhero in all of us! Image courtesy Tod Emko

IHE: The response to A Piggy’s Tale – including at places like comic conventions – has been incredibly positive. Why do you think that is?

TE: Piggy’s story is a very heroic one – of a dog who faced death, and then was able to make a full recovery, into a dog who has super powers. What makes people love the story so much is that it is true.

In many of the countries where Piggy’s story is being told, street dogs are not an uncommon sight – they have become almost a part of the environment. But Piggy’s story makes those dogs stand out again. It reminds people that those animals walking the street are there – and that they shouldn’t be.

But it does this in a manner that does not point fingers, and it does not just identify a problem – it gives a solution and puts that solution in our hands.

This is the same at comic conventions. People are not used to their super hero being one who is right there in front of them, a true story, and where there is still super hero work being done. It gives people a way to be a part of this solution, wherever they are.

Piggy is a symbol of hope and strength, and he represents a real, achievable happy ending. And that makes everyone feel good.

IHE: What does Piggy think of all his fame?

TE: Piggy knows that his fame brings him many fans offering him many treats. Although none have offered him a squirrel companion yet, so he feels his work is not done yet!

IHE: Tell us about the humane education curriculum you’ve been developing.

TE: We are working to develop a full-year school curriculum to teach humane education in a holistic manner.

It will teach students about compassion for others – both animals and people; help students understand and identify the needs of their pet and the responsibility that comes with owning a pet; to understand how our actions impact the environment and the wildlife who live in it; as well as safety when dealing with animals.

The curriculum is designed to work in cooperation with other aspects of the school curriculum, so as to add no pressure on schools or teachers to implement it. Rather, it provides a lot of fun classroom activities that can help teach other subjects, such as mathematics, English comprehension, and writing and research techniques; but makes sure to teach students about animals and animal care at the same time.

Moreover, the curriculum is flexible – teachers will be able to use and mold it into a way that best fits their classroom.

Humane education is a really important aspect of education that is often overlooked. It helps our kids grow up to be more compassionate, understanding, and well-rounded adults.

We are really excited to get our program out there, to increase the number of schools teaching humane education, and to start getting feedback from schools, teachers, and students.

Tod and Piggy visit a class of students. Image courtesy Tod Emko.

IHE: Tell us about your work with Darwin Animal Doctors and with Sea Shepherd. How did you get involved with those organizations?

TE: I began crewing for Sea Shepherd Global’s Antarctic whale protection campaign in 2008. After that, in 2009, I went to the Galapagos with Sea Shepherd to help patrol the UN World Heritage Site marine reserve. There, I saw many stray dogs like Piggy on the islands.

Inspired by Piggy’s story, I co-founded Darwin Animal Doctors to bring veterinary care and humane education to the islands, to humanely reduce the impact of introduced species like dogs and cats in the communities there.

IHE: What are your future plans for continuing your humane education work?

TE: Our program is written in a way that it can be altered quite easily in order to be able to be used in many other countries around the world.

As humane education is really the most sustainable and manageable way to prevent cruelty to animals, destruction of the environment, and to protect wildlife and biodiversity, this is our main goal.

Further than that, we hope to develop new programs for parts of the world where the issues that they face are different – for example, more focused on wildlife issues, or the treatment of livestock – and be able to implement humane education there, too.

The world is evolving, and children need to be taught to think critically, and ultimately, we’d like to be able to play a big role in educating the world!