Ian Somerhalder Teaches Compassion Through Animals

08/21/2012 at 09:00 AM EDT

Ian Somerhalder Building Animal Sanctuary in Louisiana
Ian Somerhalder
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Last year, Ian Somerhalder testified in front of Congress in support of wildlife and environmental conservation. Now, he's taking that mission into his own hands, with a proposed animal sanctuary to be built in Louisiana through his Ian Somerhalder Foundation that will simultaneously aim to rehabilitate bullying teens by having them work with animals.

"We cannot progress as a society, as a people, if we lack compassion," Somerhalder tells PEOPLE. "[This place] is not only protecting animals, but allowing kids to come from all over the country, hopefully all over the world ... and showing them compassion with these animals that have also been abandoned, also have behavioral issues and have been ostracized."

Inspired by the younger fan following he's acquired as a result of The Vampire Diaries, helping both of these groups, animals and society's youth, has become a passion close to the actor's heart.

"I know animals extremely well and I know young people extremely well," he says. "Youth empowerment is the only way that you and I are going to get old and be okay, and I mean that. I live my life by it."

For Somerhalder, growing up along Louisiana's gulf coast led to a lifelong appreciation for the environment around him, an insight he looks forward to sharing with others.

"It's one of the most beautiful, delicate ecosystems in the world," he says. "That propelled me in my life to always go out into the world understanding that compassion and preservation of our wildlife and our natural environment is absolutely imperative. Animals are our companions in life, and without them, the world would suck."

That attitude extends to Somerhalder's home life, where he is a proud pet dad to three cats rescued from across North America.

"My life ultimately would not work without all these little creatures that crawl around in the night and snuggle up next to me," he says. "They literally make my world a better place. I can't imagine my life without them, and when taking care of them and having them take care of you, it's such a symbiosis. When you really live with pets, you really see how incredibly emotionally evolved they are."

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