An orca leaps during a show at SeaWorld in San Diego in 2014. The theme park operator has said it will stop breeding killer whales. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

U.S. zoos and aquariums draw many millions of visitors a year, and no one thinks those numbers will drop sharply very soon. But Americans’ post-“Blackfish” discomfort with SeaWorld and incidents like the recent shooting of a Cincinnati zoo gorilla have sparked new questions about how the destinations will evolve. This week, we’re publishing pieces on the future of zoos by zoo and animal experts. You can read essays by a zoo director here, a zoo designer here and a sociologist who wrote a book on zoos here.

Today’s submission comes from Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and marine mammal expert who is president of the Whale Sanctuary Project.

Over the coming years, zoos and aquariums will have to come to terms with three indisputable facts. First, most of the animals that people pay money to see — like elephants, big cats, and dolphins and whales — cannot thrive in these facilities. Second, most zoos and aquariums have failed when it comes to conserving endangered species and populations. And third, despite claims that they are educating visitors about conservation issues, there remains no compelling evidence that seeing animals on display promotes conservation values and behaviors.

Zoos and aquariums are under growing pressure to make a choice between adopting a new model and becoming an endangered species themselves. That new model is to be found in sanctuaries. And what distinguishes a sanctuary from a zoo is that its priority is the well-being of the animals, not human amusement or diversion.

Some progressive zoos have already started making the change from entertainment and spectacle to restoration, education and conservation. In 2005, the Detroit Zoo closed its elephant exhibit and sent its two elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary. The National Aquarium has relieved its eight bottlenose dolphins from performing in shows and is planning to retire them to a sanctuary. And the Whale Sanctuary Project has recently been formed to create seaside sanctuaries for formerly captive dolphins and whales, as well as injured or sick wild ones.

As they continue to face mounting pressure to shift their way of relating to the other animals, zoos and aquariums will eventually transform into sanctuaries — that is, centers of authentic advocacy and conservation, public education and engagement. Two examples of sanctuaries that put the animals first and are also highly successful at drawing visitors, volunteers and vacationers are the Marine Mammal Center in California and Best Friends Animal Society in Utah (now one of the state’s top tourist attractions). Unlike zoos and aquariums that cling to a relationship to our fellow animals that’s essentially one of exploitation, it is sanctuaries like these that are showing themselves to be the true model for the future.

Read more:

Zoos are too important to fail. But they can be much better than they are.

‘We are at a precipice of a major evolution in zoos’

Zoos will ‘look and act radically different in 20 years’

What Harambe’s death means for a critically endangered species of gorilla

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