You may have heard recently that the Western black rhinoceros is extinct. We are debatably in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, so expect more bad news. The last mass extinction ended the dinosaurs, and the third wiped out 96 percent of all marine species. We are the sixth.

In that context, the question of whether or not parks like SeaWorld are “good” for animals takes on a different meaning. We can ask if animals are healthier or happier in captivity, and we should. However, the more urgent question is whether those species will continue to exist at all. The answer depends on how much you and I care about the answer. That is the primary mission of the best living-animal collections around the world — to inspire people to care about other species, so that we create some collective will to change the course of history.

The good news is that it works. Worldwide more than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year. In the United States, it is more people than attend all sporting events combined. Research shows that during these visits, people forge emotional connections to wildlife and learn to see themselves as part of conservation solutions. There is a growing body of evidence — building on a comprehensive report by the National Research Council — that informal science education is particularly effective when experiences are interactive and inspire positive emotions.

There are great examples of success, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which changed not only the fish-buying habits of their visitors, but the menus of seafood restaurants across the country. Even the film “Blackfish” inadvertently makes the case for the power of the experiences offered by SeaWorld when the former trainers featured in the film describe how visits to the park inspired them to devote their careers to the care of marine mammals. That is the kind of dedication we need on a much larger, wider scale.

Children do learn about wildlife from television, but they also see dragons and giant robots on TV. We need children to care more about the world they live in than they do about the wizarding world or Pandora, and so we need equally powerful experiences to offer.

Happily, we don’t need fancy digital technology to inspire awe and wonder in children and adults. When a male Amur tiger stands on his hind legs and towers over a group of zoo visitors, grown men gasp. Chattering teenagers are struck dumb. When those moments are paired with skillful educational messages and direct calls to take simple action steps, we know they can make a difference.

None of this is to say that the question of the welfare of animals in captivity is not important. Part of the reason debates about captive animals are so contentious is that both sides include people who care deeply about animals and about this biodiversity crisis, but who have different views on whether we should be primarily concerned with respecting animal rights or promoting welfare and conservation.

If we decide to use individual animals to benefit other members of a species, we take on the responsibility for ensuring their well being. If we can do a better job, then we should. That means looking honestly at criticism, even if it comes from hostile sources, or is accompanied by slander and distortions of truth. That’s hard, but if the goal is to do good on a larger scale, then we have to be successful on the smaller scale. People only form these connections with wildlife if their personal experiences are positive — if animals are healthy and active and people smile and feel good when they see them.

So let’s celebrate the successes and fix the problems, and look for more creative ways to inspire children to become not just marine mammal trainers but biologists, climate scientists and politicians who help save endangered species.

Sarah Cunningham is an assistant professor and director of the Center for Experiential and Environmental Education at Unity College in Unity, Maine. 

Monday, February 10, 2014