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Modern Parenthood

'Blackfish' concerns aside, animal parks still good for kids

'Blackfish,' a documentary film about orcas in captivity, raises concerns about the treatment of animals in wildlife parks. While conditions, financial models, and effectiveness vary from zoo to theme park to circus, here are five reasons to keep bringing the kids.

By Contributing blogger / October 25, 2013

'Blackfish': Tilikum performs for a crowd at SeaWorld, Orlando, Fla. in a scene from the documentary 'Blackfish.'

Gabriela Cowperthwaite/Magnolia Pictures

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I've long considered zoos and animal parks to be "animal jails." This doesn't represent any principled stand against animal suffering (as a lifelong non-vegan, I'm vulnerable on that front), but rather a dislike of the general "free creatures penned up" vibe and a quite-possibly overly empathetic imagination.

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Contributing blogger

James Norton got his professional start at the Monitor as an online news producer, before moving over to edit international news during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since leaving the Monitor in 2004, he has worked as a radio producer, author, and food blogger. 

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A new film, however, is putting fuel on the flame of those who harbor lingering suspicion of the practice of charging money in return for exhibiting captive animals. "Blackfish" raises questions about SeaWorld: namely, whether its practices are humane for the animals, and safe for handlers and animals alike. In the process, it raises larger questions about animals in captivity everywhere.

The film presents quotes and perspectives like this one shared on CNN:

"I am not at all interested in having my daughter who is 3-and-a-half grow up thinking that it's normalized to have these intelligent, highly evolved animals in concrete pools," said John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer, who said he grew increasingly concerned about the stressful conditions the animals were living under at SeaWorld. "I don't want her to think that's how we treat the kin that we find ourselves around on this planet. I think it's atrocious."

That said: While conditions, financial models, and effectiveness vary from zoo to theme park to circus, there are still a number of good reasons to keep taking your kids to them.

1. The parks have improved

Through accreditation work done over the decades by organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, zoos and animal parks have been held to ever-evolving standards of animal welfare that reflect improving knowledge of animal habits and habitats. The number of animals stuck in concrete pits has declined over the years as more and more effort is taken to re-create – as best as is possible in captivity – the aspects of life in the wild that give animals satisfying lives. Terms like "ecological psychology" and "landscape immersion" reflect an interest in climbing beyond the very base of Maslow's hierarchy, a psychological theory of human motivation put forth by Abraham Maslow, and trying to satisfy some of the higher needs of animals and observers alike.

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