Animal welfare concerns have plagued the professional zoo and aquarium field for decades. Societal differences remain concerning the well-being of animals, but it appears a shift is emerging. Scientific studies of animal welfare have dramatically increased, establishing that many previous concerns were not misguided public empathy or anthropomorphism. As a result, both zoo and aquarium animal welfare policy and science are now at the center of attention within the world's professional zoos and aquariums. It is now possible to view a future that embraces the well-being of individual captive exotic animals, as well as that of their species, and one in which professional zoos and aquariums are dedicated equally to advancing both. Though the ethics of keeping exotic animals and animals from the wild in captivity are still a contentious subject both outside and even within the profession, this study argues. We argue that this path forward will substantially improve most zoo and aquarium animals' welfare and could significantly reduce societal concerns. If animal welfare science and policy are strongly rooted in compassion and embedded in robust accreditation systems, the basic zoo/aquarium paradigm will move toward a more thoughtful approach to the interface between visitors and animals. It starts with a fundamental commitment to the welfare of individual animals.