A while ago, when I was in crazy dissertating/teaching land and thus neglecting the poor little blog, Michelle had some great posts about zoos and their goals. She asked me what I thought of this, and I wanted to take time to think of an answer and do some more reading before writing a well-crafted and thought out post.
I am never going to find that time. So here is my off the cuff answer: I am skeptical of the ability of zoos to meet their goals of educating visitors to care about conservation of wild animals and to genetically maintain populations for later reintroduction. For the education part, I have a suspicion that sometimes zoos teach people animals belong in captivity for the visitors' enjoyment. I suspect this due to the number of people I have seen at zoos demanding the attention of an animal, or complaining when the animals are not in good view. I also suspect this after being in various national parks with people viewing wild animals, and hearing the people complain that the animals are too far away or not easy to see. I was at one park and heard a woman demand her money back because she did not see a monkey. She did not seem to understand that the animals were wild, and not on display for her enjoyment. So, that is a concern of mine regarding zoos.
As for the preservation of species on the chance they can be reintroduced, I am again skeptical. I am not sure what benefit animals of a species gain by being maintained in captivity when there is no habitat for them to go back to. Also, I have not yet been convinced of the success of any reintroduction program. Many times the animals are reintroduced into a habitat that still has the same problems that led to the endangerment of the animals in the first place.
So there you are. I am skeptical. But I understand that all my evidence is personal and anecdotal, and I would like to see more research into reintroduction programs (I know of some mom and pop operations that reintroduce ex-pets on a small scale, but do not follow up) and into how zoo visits affect people's views of animals and conservation. This research could definitely help convince me one way or the other, and also help us decide where to best put our resources for conservation and preservation of species.