The zoo is a place that holds fond memories for many travelers - days spent as a child, gasping over the first sight of incredible wild animals up close, wandering between enclosures and learning about the creatures in them, enjoying time with family and doing something new and exciting… and even as adults (and parents), the zoo is often top of the list when it comes to doing something in a new city. However, not all zoos are created equal.
There are plenty of phenomenal zoos across the United States, places where animals are well treated and where the ticket price doesn’t just go to feeding and housing, but to conservation, education, and research. These are zoos where visitors can feel good about where their money is going, while still enjoying the chance to see wild animals up close, and share that experience with kids. Then, there are the zoos on the other end of the spectrum, where animals are treated as money spinners, not living things, and where no self-respecting ethical traveler would ever set foot. However, sometimes it can be hard to know which is which, so we’ve pulled together some of the best (and worst) zoos across the country to help you make sure that when you visit, you know that your money is going to be put to good use.
20 Visit: San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park is probably the first one that leaps to mind when thinking about ethical zoos, and with good reason. Founded in 1916,
San Diego Zoo was the first to introduce cage-less, open air enclosures that are designed to be as close as possible to the animals’ natural habitats. This zoo is also known for breeding programs, especially with the rare Giant Panda.
Three Pandas currently live at the zoo, while six others have been bred there and returned to China. San Diego Zoo is packed with educational programs as well, and is so large that the best way to really see it is to use the Skyfari, a gondola stretching over the park.
19 Skip: Oklahoma City Zoo
In 2016, Oklahoma City Zoo made headlines when they took in two Asian elephants from Seattle’s Woodland Park, after that zoo decided to close their elephant exhibit. Activists had hoped that the elephants would go to a sanctuary, but instead, they were shipped to Oklahoma, where both reportedly became ill - and one lost its life outside in the cold. Another elephant who was already in residence at the zoo then contracted a virus from the new arrivals, and sadly passed away as well. The remaining elephant survived, but reportedly, has been kept in isolation there due to issues with the other elephants, leaving this highly social creature alone, while activists petition for her move to a sanctuary.
18 Visit: Indianapolis Zoo
Another zoo with a gondola affording views over the park is Indianapolis Zoo. Also certified as an aquarium and zoological garden,
this zoo is home to 1400 animals in carefully created habitats, and is known for its conservation efforts.
The Indianapolis Zoo awards the Indianapolis Prize to animal conservationists the world over, and has a sustainability initiative as well. In addition to the conservationist credentials, Indianapolis has some incredible experiences for guests, including an opportunity to swim with dolphins and create paintings with ‘animal artistes’ (and the help of the zookeepers, of course).
17 Skip: Natural Bridge Zoo
The Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County, Virginia, is more of a roadside attraction than a zoo (despite the name), and has become infamous for its poor treatment of star attraction Asha, an African elephant.
As well as being kept in isolation as the only elephant at the facility, bullhooks, inadequate vet care, inadequate fencing, and cramped enclosures are consistently reported,
and the ‘zoo’ has been found in violation of USDA law every year for the past several years. Activists are increasingly frustrated that the Natural Bridge Zoo remains open at all, and with continuing violations, it’s likely that this one won’t last much longer.
16 Visit: Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle
Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is one of the most dedicated in the country when it comes to conservation - and is the second most award-winning zoo in that area. The zoo itself focuses on re-creating the animals’ natural habitats as closely as possible, supports various conservation programs in the wild, has conservationist breeding on site, and is constantly working to make the zoo itself as sustainable and environmentally-friendly as possible. In addition to all that, they run a large number of activities including behind-the-scenes habitat tours and craft beer tastings!
15 Skip: Pittsburgh Zoo And Conservation Center
Although this zoo has ‘Conservation Center’ baked right into the name, it certainly has a poor track record when it comes to the treatment of elephants. In 2017, a baby elephant was born here (the first in a decade), but was premature and rejected by the mother. The elephant was then put in an isolated enclosure and displayed to the public, while the usual protocol should have been to bottle feed the baby in privacy and under close observation. The zoo has been cited for using dogs to keep elephants in line (even allowing them to be bitten), and also continued to use bullhooks up until 2017, even when that meant withdrawing from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums when they banned the practise.
14 Visit: St Louis Zoo
The biggest attraction in St Louis is, without a doubt, the Gateway arch. However, the St Louis Zoo is a close second, with nearly 19,000 animals of 600 species over a 90 acre space of the Forest Park. St Louis is also well known for its conservation efforts, but there are plenty of fun activities for kids as well. From themed exhibits to the daily sea lion show and the ‘Children’s Zoo’ with animal themed play areas. And of course,
one of the best things about this zoo is that it is absolutely free
(although some attractions and events do cost extra).
13 Skip: Alligator Adventure and Barefoot Landing’s T.I.G.E.R.S. Preservation Station
Another ‘zoo’ that doesn’t live up to its positive name is the Alligator Adventure and Barefoot Landing’s T.I.G.E.R.S. Preservation Station in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Big cats are kept here in small enclosures that are not designed to mimic the natural habitats of the creatures, and are used for animal tourism, where visitors are allowed to pay, to pet and handle the big cats. The ‘Preservation Station’ has been repeatedly cited for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), failing to provide adequate medical care, large enough enclosures, and even clean water and protection from the elements.
12 Visit: Bronx Zoo
The Bronx Zoo is one of the most famous zoos in the US, and is one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the world (as well as one of the most award-winning). The perfect addition to a trip to New York, the Bronx zoo is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the naturalistic habitats are mixed in with fun adventures for the family, including a treetop adventure park and zipline, daily feeding shows, a 4D theater, a carousel, and a monorail. The zoo also puts on seasonal events and experiences, for those who want to visit more than once and experience something new each time.
11 Skip: Waccatee Zoo
Another Myrtle Beach attraction, Waccatee Zoo doesn’t even attempt to claim that they are involved in any kind of preservation or conservation efforts (although they do donate to local charities that support human causes). Instead, this is an old-school ‘zoo’ that exists purely for entertainment - even when that means citations for not providing adequate vet care or clean water. Reports suggest that many of the animals are in poor health, and Waccatee Zoo made headlines in 2015 when a chimp passed away after being kept in isolation for 25 years, and the zoo claimed that they didn’t know about the heart defect that took his life.
10 Visit: Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium
Located in Omaha, Nebraska, the Henry Doorly Zoo is famous for its huge geodesic dome. This dome is the largest in the world, and was built to house desert habitats for both plants and animals. The dome isn’t the only attraction at Henry Doorly to have the honor of being the largest in the world, either. The zoo also has the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit, ‘Kingdoms Of The Night’, the biggest cat complex in North America, and the ‘Lied Jungle’ is one of the world’s largest indoor jungles.
9 Skip: Three Bears General Store
Three Bears doesn’t even count as a zoo - as it is actually (as the name suggests) a store, but has a bear habitat where visitors can feed the bears and take photos of them. Tourists who have purchased enough ‘moonshine water’, homemade fudge and bear souvenirs can also buy ‘bear food’ (which are apparently just dog biscuits) to throw at the animals behind their fence. The Three Bears General Store has been cited by the USDA for their treatment of these animals, including not allowing them free access to their dens, but keeping them locked out during the day so that tourists can be guaranteed a show.
8 Visit: Columbus Zoo
More than 7000 animals from over 800 species call the Columbus Zoo home, including the new addition of three polar bear cubs born in 2016.
The zoo also features a 100,000 gallon coral reef tank, and some of the best primate habitats in the country (the Congo habitat).
The zoo is divided into world regions, and features a range of educational activities (including a summer camp and overnight camps) as well as some more purely recreational activities (like the Sahara Golf Club). Of course, the zoo is also heavily involved in conservation projects, and supports over seventy projects around the world.
7 Skip: Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
Another roadside attraction with a long history of violations and citations (but a positive, conservationist-sounding name) is the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida. Suncoast started life as Noell’s Ark Chimp Farm - which was shut down in 1999 for the sheer number of AWA violations. However, the space re-opened a few years later under a new name, but with few visible changes. Inappropriate enclosures, rusty cages, and keeping primates in isolation are some of the biggest issues at this so-called Sanctuary, although they also keep reptiles and birds at the facility.
6 Visit: Alaska Zoo
This Anchorage zoo is somewhat unusual, because unlike many of the biggest and best zoos in the country that feature a wide range of habitats for all kinds of animals, the Alaska Zoo focuses purely on arctic and sub-arctic creatures.
This snowy space is also a rescue for polar bears, focusing on injured and orphaned polar bear cubs - the only one of its kind in the country.
As well as focusing heavily on the conservation of arctic species, the Alaska Zoo also offers fantastic hands-on experiences, including a look at how the zookeepers work with the wolves and big cats, and Moose Madness, a moose festival in the fall.
5 Skip: Tregembo Animal Park
You may have heard of this zoo, thanks to it being named the ‘worst zoo in America’ in 1998. While management has changed since then, it seems that the conditions that the animals have been kept in hasn’t changed nearly enough. The Tregembo Animal Park (previously the Tote Em In Zoo) keeps their creatures in concrete and wire cages that are much too small, and was even sued last year for the treatment of the two bears they kept. Thankfully, after the lawsuit, the bears were moved to an appropriate sanctuary.
4 Visit: Cincinnati Zoo
This zoo (and botanical garden) is one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1875. Since then, it’s grown and expanded (although, being in the heart of the city, it doesn’t have too much room to expand!), and focuses on conservation and breeding. Cincinnati Zoo has bred multiple endangered species, including South African cheetahs, Sumatran rhinoceros, western lowland gorillas, Malayan tigers, and Masai giraffes, and was the first zoo to breed California sea lions. Cincinnati has recently welcomed another new arrival to the zoo - a baby hippo named Fiona was born here in 2017.
3 Skip: The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park
This Oklahoma zoo features a range of wild animals, but the biggest attraction by far are the big cats. The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park claims that it is a Tiger rescue, as well as a tourist attraction, but it has been in constant conflict with both PETA and the USDA. In 2006, then-owner Joe Exotic (who still works with the park) was put on probation and fined $25,000 for hundreds of AWA violations, including some connected to the death of dozens of tiger cubs within a short time span (as the park advertises photo sessions with cubs, who are separated from their mothers). More recently, PETA took the park to court over the fate of 19 tigers taken in from a Florida zoo, and the shooting of an escaped tiger by park staff.
2 Visit: Denver Zoo
While most of the best zoos in the country are involved in conservation projects (both at the zoos themselves and all around the globe), Denver goes above and beyond with support for over six hundred projects since the mid-nineties. This zoo was also the first in the country to do away with the traditional bars and cages and start creating naturalistic habitats for the animals that live here, including over 4,000 creatures from over 600 different species. The zoo also offers day and evening events and up close animal experiences that include a look behind the scenes at the various habitats.
1 Skip: Topeka Zoo Kansas
Although Topeka Zoo is involved with various conservation efforts around the globe, the Kansas zoo has also come under fire for the treatment of the elephants there. In 2017, one of their elephants, Shannon, passed away overnight - and the zoo was accused of negligence by various animal rights groups for knowing that she was sick and choosing to leave her unmonitored on the night that she passed. Only a few years earlier, the zoo was fined by the USDA for 51 willful violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including failure to provide vet care for the elephants living here.