See which domestic wildlife havens offer safe habitats for critters and fun experiences for visitors.
With about 470 zoological facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, America offers a wide range of animal-focused attractions for you to choose from. Though the notion of keeping animals in captivity for the benefit of human spectators is controversial, many U.S. zoos are accredited by independent organizations and have shown a commitment to animal conservation. So, whether you want to pet wallabies, feed giraffes from a safari vehicle or help rehabilitate polar bears, you’ll find plenty of ways to interact with animals at these 30 must-visit zoos.
Oakland Zoo: Oakland, California
In 1991, the Oakland Zoo developed the “protected contact” method of separating zookeepers and elephants that is now used at zoos around the world to keep animals happier. The Oakland Zoo’s 700-plus native and exotic animals — many of which are rescues — live in large, naturalistic habitats less than 20 miles east of downtown San Francisco. Ride the facility’s gondola up to the California Trail, an impressive habitat for animals indigenous to California that features play areas, a cafe with jaw-dropping panoramas and a campground for overnight stays with grizzly bears.
Zoo Miami: Miami
The only subtropical zoo in the continental U.S., the nearly 750-acre Zoo Miami resides in warm, humid Miami, where unusual Asian, Australian and African animals (think: tree kangaroos, Komodo dragons and more than 40 endangered species) can feel right at home in open-air exhibits. Visitors can cool off on a river ride through sprinklers (for $5 per person) or in free water play and misting areas. For a unique souvenir, buy a bucket of Zoo Doo (composted animal and plant waste) to add an exotic touch to your home garden.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute: District of Columbia
The admission-free National Zoo — which sits 2 miles northwest of downtown Washington, D.C., in beautiful Rock Creek Park — was founded in 1889 by former President Grover Cleveland. Today, it’s best known for its giant pandas that China gifted the U.S. in 1972. The outdoor and indoor giant panda habitat for Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Bei Bei opened a new exhibit with interactive features and multimedia learning stations about panda biology and conservation initiatives in February 2019. Plus, visitors can listen to daily talks from zookeepers about giant pandas and other species like elephants, lions and gorillas.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS/Jacquelyn Martin)
Fort Worth Zoo: Fort Worth, Texas
Texas is home to several top zoos, including the Fort Worth Zoo, which has educated visitors since 1909. In addition to being the only zoo in the country where travelers can see animals from all four great ape species, Fort Worth‘s wildlife habitat offers the reptile- and amphibian-filled Museum of Living Art. What’s more, the zoo features the Texas Wild! Petting Corral, a carousel and a laser target shooting gallery, among other facilities. Special events include group overnight stays and a kids sleepover on New Year’s Eve. To save some coin, visit on a Wednesday when ticket prices are cut in half.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo: Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has evolved from philanthropist Spencer Penrose’s private exotic animal collection into a noted educational facility. At this Colorado Springs animal park, travelers can check out one-of-a-kind artifacts like the engine of the Mountaineer Train that once brought guests of The Broadmoor to and from the zoo. There’s also a chairlift ride to help visitors get around the hilly property. While exploring the exhibits that house the zoo’s 170 species, be sure to pet the wallabies, greet the orangutans and feed lettuce to the friendly giraffes.
(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Kristen Koehler)
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park: San Diego
The world-famous San Diego Zoo and its 3,500-plus rare and endangered animals are supported by more than 250,000 member households. Weekends are especially crowded, so the best way to see this can’t-miss attraction is to splurge on a premium zoo experience, such as an early morning breakfast with pandas followed by a property tour. The activity costs at least $109 per person. Or, you can skip the main property and head to the 1,800-acre San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which sits about 30 miles northeast of downtown San Diego near Escondido. Ride the park’s Africa Tram and get up close to wallabies in the Walkabout Australia area.
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Bronx Zoo: New York
With more than 700 species roaming 265 acres, the Bronx Zoo in New York City is the largest urban zoo in the U.S. Since it’s hard to see the entire property in one day, prioritize must-see attractions like the Congo Gorilla Forest during your visit. The glass-enclosed rainforest habitat brings you face to face with chest-thumping western lowland gorillas and other African animals. Don’t forget to visit Tiger Mountain’s Siberian tigers, the Madagascar! exhibit’s lemurs and the Zoo Center’s Komodo dragons, as well. Save money by going on a Wednesday (when the entrance fee is any amount you wish to donate), bringing food and buying a Metro-North Railroad Getaway Package.
Brevard Zoo: Melbourne, Florida
The Brevard Zoo, which sits roughly 60 miles southeast of Orlando‘s theme parks and about 35 miles southwest of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, offers fun and delightfully educational activities in a manageable setting. Families can take advantage of free facilities like a lagoon and an aquarium or pay for special experiences like train rides, zip lining and giraffe feedings. For a unique zoo adventure, join a guided kayak tour to see Expedition Africa’s rhinos and lemurs from the water. Keep in mind, children must be at least 5 years old to participate in this outing, which costs $9.95 per person.
Saint Louis Zoo: St. Louis
A favorite attraction in St. Louis’ Forest Park is the free Saint Louis Zoo, which was voted one of the world’s top 10 zoos in 2018 by TripAdvisor readers. The animal park shows off 655 animal species in appealing natural habitats, and its conservation efforts usually produce several new additions every spring. The year-round facility features exhibits with red pandas, primates, hippos, penguins and more, plus a 4D movie theater, a carousel and a railroad, among other amenities. Don’t miss the zoo’s annual Halloween and holiday lights exhibits.
Dallas Zoo: Dallas
Inside the Dallas Zoo, visitors will find more than 2,000 animals across approximately 400 species. The zoo’s naturalistic habitats range from an African savanna to rainforests for South American creatures to a sand-floored barn where zookeepers bury food and toys for elephants. Board the monorail for a guided Wilds of Africa Adventure Safari past a waterfall and five exhibits that are not otherwise accessible. Or, participate in an evening Family Safari Night Hike, which is available on select days and costs $20 per person for visitors ages 5 and older.
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Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium: Omaha, Nebraska
Considered one of the top 10 zoos around the world in 2018 (according to TripAdvisor readers), Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo knows how to engage visitors. Stand in a protective bubble in Hubbard Gorilla Valley while gorillas roam around you. Explore the Omaha property’s aquarium, where marine life is viewable from a 70-foot shark tunnel. Cross America’s largest indoor rainforest on a swaying rope bridge. And when you need to rest your feet, climb aboard the zoo’s steam-powered train, carousel or Skyfari, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the 160-acre park.
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Busch Gardens Tampa Bay: Tampa, Florida
For 60 years, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has grown from a brewery and bird park to a major fixture encompassing thrill rides, live shows, animal exhibits and expert veterinary care. At this Tampa attraction, travelers have access to an array of animal encounters, including the 30-minute Serengeti Safari, which allows visitors 5 and older to hand-feed giraffes from open-air vehicles. Fans of “The Wildlife Docs” series on The CW won’t want to miss the 45-minute Animal Care Center walking tour. This $29 per person experience includes watching park animals receive wellness exams and interacting with the zoo’s veterinarians.
The Wilds, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium: Cumberland, Ohio
The Wilds was founded in 1984 when the Central Ohio Coal Company gifted nearly 10,000 acres of surface-mined land to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Zookeeper and TV host Jack Hanna helped develop the plot of land roughly 75 miles southeast of downtown Columbus into a large educational preserve that complements the main zoo. For a thrilling twist to wildlife viewing, book a horseback or zip line safari. Adults can prolong their stays by reserving private yurts at the Nomad Ridge camp, where binoculars are available to watch passing animals like rhinos and red-tailed hawks. The adults-only camp is open seasonally from May through October.
(AP/Grahm S. Jones)
Audubon Zoo: New Orleans
One of 10 Audubon Nature Institute venues, the Audubon Zoo houses various animals in unconventional natural habitats. In the Louisiana Swamp exhibit, visitors will learn how Cajuns used Native American conservation techniques to create a unique culture and cuisine in a swampy environment. The petting zoo gives little ones the chance to interact with zebus (miniature cows) and giant Aldabra tortoises in an African farm setting, while the five-story treehouse at Monkey Hill ( New Orleans‘ tallest point) is a great place to burn off some energy. Between May and September, save time for a dip at the Cool Zoo splash park.
Bear Country USA: Rapid City, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore visitors put Bear Country USA (a drive-thru wildlife park) on the tourist map. While exploring this Rapid City attraction from late April through November, you may encounter black bears crossing the road and mountain lions, buffaloes, elk and reindeer roaming in fields. It’s slow going during the 3-mile drive, so clean your windshield and be prepared to pull over to take pictures. Before leaving, stretch your legs in the Wildlife Walk area, which features a gift shop and is lined with educational exhibits about foxes, skunks and other small mammals.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens: Palm Desert, California
A top attraction near Palm Springs for almost 50 years, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens celebrates flora and fauna found in the desert. Native California desert plants line well-marked hiking trails that overlook Eisenhower Peak and the Coachella Valley, while African baobabs, triangle palms and elephant trees grow in the Madagascar Garden. Animals that thrive in the harsh environment range from coyotes to jaguars to giraffes. The zoo also offers educational camel rides, reptile encounters and an endangered species-themed carousel, though some amenities and activities are only available during select months.
Philadelphia Zoo: Philadelphia
America’s oldest zoo regularly charms families with its indoor treehouse playground and its exceptional KidZooU, a children’s zoo and education center that provides fun and learning for all ages. Plus, the Philadelphia Zoo is home to the Zoo360 exploration trail system, which gives animals more space to roam and is the first of its kind in the world. Big Cat Crossing, one of five Zoo360 trails, features an overhead mesh bridge for lions, pumas, jaguars and more. There are also Zoo360 trails that connect outdoor yards to primate exhibits like the Rare Animal Conservation Center and the PECO Primate Reserve.
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Lion Country Safari: Loxahatchee, Florida
Lion Country Safari is the only park in Florida where you can see more than 1,000 animals from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. During the 4-mile-long drive, you may spot creatures from six continents, including ostriches, lions, zebras and rhinos. Standard admission costs $28 to $37 per person and includes entry to the walk-through Safari World amusement park, with animal presentations, bird and giraffe feedings, a petting zoo, a water playground and more. And if you don’t feel like trekking 21 miles east to a hotel in central West Palm Beach, you can pitch a tent at the on-site KOA campground.
(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Nick Shillan)
Woodland Park Zoo: Seattle
Attracting millennials and young families from Seattle‘s tech corridor, the Woodland Park Zoo offers annual Brew at the Zoo beer tastings, immersive behind-the-scenes tours and the WildLights holiday lights exhibit, all of which raise funds for animal conservation projects. The zoo is organized by bioclimatic zones. Designated areas include an Alaska-inspired region with everything from brown bears to porcupines, a water-filled habitat for Peruvian penguins and a tropical rainforest where jaguars live alongside frogs and birds. Throughout all of the exhibits, travelers will find more than 1,100 animals belonging to 300 species.
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Safari West: Santa Rosa, California
Although best known for its wines, Santa Rosa is a must-visit locale for animal lovers. At the city’s Safari West nature preserve, which sits less than 28 miles northwest of Sonoma, visitors can get an up-close look at nearly 1,000 animals from 90-plus species. For the best wildlife viewing, arrive early to snag a rooftop seat during a three-hour guided safari tour. Travelers can even book an authentic fixed canvas tent for an overnight stay in the park. Those who choose this experience can expect starry skies, wild animal cries and, of course, wine tastings.
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Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Tucson, Arizona
Knowledgeable staff and docents make the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — a multipurpose complex featuring a zoo, a botanical garden, a natural history museum, an aquarium and an art gallery — an educational must-see. The nearly 100-acre Tucson facility uses invisible fencing in animal habitats, including those for endangered species like Mexican gray wolves and thick-billed parrots. What’s more, the property features 2 miles of walking trails and 56,000 plants. Don’t miss the seasonal Raptor Free Flight demonstration and the hummingbird aviary. Also take advantage of the on-site restrooms’ complimentary sunscreen, since the facility is 85 percent outdoors.
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Indianapolis Zoo: Indianapolis
Swim with dolphins, touch sharks and more at the Indianapolis Zoo. At this wildlife park in downtown Indianapolis, visitors can interact with approximately 1,400 animals while exploring the gardenlike setting and attending a number of special events. Such activities include Animal Art Adventures, where elephants, penguins and other animals paint original works of art. Can’t-miss exhibits include Oceans (an aquatic area with an underwater dolphin-viewing dome) and the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. The latter is world-renowned for its studies in orangutan vocalization with Rocky, one of 11 orangutans in the center’s care.
The Alaska Zoo: Anchorage, Alaska
As an Arctic Ambassador Center (a facility that strives to educate visitors about climate change, according to Polar Bears International), the nonprofit Alaska Zoo promotes polar bear conservation. For 50 years, the zoo — which is the only one in the state — has rescued an array of abandoned and injured wild animals. Travelers can watch native Alaskan creatures like rare snow leopards, moose and other Arctic species roam the wooded, hilly landscape of Anchorage. The zoo also offers hands-on programs that allow visitors to work with zookeepers on daily chores, such as preparing animal meals.
Brookfield Zoo: Brookfield, Illinois
The Brookfield Zoo is accessible by public transit from downtown Chicago, yet it feels a world away. On a chilly Midwestern day, visitors can stay warm while observing otters, monkeys and more in the zoo’s Tropical World area. Travelers can also head to the Living Coast exhibit to check out aquatic animals like sharks and Humboldt penguins. The facility hosts a penguin experience that includes an introductory talk with zookeepers and a penguin encounter. As part of the nonprofit Chicago Zoological Society, the zoo uses a portion of entrance fees to support various global conservation projects, including youth leadership training in Botswana and dolphin tagging in Brazil.
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Memphis Zoo: Memphis, Tennessee
Overton Park in Memphis’ Midtown neighborhood is home to the Memphis Zoo, a 70-acre property that features naturalistic habitats with primates, big cats, giant pandas, hippos and many other animals. Go early in the day for the best viewing, or plan on attending a special event. The zoo’s busy social calendar includes various conservation fundraisers, such as Pints for Pangolins, Wine for Rhinos and Beers for Bears. For a family-friendly option, opt for the Breakfast with the Keepers event, a breakfast with zookeepers that features talks and enrichment activities with orangutans and gorillas.
Denver Zoo: Denver
The Denver Zoo started after a black bear was gifted to Denver‘s mayor — an act that many modern conservationists wouldn’t support. But by 1918, the property transformed to become the first institution with naturalistic habitats designed to promote animal welfare. Today, the original Bear Mountain area continues to be a crowd favorite. Another must-visit exhibit is The Edge, where you can see Amur tigers walking across overhead bridges and from a viewing area with a perforated wall. To supplement your visit, sign up for an animal encounter with hippos, flamingos or giraffes, among other species. Or, bring the kids for an overnight stay between June and September.
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Cincinnati
Open in Cincinnati‘s Avondale neighborhood since 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo uses the latest techniques to engage visitors with its nearly 2,000 animals. Check out the animal footprints on each pathway and guess which animals can be seen next, or ride the colorful Safari Train past various habitats. The latter is one of the zoo’s most popular attractions, so be sure to arrive early to avoid long wait times. Favorite activities include Penguin Parades (events on select days below 50 degrees where you can follow king penguins to the Wings of the World birdhouse), as well as the Cheetah Encounter and the Blakely’s Barnyard Bonanza show in the children’s zoo.
Out of Africa Wildlife Park: Camp Verde, Arizona
The safari-inspired Out of Africa Wildlife Park sits about 30 miles southwest of Sedona on 104 acres. Founders Dean and Prayeri Harrison created the private animal park as a way to bring “God, people and animals together in a natural setting.” Visitors can use an animal map to navigate the park’s dirt roads on foot or ride the complimentary shuttle, which stops in four areas. Family-friendly activities range from the Tiger Splash show to hand-feeding giraffes to sloth encounters. Purchase the Expedition Passport to enjoy an upgraded safari ride closer to the animals, plus a tiger feeding and access to all daily animal shows.
Virginia Zoo: Norfolk, Virginia
At the Virginia Zoo, travelers can see tigers, wallabies, red pandas, giraffes and more while strolling through manicured gardens or riding the Zoo Train (which costs $2 per person). On hotter weekends, little ones can play in the zoo’s fountains. There’s also the Animal Wellness Campus, a year-round facility where visitors can learn about veterinary medicine and animal nutrition, exercise and hygiene. Watch zookeepers prepare special diets, get an up-close look at various critters (during select months) or explore the Enrichment Playground, which is filled with toys similar to those used by the property’s animals.
Houston Zoo: Houston
The Houston Zoo boasts more than 6,000 inhabitants, including one of the largest bird collections in the country. When you’re not admiring the zoo’s array of birds, watch elephants cool off in the McNair Elephant Habitat Area’s pools or offer giraffes a snack at the Giraffe Feeding Platform. Visit during Houston‘s mild fall or winter months, when the zoo’s animals are more active and the park is less crowded. You’ll find the action-packed Hermann Memorial Park, where the zoo resides, easy to reach by METRORail’s Red Line from downtown Houston.
(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Maxine Weiss)