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Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha
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The 16 best zoos in the U.S.

Get up close and personal with the beautiful beasts of the world when visiting the best zoos in the U.S.

Written by
Lauren Rothman
&
Jen Woo
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There’s nothing quite as miraculous as watching the powerful stride of a tiger, marveling at the exquisite fluff of a lion-tailed macaque’s face, or chuckling at penguins waddling along before diving into the water. A step up from armchair travels, a trip to the zoo provides the ability to learn about the various creatures that walk this planet, a range that is as diverse, wild, and beautiful as the many corners of the globe. Nowhere else can you see some of the most exotic living things all in a single place—it’s no wonder it’s a quintessentially American pastime.

True animal lovers will be happy to hear that there is a range of zoos that not only house a dizzying array of animals but also bring them in and care for them in an ethical manner, placing conservation efforts at the forefront. As these creatures are taken out of their natural habitats, it’s important to know which ensures animal welfare from protecting endangered species and reviving populations via captive breeding programs to educating visitors. Here are the best zoos across the country.

Best zoos in the U.S.

1.  Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park in Bay Lake, Florida

It only makes sense that the largest theme park in the world has an accompanying wonderland spanning 580 acres, filled with animals. Described as a zoological theme park, you can certainly see exotic creatures like Asian tigers, African lions, and western lowland gorillas, but there’s also a barrage of other experiences like a guided tour of an African savannah, a tropical jungle trek, and rides and restaurants. You can even visit the world of Pandora, in an Avatar-themed segment. Best of all, the park has helped grow its giraffe and elephant herds and transferred a white rhinoceros born there to reintroduce it to Uganda at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.

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  • Park Laurel

Renowned across the country and even around the world, San Diego’s zoo, founded in 1916, is home to over 12,000 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies. Among them are red pandas; African elephants; and bonobo apes. Check out immersive experiences such as a behind-the-scenes peek at zoo life with the “Inside Look” program, and hop on the Skyfari aerial tram to get a birds-eye view of all the zoo’s habitats and plan your next move. The zoo is recognized by the American Alliance of Museums for its work with their wildlife alliance arm, making strides in population sustainability, genetic diversity, disease, and reproductive sciences.

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  • University Place

This 55-acre park is home to more than 6,000 animals, belonging to about 900 different species, roaming a variety of habitats. Aspiring ornithologists take note: the zoo boasts one of the country’s largest collections of birds, more than 200 species divided between three exhibits. True animal lovers can even have a sleepover at the zoo, and every ticket sold helps support over 40 wildlife conservation projects across the globe. Houston Zoo even helps save native Texas species from extinction.

4. Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois

Founded in 1868, this is one of the oldest zoos in North America—the fourth to be exact. Spanning 35 acres, there’s an abundance of critters to visit, and with free admission at that. The zoo is also an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and boasts one of the largest zoo-based conservation and science programs in the United States with constant behavioral monitoring, as well as initiatives set up around the world.

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  • Clayton

Spanning 90 acres within The Gateway City’s massive Forest Park, St. Louis is home to 12,000 animals, representing 500 species. Newest to the park’s naturalistic exhibits is the primate canopy trails, a $13 million 35,000-square-foot outdoor expansion with eight outdoor homes for primates. Recognized internationally for its wildlife conservation, the zoo has two organizations: the WildCare Institute which protects animals from disease, poaching, and shrinking habitats; and the Institute for Conservation Medicine, studying infectious diseases on animals, humans, and ecosystems. Plus, admission is free.

6. Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Most beloved at the Smithsonian is their family of giant pandas: Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, though the 163 acres of D.C.’s Rock Creek Park is home to 2,700 animals, representing more than 390 species. Behind the fuzzy faces, there’s plenty of conservation work happening, extending to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, Virginia where researchers seek ways to save endangered animals from extinction.

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  • Skyland

The Mile High City’s zoo stands out among Denver’s attractions, offering a jam-packed daily schedule of fun, interactive events like encounters with the zoo’s llamas Jorge and Fernando, and diverse cultural performances. Kids will clamor for the chance to participate in the zoo’s “Bunk with the Beasts” overnight stay, which includes up-close-and-personal visits with the animals as well as a pizza dinner, snack, and breakfast. Behind the scenes, its Field Conservation and Emergency Wildlife Response teams are working away to protect species from habitat loss, human encroachment, and more.

Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE

The highlight of this western gem is its glazed geodesic dome, the largest in the world. Inside, find meticulous recreations of the southwest U.S. Sonoran Desert, southern Africa’s Namib Desert, and Australia’s Red Center Desert. The dome’s 84,000 square feet boast desert plants, sand dunes, reptile species, bobcats and rattlesnakes. “Kingdoms of the Night” makes up the lower level as the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit. Centered around conservation, the zoo also explores molecular genetics, conservation medicine, and reproductive physiology.

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Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Liberty Township, Ohio
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9. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Liberty Township, Ohio

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, frequent late-night television guest Jack Hanna drew attention to this zoo, of which he was the director. The park hosts a world-renowned 100,000-gallon coral reef aquarium teeming with tropical fish, and a Congo habitat. Kids will love the experiences including visiting reindeer and giving an elephant a bath. They also fund projects for animals (land and sea) across the world, including medical help for gorillas in Africa, coral conservation in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, and prairie habitat creation in North America.

Indianapolis Zoo in Indianapolis, Indiana
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10. Indianapolis Zoo in Indianapolis, Indiana

This Midwest zoo has one particularly special experience: the opportunity to swim with dolphins. Additionally, observe about 3,800 animals of more than 320 species. The zoo’s “Animal Art Adventures” allows visitors to create paintings with animal artists; dolphins, elephants, penguins, seals, and rhinos are among the park’s artists. They also offer monetary support via the Indianapolis Prize, as well as direct aid to animals like the endangered ring-tailed lemur and African elephant.

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  • The Bronx

Sprawled over 265 acres, New York’s beloved Bronx Zoo is one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the world. It’s renowned for its painstakingly reproduced habitats with more than 6,000 animals, of which the Congo Gorilla Forest—populated with western lowland gorillas, mandrills, and okapis—is among its most-visited. A variety of unique experiences keep it interesting including Treetop Adventure, where guests can zipline through the trees. For a low-key experience, visit the zoo’s Butterfly Garden, where over a dozen types of gorgeously painted insects flit among meadow flowers and nectar trays. The zoo also founded the Wildlife Conservation Society in an effort to save endangered species.

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  • Phinney Ridge

The recipient of 65 awards, Seattle’s Woodland Park is a wildlife conservation organization and zoological garden that strenuously recreates its animals’ natural habitats. Check out African lions, giraffes, and zebras roaming the “African savannah;” brown bears, gray wolves, and snowy owls populating the “Northwest Trail;” and red pandas and Kunekune pigs in the “Temperate Forest.” Unique experiences offered by the zoo include Brew at the Zoo craft beer and cider tastings and behind-the-scenes tours with proceeds benefiting the zoo’s conservation efforts.

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Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, CA
Photograph: Wollertz / Shutterstock.com

13. Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, CA

Check out more than 1,400 specialized species at this desert-themed zoo, where giraffes, gazelles, cheetahs, and camels roam the sands. Plant lovers will appreciate the premise’s incredible variety of flora, spanning from native Coachella Valley species such as creosote, desert lavender, and white sage to the Madagascar Garden’s baobabs, triangle palms, and elephant trees. The nonprofit also collaborates with conservation organizations across the globe in initiatives like preserving and restoring a section of the Colorado Desert and building insurance populations of endangered desert animals and plants.

14. Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, AK

We might not have much time left to view arctic animals in their natural climate, which makes this small Anchorage zoo a standout among the country’s parks. Populated by animals who have evolved to thrive in frigid conditions—think snow leopards, Canadian lynx, reindeer, and muskoxen—the zoo is a snowy wonderland that also serves as a rescue facility for injured, abandoned, or orphaned animals including moose calves and black bear cubs. Expect to be offered a number of unique hands-on visitor experiences, including “Animal Encounters” with the park’s wolves or its big cats, where you can participate in making diets, providing enrichment, cleaning, and training alongside the animals' zookeeper.

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Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, IL
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15. Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, IL

The Chicago area’s Brookfield Zoo boasts the country’s most diverse collection of tropical wildlife. The zoo’s insulated, all-weather Tropical World exhibit is a wonder, teeming with fascinating species of whom its primates are the stars. Hailing from three continents, the group includes spider monkeys and tamarins from South America; gibbons and orangutans from Asia; and colobus monkeys and lowland gorillas from Africa. Don’t leave the zoo without visiting the Penguin Encounter room, where you can mingle with adorable Humboldt penguins. Conservation efforts include educational programs as well as dedicated initiatives and partnerships with other accredited zoos, universities, and conservation groups to support conservation research and programs around the world.

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  • Miami

This 750-acre zoo with more than 100 exhibits has 3,000 animals on site, many of them tropical species well-suited to Florida’s balmy climate. Observe creatures such as Malayan sun bears, Asian elephants, clouded leopards, komodo dragons, and more. The zoo’s air-conditioned monorail is a great way to cover distance at the park, making four stops at the different habitats. For a truly unforgettable experience, visitors can feed the zoo’s enormous Indian rhino, or other animals like giraffes, camels, and parrots. The zoo also maintains a range of flagship programs, grants, and scholarships, and awards specifically for conservation.

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