Cristina is a Florida native and Realtor by trade. She enjoys writing about travel, real estate, and several other interesting topics.
Best Zoos in the US
For many people, zoos represent a fun summer activity. Visiting a zoo is something most of us have done, but visiting one of the best zoos in the United States becomes an experience not soon forgotten. The best zoos in America open our eyes to the diversity and conservation of animals all over the world. Many facilities now support conservation programs locally and globally and strive to educate visitors about the animals in their care.
The best US zoos accomplish these missions while also elevating animal welfare. They employ top-notch staff and experts and have state-of-the-art facilities. In this article, we will briefly explore the 31 top zoos in the United States (in no particular order), including information about size, location, and what they’re known for.
Why Are Zoos Important?
Each zoo has something that makes it unique, but are zoos really still something we should support?
Not too long ago, many zoos exploited animals and kept them in tiny cages, forcing them to live solely for the purpose of attracting paying guests. The small size of these zoos and cages meant the animals suffered from squalid conditions and lived in ways they were never meant to live.
While some opponents of zoos believe they should all be closed, today’s zoos hold an important place in education and conservation. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), modern-day zoos hold a high standard for education, research, animal welfare, and conservation. In Why Zoos and Aquariums are Beneficial, AZA contends that “In 2019, AZA and its members spent more than $230 million on field conservation work in 127 countries, focusing on population biology and monitoring, reintroduction, conservation education, and more.”
Dr. James Borell, a conservation scientist, also points out that zoos play a large part in animal conservation by reintroducing extinct or endangered species to the wild, acting as living museums, and setting up “insurance” populations at their facilities.
There are many zoos in the United States. These 31, however, are considered the best because of their excellent animal welfare record, history of education, and top-notch facilities. The next time you’re traveling near one of these zoos, add it to your plans and help their conservation and education efforts.
1. Henry Doorly Zoo
- Size: 160 acres
- Location: Omaha, Nebraska
- # of Animals: 17,000
Consistently ranked as one of the top five zoos in the world, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska features several exhibits, including the Desert Dome, the largest indoor desert in the world. Henry Doorly Zoo is also home to North America’s largest indoor rainforest, and the largest aquarium in a zoo.
2. St. Louis Zoo
- Size: 89 acres
- Location: St. Louis, Missouri
- # of Animals: 12,000
The St. Louis Zoo is known as “America’s top free attraction” because it is one of the few free zoos in the country. That’s right; no admission fees!
This zoo is also one of the oldest in the United States, first opened in 1910. It is also recognized worldwide for its innovative approaches to animal care and management, conservation, and education.
3. Cincinnati Zoo
- Size: 74 acres
- Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
- # of Animals: 1,896
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Officially known as The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, this top American zoo opened in 1875 and is the second-oldest zoo in the country. You might, however, better know Cincinnati Zoo for its famous resident, Fiona the hippo.
Besides the 74-acre facility, the zoo also operates Mast Farm, a nearby 107-acre breeding facility. In 2021, The Cincinnati Zoo was named USA Today’s 10Best Reader’s Choice Best Zoo.
4. San Diego Zoo
- Size: 100 acres
- Location: San Diego, California
- # of Animals: 15,000
The San Diego Zoo is part of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which also includes the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The zoo is often ranked as one of the best in the United States and has been a leader in animal care and conservation for more than a century.
This facility was one of the first in the country to create natural habitats for the animals, in which the animals and public are separated by large moats and vegetation rather than by fences.
5. Denver Zoo
- Size: 84 acres
- Location: Denver, Colorado
- # of Animals: 3,000
Opened in 1896, Denver Zoo is perhaps best known for its award-winning outreach and education programs which spark curiosity among Denver’s residents. The animals at the zoo are thought of as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild.
Denver Zoo also has global Field Conservation and Emergency Response teams that deploy around the world to aid in the rescue and conservation of endangered and threatened animals.
6. Brookfield Zoo
- Size: 213 acres
- Location: Chicago, Illinois
- # of Animals: 2,300
Brookfield Zoo in Chicago invites guests to experience 20 different exhibits themed around location as well as animal type. For instance, the zoo has exhibits with Australian, African, and tropical animals as well as exhibits specifically showcasing hoofed animals, pachyderms, and big cats.
Brookfield also has an Animal Ambassador program, which is a first of its kind in Chicagoland. This program allows visitors to interact with and learn about animals close-up through demonstrations and pop-up events.
7. Columbus Zoo
- Size: 580 acres
- Location: Powell, Ohio
- # of Animals: 10,000
If you’ve seen Secrets of the Zoo on Nat Geo, you’ve probably seen some of the behind-the-scenes of Columbus Zoo and its conservation park, The Wilds, which is 90 miles away.
Opened in the 1920s, Columbus Zoo is often cited as one of the best zoos in the United States; rides, attractions, summer camps, animal encounters, and exhibits based on each of the world’s continents make it a must-visit. And when you’ve exhausted your need to see animals, check out Zoombezi, the water park, as well as Safari Golf.
8. Bronx Zoo
- Size: 265 acres
- Location: Bronx, New York
- # of Animals: 6,500
Bronx Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, opening in 1899. It is also one of the biggest zoos in the country and is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States by area. The first modern zoo animal hospital was established here in 1916 as well.
With its location in a densely-populated metro area, Bronx Zoo provides a nature break for city dwellers.
9. Houston Zoo
- Size: 55 acres
- Location: Houston, Texas
- # of Animals: 6,000
Houston Zoo may be one of the smallest in the country, especially among those considered the best in the United States, but it is the second-most-visited zoo in the country. It supports 49 conservation projects in 27 countries, helping to protect the wild counterparts of those animals which call Houston Zoo home.
10. National Zoo
- Size: 163 acres
- Location: Washington, DC
- # of Animals: 2,000
One of America’s oldest zoos, the National Zoo might be best known for the giant pandas which call it home, as well as their successful breeding program. Besides panda fame, the National Zoo has been instrumental in the captive breeding of many endangered species which has led to many of these animals being reintroduced to the wild.
Research conducted by the zoo or in partnership with other facilities and scientists has also led to breakthrough medical discoveries for elephants and amphibians as well as the first instances of growing anemones in an aquarium. National Zoo is also one of the only zoos in the US which is free to visit.
11. Philadelphia Zoo
- Size: 42 acres
- Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- # of Animals: 1,300
Philadelphia Zoo was the first real zoo in the United States, chartered in 1859 and opened in 1874 (delayed by the Civil War). Though small, it houses wonderful exhibits centered around African animals, Australian animals, rare animals, birds, primates, and big cats.
One of the most unique aspects of the zoo is the animal bridges which pass over walkways and allow animals to move between enclosures as well as observe the people walking around below them.
12. Audubon Zoo
- Size: 58 acres
- Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
- # of Animals: 2,000
Consistently ranked one of the top zoos in the United States and one of the best things to do in New Orleans, Audubon Zoo seeks to care for animals from around the globe as well as educate visitors through hands-on animal encounters, daily presentations, chats, and feeds.
Perhaps the most unique exhibit at the zoo, the award-winning Louisiana Swamp showcases Cajun culture and history, local wildlife and plants, and the delicate balance between the people and animals of the Louisiana swamp.
- Size: 750 acres
- Location: Miami, Florida
- # of Animals: 3,000
ZooMiami, the largest zoo in Florida and fifth-largest zoo in the United States, is widely considered one of the best zoos in Florida. It is the country’s only sub-tropical zoo making it an important facility for breeding tropical and subtropical endangered species.
One of this zoo’s unique aspects is that animals are grouped according to their native geographical locations with animals that co-exist peacefully in the wild living together in their exhibits. The trees, plants, and soil used in each habit mimic that found in the wild to create remarkably natural habitats. Visitors and animals are separated by wide moats and foliage rather than cages and fences.
14. Woodland Park Zoo
- Size: 92 acres
- Location: Seattle, Washington
- # of Animals: 2,000
This zoo in Seattle has received more than 60 awards and is one of the most visited zoos in the country. Woodland Park Zoo is home to The Living Northwest Trail, a part of the zoo that explores the relationship between people and the animals which call the Pacific Northwest home, including river otters, gray wolves, and grizzly bears.
15. Dallas Zoo
- Size: 106 acres
- Location: Dallas, Texas
- # of Animals: 2,000
Dallas Zoo is the largest and oldest zoo in Texas. Here, visitors can explore a wing devoted to Africa including Giants of the Savanna and Wilds of Africa. On the other side of the zoo, visitors can view tigers, see primates, and learn all about bugs at Bug U. The Children’s Zoo is a favorite for youngsters.
16. Memphis Zoo
- Size: 76 acres
- Location: Memphis, Tennessee
- # of Animals: 3,500
Memphis Zoo often ranks as one of the Top 10 zoos in the United States as well as a top attraction in Memphis. Regular attractions include big cats, primates, birds, and a special China exhibit. In addition, the Memphis Zoo also has seasonal exhibits, such as Kangazoo, Stingray Cove, and Flock Together.
17. Oakland Zoo
- Size: 100 acres
- Location: Oakland, California
- # of Animals: 850
Opened in 1922, Oakland Zoo features the California Trail, a new section of the zoo that guests access via aerial gondola. The Trail introduces native California animals. Visitors encounter black bears, bison, California condors, eagles, gray wolves, grizzly bears, jaguars and mountain lions. The California Trail also includes California Kids’ Zone, a half-acre part where kids and their families learn about California habitats and animals.
Oakland Zoo is also known for its innovative elephant care program as well as its veterinary hospital. The 17,000 square foot Leeds-certified hospital is state-of-the-art and the largest veterinary hospital in California.
18. Brevard Zoo
- Size: 50 acres
- Location: Melbourne, Florida
- # of Animals: 900
What happens when 16,000 volunteers donate their time and talents to a zoological organization? In the early 1990s, this is exactly what happened in Melbourne, Florida. The result is Brevard Zoo, the largest community-built zoo in the world. It’s also the only zoo in Florida where you can go kayaking.
Unique attractions at this zoo include Treetop Trek, a zipline course from which visitors get an exceptional view of the zoo; kayaking through the Africa exhibit; and the Sea Turtle Healing Center.
Of course, this American zoo also includes all the normal animals one would expect, plus an entire loop dedicated to native Florida animals.
19. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
- Size: 140 acres
- Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado
- # of Animals: 750
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo holds the distinction of being the highest zoo in the United States. Of its 140 acres, only 40 acres are used. USA Today ranked it the #4 best zoo in the United States in 2018.
This American zoo is perhaps best known for its giraffe herd. More than 200 giraffes have been born at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo since 1954. In addition, the zoo participates in more than 30 species survival programs and breeds endangered species such as the black-footed ferret and Mexican tapir.
Visitors can enjoy a number of exhibits as well as the carousel, Mountaineer Sky Ride, and admission to Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun.
20. Fort Worth Zoo
- Size: 64 acres
- Location: Fort Worth, Texas
- # of Animals: 7,000
Fort Worth Zoo has been ranked as one of the best American zoos by USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Family Life, and Southern Living. Opened in 1909, the zoo now features 12 main exhibits, including Texas Wild. This exhibit displays animals native to Texas. The exhibit is split into four sections representing different parts of Texas. Zoo guests can see animals such as bobcats, roadrunners, coyotes, birds of prey, and various reptiles.
21. Living Desert Zoo
- Size: 1,200 acres
- Location: Palm Desert, California
- # of Animals: 500
Though Living Desert Zoo and Gardens encompasses 1,200 acres, only 80 acres are developed for zoo exhibits. The rest of the land remains in a pristine, undeveloped condition.
Its desert climate makes this zoo unique for its ability to breed endangered desert animals and participate in the reintroduction of those animals to their native desert lands around the world, such as the Arabian oryx to Oman.
Living Desert Zoo is dedicated solely to desert species and strives to educate about and conserve desert species of plants and animals.
22. Lincoln Park Zoo
- Size: 35 acres
- Location: Chicago, Illinois
- # of Animals: 1,100
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the smallest zoos on this list, and it is the 4th oldest zoo in the United States, opening in 1868. One of the best features is that it’s a free admission facility, one of only a few in the US.
Seventeen exhibits display more than 1,000 animals of more than 200 species. Recently, Lincoln Park Zoo has partnered with the Adler Planetarium to find and film wildlife around the Chicago area. Motion cameras placed throughout the area capture wildlife, and the public has been asked to help identify the wildlife via an interactive website called Zooniverse.
23. Alaska Zoo
- Size: 25 acres
- Location: Anchorage, Alaska
- # of Animals: 100
As you might expect, Alaska Zoo is the northernmost zoo in the United States. It is also the only zoo in Alaska. This facility mostly displays species native to Alaska, many of them found orphaned or injured and unable to return to the wild. The zoo also displays a few exotic animals, such as yaks and Amur tigers.
24. Indianapolis Zoo
- Size: 64 acres
- Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
- # of Animals: 3,800
Indianapolis Zoo is the first facility to be triple-accredited as a zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden. It is also one of the only zoos located in a state park. Despite its location, it is a private, not-for-profit institution and is supported entirely by admissions, grants, and fundraisers.
Besides animal exhibits, visitors can enjoy the carousel, Skyline, playground, and a train ride. Most notably in its conservation efforts, Indianapolis Zoo presents every two years the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation.
25. Pittsburgh Zoo
- Size: 77 acres
- Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- # of Animals: 4,000
Pittsburgh Zoo is one of only six major aquarium and zoo combinations in the United States. It is separated into eight sections, each with a different theme. Themes range from tropical forest to Asian forest to marine animals.
As a top zoo in the United States, it isn’t a surprise that this one has several successful breeding programs. In 1999, one of its elephants gave birth, the first successful birth in North America since 1982. That was also the first African elephant birth to a captive-born elephant in North America. Additionally, Pittsburgh Zoo has successfully bred Amur tigers, painted dogs, beavers, river otters, and sea lions.
26. Oklahoma City Zoo
- Size: 119 acres
- Location: Oklahoma City
- # of Animals: 1,900
Oklahoma City Zoo features exhibits spanning the globe, including primates, big cats, and animals indigenous to several different islands. All exhibits include native plantings to create more authentic habitats for the animals which call the zoo home.
One of the more unique exhibits is Oklahoma Trails, a 7.7-acre exhibit that displays animals native to Oklahoma such as black bears, bison, beavers, and bats. The zoo was home to Malee, an Asian elephant born at the zoo and which had birthday parties every year.
27. Bear Country USA
- Size: 250 acres
- Location: Rapid City, South Dakota
- # of Animals: 20+ species
Bear Country USA is a drive-through wildlife park which is home to the largest number of privately-owned black bears in the country. More than 20 species of animals free-roam 250 acres of natural habitats. Displaying native species to the United States, Bear Country USA includes animals such as black bears, bighorn sheep, arctic and timber wolves, reindeer, elk, mountain goats, and beavers.
While the large animals utilize the large habitats, smaller animals and those under a year old live in Babyland, an exhibit through which visitors can walk for a more intimate and close-up experience.
28. Lion Country Safari
- Size: 600 acres
- Location: Loxahatchee, Florida
- # of Animals: 1,000
Another drive-through wildlife park, Lion Country Safari often ranks as one of the best zoos in the country. In 2009, it was rated 3rd best zoo in the United States by USA Travel Guide. The most unique feature of this Florida zoo is its four miles of driveable exhibits.
Visitors enter the park in their own car and drive the safari road slowly. Most of the animals roam freely throughout the park, though the lions and chimps are separated from the cars for safety reasons. Lion Country Safari also provides a home for chimpanzees who have been used in research or entertainment.
29. Arizona-Sonora Desert Zoo
- Size: 98 acres
- Location: Tucson, Arizona
- # of Animals: 4,900
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is unique among the best zoos in the United States for its singular focus on the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. The zoo displays only plants and animals found in the Sonoran Desert as well as surrounding ecosystems.
The 1,100-gallon aquarium focuses on the role of the Colorado River in the desert environment as well as that of the Gulf of California. The zoo also features the Art Institute and Ironwood Gallery to promote conservation through art.
30. Nashville Zoo
- Size: 200 acres
- Location: Nashville, Tennessee
- # of Animals: 6,230
Nashville Zoo is located on a former slave plantation. The property was deeded to the Nashville Children’s Museum with the understanding that the property would only be used for outdoor nature study. The zoo opened there in 1997.
The original plantation house remains on the grounds as do many significant archaeological resources. Nashville Zoo supports 50 conservation programs around the world.
- Size: 56 acres
- Location: Tampa
- # of Animals: 1,300
Though this zoo in Florida houses animals from Australia, Asia, and Africa, the Florida wing shines as the star of this facility. Here, the zoo strives to educate visitors about plants and animals endemic to Florida—the Florida panther, alligators, flamingos, black bears, and manatees. It’s also one of the top facilities in this part of Florida for rehabbing Florida wildlife, including manatees and land mammals.
Zoos in the United States offer visitors and residents excellent opportunities to learn more about native species as well as exotic species from around the globe. Various zoos, using their unique locations or climates, have grown to exhibit unique habitats and animals, bringing greater awareness of these animals and their conservation to visitors.
Like great zoos everywhere, the best zoos in the United States put animal welfare, education, and conservation at the forefront of their activities.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Cristina Vanthul