This author enjoys researching and writing about zoos and has a particular interest in big cats and exotic animals.
Big Cat Zoos in America
Big Cat collections and zoo exhibits are among the main reasons people scamper to local animal parks. It is often believed that the millions of visitors who flock to zoos each year are made up of out-of-town tourists, but this is just not the case. Fewer than ten percent of the visitors to American zoos are actually tourists! I must stipulate that Walt Disney World Resort and parks like it are exceptions in that they are tourist magnets, and of course, Disney operates Disney's Animal Kingdom, the world's largest animal tourist attraction.
For many zoo visitors, an intriguing curiosity about bigger, more powerful, and better hunting creatures than ourselves becomes the main reason we make the drive to our local zoo. The huge fangs and claws offered by the big cat and feline exhibits reach deep into us, waking something almost primal within our being. Visiting the top ten exotic cat exhibits in the United States would be a dream come true, and the mission of this article is to help the big cat and feline lovers do just that.
Below you will find information on each of the ten best big cat zoos in the United States. I have provided websites and phone numbers for each of them, along with snippets about their exotic cat exhibits. Enjoy!
Top 10 Big Cat Exhibits in the USA
- Cincinnati Zoo—Americas #1 Best Big Cat Collection and Exhibit!
- Memphis Zoo
- Bronx Zoo
- Utah's Hogle Zoo
- San Diego Zoo
- Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
- Philadelphia Zoo
- Rio Grande Zoo
- Oklahoma City Zoo
- Denver Zoo
1. Cincinnati Zoo (No. 1 U.S. Zoo for Big Cats!)
Opening in 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo is the second oldest zoo in the United States and consistently ranks as one of America's best. It is so outstanding that three of its buildings have been designated as National Historic Landmarks, making for some of the best architectural photography as well as feline image-making. The zoo has also long been a leader in the field of breeding endangered species. High-tech reproduction methods are researched and applied at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), right on the zoo grounds. It is truly worth visiting!
Telephone: (513) 281-4700
Cincinnati's Feline Collection
The Cat House here is home to many of the world's most endangered small cats. Mesh-covered outdoor enclosures surround the building, and each indoor habitat features naturalistic rock work and beautiful mural backdrops that portray the cats' native homes. Siberian lynx, clouded leopards, pumas, and Pallas' cats are all here. This zoo has a highly successful breeding program for spotted ocelots, and beautiful cats which can also be seen at the Cat House.
Tiger Canyon displays Malaysian tigers and white Bengal tigers in a series of grassy gullies. You will find a long, raised platform that weaves through Siegfried & Roy's White Lions of Timbavati. These lions are not truly white but have a noticeably light tint. While a population of white tigers was recently discovered in South Africa, Cincinnati's lions are from the private collection of the Vegas entertainers, Siegfried and Roy. The lions have plenty of room in this expansive exhibit, but more often than not, they can be found resting on a set of tiered wooden platforms.
2. Memphis Zoo (Runner-Up)
Memphis is named after an ancient city in Egypt, and its Zoo commemorates this connection with its beautiful Egyptian-style entrance complex. But Egypt is not the only destination at this park. You can find many photo-worthy sights within the tributes to China, North America's Pacific Northwest, and Indonesia. You may even want to snap a few high-contrast shots of Ya Ya and Le Le, the giant pandas, on your way to Cat Country!
Telephone: (901) 276-9453
Memphis's Feline Collection
Cat Country exhibits ten different felines from three continents, usually opposite their natural prey. In the Asian area, spotted leopards and clouded leopards are visible through thin, high-tension wire. Across a water moat, a pair of Bengal tigers, including a rare white tiger, cruise the ruins of an ancient city and a crashing waterfall. Down the trail, you will find leopards, Latin American jaguars, and pumas. Smaller ocelots live nearby as well as caracal lynx and fennec foxes. These habitats are followed up by wide-open savannas for cheetahs and lions. Their natural prey—klipspringer antelope and meerkats—inhabit nearby (but separate) rock outcroppings known as kopjes.
3. Bronx Zoo
New York City is by far the largest city in the U.S.A., so the fact that the Bronx Zoo is the nation's biggest metropolitan zoo comes as no surprise. It is located on 264 acres in the city's northernmost borough, the Bronx. While this gives the zoo's animal residents acres of room to roam and enjoy, visitors might find it difficult to make it through the enormous place in a single day. With over 500 different species on display, how could a photographer ever choose where to start shooting?
Telephone: (718) 220-5090
The Bronx's Feline Collection
At the entrance to Tiger Mountain, a forest path takes guests to the Russian Far East, home of the world's largest cats—Siberian (a.k.a. Amur) tigers. From within two glass-walled pavilions, guests can watch half a dozen awe-inspiring tigers as they roam their three-acre grassy forest or wade in their own Tiger Swimming Hole. Graphics and cultural artifacts along the winding path to and from the pavilions educate visitors about all things tiger, including the need to save them from extinction.
4. Utah's Hogle Zoo
Hogle Zoo is a photographer's delight. Set in beautiful Emigration Canyon on Salt Lake City's east side, the zoo's background consists of scenic mountains and the canyon, so the photographs taken there are particularly great and have a natural feel.
Telephone: (801) 582-1631
Hogle's Feline Collection
Amur tigers, snow leopards, Amur leopards, Pallas' cats, and Siberian lynxes are all cats from the Himalayan region, and since Salt Lake City has the same seasonal climate as their homeland, they're part of a year-round exhibit. The big cats (tigers and leopards) have huge and spacious rocky hillside habitats, with large, cascading waterfalls, small evergreen trees, and naturalistic log dens.
5. San Diego Zoo
For the photographer who isn't afraid of a little exercise, the Kilimanjaro Safari Walk will provide the best photographic opportunities here, including intriguing animals, botanical gardens, and Big Cat Overlook.
Telephone: (760) 747-8702
San Diego's Feline Collection
Big Cat Overlook is one of two overlooks into a vast valley habitat for Sumatran tigers and one white Bengal tiger. You will not want to miss the cheetah exhibit either, located near the African flamingos. The cheetah exhibit is large enough for the sleek cats to show off their breathtaking speed, not a sight everyone gets to see in person!
A Big Cat Poll (Not a Pole-Cat Poll!)
6. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
The Henry Doorly Zoo has a knack for creating exhibits that become the biggest and the best of their kind. In the newer exhibits, a serious effort is made to put as little separation as possible between the animals and visitors. This type of attention to visual detail got the zoo included in the popular book, 1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die. It is no wonder why Henry Doorly Zoo is the most-visited tourist attraction between Chicago and Denver!
Telephone: (402) 733-8401
Doorly's Feline Collection
With 37,000 square feet of interior space, the Cat Complex is the largest feline enclosure in North America, and while the structure might be aging, its collection remains impressive. Omaha is known in the zoo world for its large collection of tigers. Amur, Malaysian, and both orange and white Bengal tigers are found in this indoor/outdoor exhibit. African lions have rocky grottoes outside, as do the Amur tigers. Jaguars, pumas, snow leopards, Amur leopards, fishing cats, and more can be found in two rows of exhibits outside of the building, as well as in several indoor areas.
7. Philadelphia Zoo
The Philadelphia Zoo was chartered in 1859, although the Civil War delayed the opening until 1859. Reminders of the zoo's illustrious history remain and can be seen throughout the park in its nineteenth-century Victorian buildings, animal sculptures, statues, and fountains. Currently, it maintains a delicate balance between preserving its history and providing the most modern and naturalistic habitats for its impressive animal collection.
Telephone: (215) 243-1100
Philly's Feline Collection
One of the biggest featured exhibits here is Big Cat Falls, which had the honor of being named Exhibit of the Year in 2007 by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The big cat exhibit is lined with floor-to-ceiling glass windows rather than being across deep moats, and it has five yards—each using plant life native to a particular cat's homeland. The zoo displays lions, tigers, pumas, a black jaguar (an utterly beautiful creature), and both Amur and snow leopards. The heated pools in the jaguar and tiger yards encourage these water-loving big cats to take a dip year round. The white lions are very popular with visitors, and can often be seen lounging near a row of termite mounds.
8. Rio Grande Zoo
The Rio Grande Zoo, which is only one part of the Albuquerque Biological Park, offers magnificent rock work, dazzling waterfalls, pueblo-style buildings, and animal sculptures surrounded by attractive exhibits. The zoo gets its name from the river that winds through the heart of New Mexico.
Telephone: (505) 758-2000
Rio Grande's Feline Collection
The shaded Cat Walk provides visitors with close-up views of a diverse group of large and small cats. First, you encounter African lions, then proceed to find bobcats, servals, snow leopards, ocelots, jaguars, and mountain lions, along with non-feline residents.
9. Oklahoma City Zoo
By 2007, this zoo had remodeled and restyled its limited and outdated collection. It took seventeen years to complete, but with the help of an eighth-of-a-scent sales tax approved in 1990, the Oklahoma zoo has brought naturalistic habitats to its exhibits and increased animal collections. The new design and dedication to the "ABCs of the animal kingdom"—apes, bears, and cats—has made the over 100-year-old Oklahoma City Zoo the most visited attraction in the state.
Telephone: (405) 424-3344
Oklahoma's Feline Collection
Cat Forest displays nine feline species in four acres of spacious, naturalistic environments. Jaguars, ocelots, and servals each have tiered, net-covered habitats outside the Small Cat building. Inside, glass-fronted habitats showcase black-footed cats and desert-dwelling caracal lynx. Bordering Zoo Lake, the outdoor enclosure for the secretive snow leopards can be viewed through thick trees from two sides. Other exhibits include tigers, Fishing cats, Sumatran tigers, and the outstanding big cat contribution, Lion Overlook. It is almost a guarantee to see a majestic lion resting on a high, rocky outcropping. Visitors can view these big felines through large sheltered windows.
10. Denver Zoo
The Denver Zoo is the second oldest zoo in the western United States. Since 1896, when the zoo opened, its Bear Mountain has remained the nation's oldest naturalistic, bar-less exhibit. Like its home state, the zoo is full of beautiful, wide open spaces. This is the most popular zoo between California and Chicago, attracting more than 1.7 million guests annually.
Telephone: (303) 379-4800
Denver's Feline Collection
The Predator Ridge exhibit is found just inside the zoo entrance and is one of the best lion exhibits found anywhere. A portion of Samburu National Park in Kenya is re-created here, perfectly landscaped to look like a kopje. Spotted hyenas, wild dogs, and two prides of lions rotate through each other's habitats. The variety of scenery and scents of the other occupants who have passed through provide important mental stimulation for these intelligent carnivores. Another habitat is set aside for the mothers and baby lion cubs and is easily viewed by visitors.
It's an Otter, It's a Puma, It's a Fossa!
The fossa is only found on Madagascar, where it is the top land carnivore. It's as big as a cocker spaniel and looks like a cat, but it is actually distantly related to the mongoose. Imagine a cross between a puma and a giant otter that leaps through the tree canopy like a squirrel. This dog-cat-mongoose-thing gets its name from a Malagasy word, pronounced "foo-sa." It may not be all cat, but it is close enough to get a mention here!
© 2011 India Arnold