America's Top 10 Zoos
Published: May 2009
By David Helvarg
One hundred years ago, America's first zoos were built in Philadelphia and New
York, with extra-thick bars to assure the public that wild lions, elephants, and
camels would not escape and attack. Today it's the wilderness that seems under
siege, so zoos have evolved into centers of learning and conservation biology.
But they continue to drive us wild.
Last year more than 100 million people visited our nation's zoological parks. Not everyone is willing to ante up the $42 adult admission to Disney's new 500-acre Animal Kingdom in Orlando, with its
African Safari ride and 2,500 performing "cast members," but most find themselves
happily exploring a neighboring zoo. The following are 10 of the most
animal-friendly wildlife parks, sure to free the beast within.
Zoological Society of San Diego
Perhaps the best place to view animals without trekking into the
wilderness, the Zoological Society of San Diego is actually a zoo and a park,
each worth its own day trip. The San Diego Zoo comprises 100 acres of tropical
grounds and 800 species (including a pair of pandas on loan from China). The
2,200-acre Wild Animal Park, 32 miles northeast of the zoo, features several
natural habitats and a Galápagos tortoise that must have been around when
Custer was fighting his last battle. Visitors can view roaming herds of exotic
animals from a five-mile-long monorail or by way of a walking safari. Designed to
help breed endangered species, the park has seen some 20,000 creatures born
within its borders—including 120 rhinoceroses—since it opened in 1972. Many
of the zoo's younger residents hang out at the Petting Kraal.
San Diego Zoo,
619/234-3153; $16 adults, $7 kids 311. Wild Animal Park, 760/747-8702; $19.95
adults, $12.95 kids 311.
ArizonaSonora Desert Museum, Tucson
You could walk the 1 1/2-mile loop trail
around the Desert Museum for a while before you realize that this 15-acre
protected landscape is also a zoo. So well integrated are the desert animals with
their rock-and-brush habitats that it may come as a shock when you turn a corner
and notice a mountain lion checking you out from a ledge, from behind a thick
layer of glass. This garden of cactus, grassland, and mountain woodland is
adjacent to Saguaro National Park West in Tucson, so the animals at this "museum"
actually inhabit the surrounding ecosystem. You'll find javelinas, bighorn sheep,
butterflies, Colorado River squawfish, beavers, Gila monsters, rattlesnakes,
owls, and prairie dogs. It's impossible to come away from this experience without
a newfound appreciation for the phrase living desert.
520/883-2702; $8.95 adults,
$1.75 kids 612.
Minnesota Zoological Garden, Apple Valley
Twenty miles south of the Twin Cities,
this zoological park has an enclosed tropical exhibition, the Coral Reef, with
South Pacific lagoon creatures such as sharks, rays, and dolphins. But to take
full advantage of the zoo you should hike the Minnesota Trail and the Northern
Trail. Along these you're sure to spot the hardy wild animals of this state and
of the world's Northern Hemisphere: fishers, lynx, woodchucks, wolverines, musk
oxen, caribou, sandhill cranes, and Siberian tigers. The zoo is also part of the
International Species Information System, a kind of computer dating service that
provides stats on 5,700 endangered species; the data are traded among 54 zoos
around the world.
800/366-7811; $8 adults, $4 kids 312.
Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, Illinois
It's no wonder that the indoor exhibitions here are as
extensive as the outdoor ones, given that in winter no living creatures except
polar bears would be caught outside. For a landlocked zoo just 14 miles outside
Chicago, Brookfield is quite marinelike, with "The Swamp: Wonders of Our
Wetlands" exhibit, rainy Tropic World, the Peruvian and Chilean Living Coast, and
the Seven Seas Panorama where walrus, seals, sea lions, and trained dolphins swim
708/485-0263; $6 adults, $3 kids 311.
St. Louis Zoo, Missouri
The naturalistic exhibitions here attract more than 2.5
million people each year, and now there's a children's zoo for younger devotees.
Along with fuzzy koalas and dive-bombing lorikeets that will sip nectar from cups
held up by squealing kids, the youngsters' zoo has a "Just like Me" play area,
where children can dig like an aardvark in a sandbox or climb jungle vines like
monkeys. The best part, though, is a transparent acrylic tube that runs through
the otters' swimming hole; kids can slide down it and emerge in the viewing area
below. The only drawback?No adults allowed on the slide.
Audubon Zoo, New Orleans
More than 1,500 critters, whose habitats span the globe,
shelter in a park made famous by Paul Schrader's Cat People. Among the highlights
are crowd-pleasing feedings and shows starring sea lions, elephants, alligators,
and nutrias (a giant rodent considered a major pest in the swamps beyond the
zoo). One of the few zoos to brag about its food (for humans), the Audubon even
has a cottage selling spicy Cajun dishes as part of its Louisiana Swamp exhibit.
There, cultural and natural history merge, so you'll also find a trapper's cabin
and zookeepers feeding gators by hand.
800/774-7394; $8.75 adults, $4.50 kids
The only wildlife park in the United States located in a
subtropical climate, MetroZoo offers large, open-air exhibitions. While the Asian
river otters, clouded leopards, tigers, giraffes, wallabies, and Komodo dragons
seem quite pleased with the jungle-like weather, visitors, particularly in
summer, should be prepared to sweat like warthogs (not that you can tell if a
warthog is sweating). At the popular Ecology Theater kids can get an up-close
look at south Florida's own animals, such as the American alligator, American
crocodile, and gopher tortoise.
305/251-0401; $8 adults, $4 kids 312.
National Zoo, Washington, D.C.
If your kids are into giant, goat-eating lizards—and whose aren't?—then the National Zoo's Reptile Discovery Center is for them.
You can watch Komodo dragons feed, even if no goats are tethered there.
Meandering, tree-shaded paths lead to a range of animals, including Hsing-Hsing,
the only giant panda on the East Coast, who emerges late in the afternoon to
feast on bamboo and carrots. Another attraction is the overhead Orangutan
Transport System, 400-foot-long cables that allow orangutans to swing above you
on their way to and from the Think Tank, where the apes use touch-screen
computers while scientists measure their comprehension skills. A full-fledged
research center, the National Zoo also breeds a colony of golden lion tamarins
(read: fuzzy orange monkeys). Members of this band are among the few zoo-bred
animals ever to have been successfully released into the wild—in this case,
Brazil's endangered Atlantic rain forest.
Bronx Zoo, New York
Visiting the largest urban zoo in America—with more than 6,000 animals spread
across 265 acres—definitely calls for a daylong picnic plan. In recent years,
the Bronx Zoo, formerly known as the Wildlife Conservation Park, has changed more
than its name, building natural habitats such as JungleWorld and the Himalayan
Highlands. These sites re-create places where the zoo's scientists have embarked
on field conservation efforts. Our fragile world takes on new beauty inside the
Butterfly Zone, opening in May, where visitors can mix with a blizzard of
multihued insects. Hint: If you wear bright colors they're more likely to land on
718/367-1010; $7.75 adults, $4 kids 212.
Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence
The third-oldest zoo in America, this gem has
about 1,000 animals. Along with snow leopards, a cheetah, and bears, it houses an
impressive bug exhibition whose star attraction is giant Brazilian cockroaches.
If insects aren't your thing, stroll through the 438-acre Victorian park. It's
just a short walk from the cheetah's enclosure to lakefront benches where you can
relax and feed the ducks to the distant trumpeting of elephants.
adults, $3.50 kids 312.
DAVID HELVARG is a freelance journalist and author of The War Against the Greens.