Best and worst zoos in the US.

As part of my upcoming travel plans I’m looking for any zoos in the US that are worth traveling to see. I know the San Diego zoo is highly regarded. IRC the Toledo Zoo has been world famous for a long time, I recall hearing about it when I was a kid even, but my online research seems to sugest that the Columbus Zoo is a lot better now.

As far as the worst, I’ll throw out the Minnesota Zoo. I actually like the Brutalist buildings, but it was built at a time when political correctness was in full swing. Originally they didn’t even call it a “zoo”. There’s no arguing that lions and tigers in cages was a bad thing, but the MN Zoo swung the other direction. Instead of lions and tigers there were beavers and lemurs, which you might see from a long distance away provided they weren’t hiding somewhere in their exhibit. The one marqee exhibit, the Beluga wales, went away years ago. The MN Zoo has gotten better but it’s still underwhelming IMHO.

Indeed, Jack Hanna, who some people around here really don’t like, did a lot to make the Columbus Zoo world class. It’s fantastic. Toledo is also good, as is Cincinatti. San Diego has a great reputation, although I couldn’t say from experience. As for worst, I don’t think I’ve been to a zoo that I thought was just terrible. Apparently Columbus was pretty bad before Jack fixed it up.

San Diego Zoo, of course, gets my vote for Best. I was astonished when I first visited and learned that they had Komodo Dragons and Clouded Leopards (and at the time) about the only koalas outside of Australia, in addition to an excellent and well-stocked zoo.

Denver also has a great zoo

I’m not sure who’s got the worst zoo. Boston’s used to be surprisingly bad, but they’ve improved enormously over the past decades. New York’s Central park Zoo used to be animals in small, bare cages, but they’ve re-0imagined and expanded their zoo twice now, and it’s great.

I used to enjoy the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, but I haven’t been there in decades & don’t know how “politically correct” or “ecological / green” it is these days. There was a terrific great ape exhibit – plate glass & the gorillas would get (terrifyingly) close! One nice addition to see is the Lincoln Park Botanical Garden, within walking distance due north.

Ditto for the Brooklyn Zoo, in a suburb of Chicago. Very BIG & a good long walkaround.

OTOH, the Anchorage (Alaska) Zoo is very special, also. There’s even a SNOW LEOPARD and they shipped their one elephant down to a rehab/retirement place in Tennessee, IIRC.
Also - many of the animals on exhibit were injured & would not be living now if not for the zoo being set up properly to take care of them: i.e., moose, eagles (I think), wolves, bears. Great setting at the edge of the mountains, in a piney/coniferous area with winding paths & not ALL FLAT & CEMENT.

Among the ones I’ve really liked:

  1. I absolutely loved the New Orleans Zoo, but I saw it before Hurricane Katrina, and don’t know how fully and well it’s been restored.

  2. San Diego, of course.

  3. The Fort Worth Zoo is very nice, but despite its small size, the best zoo in Texas may be the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, down in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Phoenix Zoo is pretty good, with recent new developments for primates and rays.

In the Chicago suburbs it’s Brookfield Zoo. I haven’t been there in a long time but I remember it was pretty nice. Also, the Milwaukee Zoo was always touted as a great zoo (at least in Chicago) but when I went there I wasn’t that impressed.

Part of what makes the San Diego Zoo so great is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (which everyone around here still generally refers to by its old name “the Wild Animal Park”). It’s 1800 acres and absolutely amazing (and, as it happens, is nowhere near the actual Zoo, but you can buy tickets for both).

Major zoos and aquariums belong to a professional trade association, AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). They have (or once had?) a list of Top 10 and Worst 10, although I would be surprised if that’s publicly available. Still, you might find useful information on their site.

They also have a write-up on Wikipedia here, and a list of member facilities here, which even includes the web links for all of them!

San Diego Zoo is, as everyone knows (I’m sure), a WORLD-FAMOUS WORLD-CLASS zoo. You could spend morning to night there and still not see it all. And that’s just the in-town zoo. They also have a Wild Animal Safari facility way out in the boondocks, and that’s a full day excursion too. ETA: Senegoid agrees with TheBoltEater: Check it out!

In recent years, I’ve been to both the Louisville and Cincinnati zoos, and have enjoyed both trips. Louisville is surprisingly large.

There’s also this place in Ohio, which is kind of like a zoo:

A lot of people grouse about The Kansas City Zoo, especially if they haven’t been for a while. But it has progressed, and will only continue to improve. Today, a new tiger habitat opened. A polar bear was added within in the last couple years, and a penguin exhibit and great ape habitat are already in the works.

Add to that a recently approved sales tax that more than doubles the zoo’s budget, and it will really be something to look forward to.

Tulsa, OK has a surprisingly good zoo. I believe the New Orleans Audubon zoo has been fully restored since Katrina. I used to live next to it and it is a great one by any standard. The Boston area zoos aren’t terrible these days but they don’t match the quality of other cities and they are bad for a city of its size.

Missed the edit window, but THIS was the Safari place in Ohio I was thinking of: Looks to have a better variety of animals, a couple nice hotel options, and some neat activities, like a zipline safari.

Also, there’s TWO Safari adventure places in Ohio!?

When we moved to Jacksonville, FL, in the early 80s, the zoo was pathetic - a remnant of eons gone by with small concrete cages, a tiny elephant house, and overall, it was not very nice. Then they started working on it. We watched it as it transformed from crap to amazing. We were members From 1995 till we moved away. We haven’t lived in that area in over 8 years, so I don’t have recent experience, but as far as I know, it’s still terrific. So I recommend checking out theJacksonville Zoo.

The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans didn’t have much post-Katrina damage from which to recover. It’s on the river levee, so there was no flooding but probably trees down throughout the park. Staff members rode out the storm in the zoo itself and stayed on to care for the animals. I don’t think they lost more than 2 or 3 animals. The Aquarium, on the other hand, was practically wiped out because of the lack of electricity.

I’ve been to both in the last six months or so, and you’d never know anything had happened. (It was seven years ago, after all.)

I’m old enough to remember the old Audubon Zoo which was once memorably described as “Angola Penitentiary for animals.”

Edit to add that if anyone is traveling to NOLA for the zoo, be sure to check out a swamp tour and see the animals in their own habitat. Wait until at least October or November, though! It is ungodly hot here right now.

Henry Doorly Zooin Omaha is one of the top zoos in the country. They have a large multi-level indoor rainforest (I used to hang out there for hours to avoid the winter weather) a desert exhibit under a gigantic glass dome, a top-notch aquarium, a world-renown big cat breeding program, IMAX, a real steam train, restaurant, etc. etc. If you are interested in visiting one of the country’s best zoos, go there.

I visited there about 2 years ago, and it was VERY nice!

The National Zoo in DC should get a mention. Has a nice, diverse collection of animals and exhibits and bonus points for free admission every day of the year.

I have very fond memories of the National Zoo in Washington D.C. It’s free, it’s beautiful, and it has pandas. Back in the late 1980’s I lived about a half a mile from the zoo’s rear entrance. I would wake up each morning to the sound of big cats.

If you are travelling across the US looking for zoos you can’t miss America’s first zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo. A very nice zoo. I try to go a couple times a year.