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A zoo is an artificial exhibit of animals. The purpose of the same can be varied. From studying animals, their characteristics and habits, their conservation and protection from becoming endangered or extinct, to simply displaying the diversity to the people.
The USA alone is home to more than 355 zoos’ according to USA Today. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the 10 Best Zoo Animals and Zoos in the USA, which can be found at their best for any of your purposes. Be it for research, a family outing with children, or any other reason.
1. Best Zoo Animals in the USA
Giraffes are herbivorous terrestrial animals. Their most distinguishing feature is their large neck, making them the tallest animals on Earth, and their spotted coat patterns.
Usually, they’re prey to lions, leopards, African wild dogs, and spotted hyenas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies giraffes as vulnerable to extinction, leading to their preservation in national parks, reserves, and zoos.
Giraffes are commonly among visitors’ favorite zoo animals. Mostly Masai Giraffes or hybridized Giraffes. Before visiting, you need to categorize if the zoo ensures these needs of giraffes are met: Wide space for them to roam around since they are large and tall.
Being herbivores, the space should be covered with greens. Giraffes live in herds. Most zoos have 3-4 giraffes, but some, like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, have a larger herd of giraffes.
Some of the best zoos in the USA where you can watch giraffes are:
Firstly, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in San Diego has plenty of space and approximately 6 Masai giraffes, ensuring their space and social needs.
Secondly, Omaha’s Henry-Doorly Zoo is in Omaha, Nebraska. This is a traditional zoo. It also has a spacious area to fit in approx 9 giraffes comfortably. This ensures their herd-like character isn’t compromised. Moreover, the giraffes also have an indoor space, unlike other zoos.
Thirdly, the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas has approximately 11 giraffes in the generic category. This zoo is very spacious, enough that you could mistake it for Africa.
1.2 Grey Wolf
Native to North America and Eurasia, the Grey wolf or Canis lupus is widely popular in US zoos. They are wild, and their distinguishing physical characteristic is that their fur is of varied colors like white, grey, brown, and black. Mostly, it’s grey with shades of other colors. Wolves are primarily carnivores. They prey on livestock, wild-hooved mammals, and so on.
They are very social as well. This is reflected by the fact that grey wolves often hunt in groups in case of large animals or howl with their group. They naturally travel in nuclear groups, i.e., with their mate and offspring(s).
The zoos keeping them require large spaces, given the wolves’ wild nature. The space is larger compared to other species of similar size. This also implies that the space is densely covered with greenery. It’s to be noted that wolves are also shy. The exhibits should acknowledge the same by ensuring enough hiding space for them. The space should include space going out of the view of visitors, allowing wolves to hide without physically restraining themselves.
The IUCN considers grey wolves to be of Least Concern. Given the innumerable zoos exhibiting them and other places where you can find them, below are some zoos where you can see grey wolves in their almost natural element.
Oakland Zoo, Oakland, California- One of the best zoos in the USA, it has a great grey wolf exhibit. Not that densely forested, the area for wolves is big enough to give you the aesthetics.
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Washington- This zoo has the uniqueness of housing native species. When the zoo location is similar to any animal’s natural habitat, then the zoo authorities can choose to spend much less. A strong fence around a particular area is enough to keep these wolves.
In the abovementioned zoo, the visitors can see the wolves up to a limited extent, and there’s a tunnel visible through which the wolves go to the unobstructed area. The place is densely forested and is spacious. Although there are a small number of wolves (approx 3 only) here, the perk of seeing them in their natural zone is completely worth it!
Native species, the bobcat, is easily found in parts of the USA, Mexico, and Canada. They’re the smallest animals in the lynx family. Bobcats can be found in diverse habitats, such as forests and deserts.
Although native to the USA and widely known, some zoos have them, like the North Carolina Zoo; Asheboro, North Carolina, is one of the best zoos for bobcats. The space for them here is just enough and is filled with rock ledges and (native) trees on which they can climb. This also attracts visitors as the cats gaze from above, surprising people.
1.4 Red Panda
Another one of the most common zoo animals in the US is the Red Panda. They’re also called red bear-cat. Native to the eastern Himalayas and southwest China, red pandas are uniquely adorable.
In the family Ailuridae, red pandas are the only alive now. Physically. They’re very different from giant panda and are closer to skunks and raccoons. Due to their smaller size, red pandas can be easily maintained in smaller exhibits, making them a popular choice even for the smallest of zoos. Their diet mostly contains bamboo.
In a zoo, red pandas are required to ensure there are trees and other things they can climb over. Being native to the Himalayan region, the zoos must keep the temperature in mind as red pandas aren’t at their best in heat. Climate-controlled exhibits are much better in that case.
Popular zoos featuring red pandas are the Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Cincinnati Zoo in Cincinnati. The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D. C. also has a unique exhibit of red pandas. In their Asian trail, the area of Red Pandas is spacious, covered with trees and rocks and an artificial waterfall.
Part of the Mongoose species, meerkats, are small, intelligent, active, and social animals. They’re carnivorous. Meerkats are burrowing animals, so zoos must ensure natural substrate. Their social nature is seen by how they form mobs led by the alpha.
They are also disciplined comparatively as they form lines when led. Not as essential as digging and scurrying, but meerkats prefer having tunnel access. If not provided, sometimes, they built it themselves.
They’re uncommon in US zoos, making it more of a reason to visit the ones maintaining them.
Houston Zoo in Housten, Texas, and Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta have some of the best meerkat exhibits. The former has plenty of space covered with rocks and grass, providing the small mammals with digging privileges. The latter zoo, too, has a vast sandy area home to a mere 4 meerkats, approx. Visitors can watch them from the glass corridors made for them to lean on.
The Oakland Zoo in Oakland, California, has the above facilities of space and sand, but it also has enough hiding space for meerkats.
These large cats are known to everyone, yet they hold the largest number of visitors. Cheetahs are found in Iran and Africa. They have black spots, each with a unique pattern. The spots are natural camouflage to help in hunting. Another characteristic is thin legs and a long tail. They can run at approximately 80 km/h, making them the fastest land animal.
Cheetahs are social. Females live with their cubs nomadic-like life, and males with their coalitions. They breed throughout the year. It’s not known to many, but Cheetahs don’t roar. They growl, pur, hiss or chirp. They usually hunt during the day and hunt on small and medium-sized animals.
They are vulnerable according to IUCN and on their red list due to their loss of habitat, poaching, hunting, and so on by humans.
Due to the abovementioned details, cheetahs are highly demanded in zoos. To exhibit them, zoos are to have a large open space for them to run, and they should have a hiding place. Cheetahs move mostly for hunting; otherwise, they tend to rest.
With not much of an outgoing personality and a hidden spot in a zoo, it can provide them less stress and less probability of any casualty as visitors can be harmed if proper caution is not taken.
The Living Desert of California has female cheetahs specifically. The atmosphere is natural, with many places for Cheetahs to hide. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo has African Grasslands, with rocks, trees, and shade, all within the large space so Cheetahs can live in their natural-like habitat.
The Sunset Zoo of Kansas is small but has an impressive area for cheetahs, showing how naturally they’re kept there and cared for.
1.7 African & Asian Elephant
Elephants are the largest animals on land. They have a trunk, tusks, and large ear flaps. African elephants have larger ears than Asian elephants and have concave backs, whereas Asian elephants have convex backs. Elephants are herbivores and naturally live near water.
Their social behavior contains the fission-fusion concept. The females live with their calves or other related females. The oldest cow, or the matriarch, leads a group of female elephants (cows) with no male elephants (bulls). Calves are central in this group.
The bulls, however, leave the family group during puberty and live alone or with other bulls. Their interactions with family groups are then only for mating.
Elephants can live for 70 years. They’re highly intelligent and self-aware. On any elephant’s death or loss, they show empathy as well. A unique characteristic is that elephants can use infrasound and seismic communication to communicate to a large distance.
Both African and Asian elephants are in the endangered category of IUCN. One of the biggest reasons for the same is their hunting for ivory, used for trading, loss of habitat, and conflict with humans. Elephants have played an important part in art history with their display in folklore, literature, and other popular cultures, such as carvings, paintings, and more.
Due to their large size, elephants require one of the largest areas in a zoo to feel natural. Due to their social character, they should be kept in large groups and not isolated. Even then, there is a chance that the animals might not get along, so there should also be plenty of space to get separated.
As stated above, they live near water, so zoos should have large pools so elephants can swim as good swimmers.
Some of the best zoos in the USA to watch or know about elephants are provided.
The famous Omaha’s Henry-Doorly Zoo and the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, Carolina, are the best for African elephants. Henry-Doorly has approx 10 elephants. Both zoos have a large area where you can observe the elephants in their natural element.
For Asian elephants, the Smithsonian National Zoo, the Oklahoma City Zoo, and the Houston Zoo are some of the best places. All of them have large yards for elephants and indoor viewing for visitors.
Another one of the most sought-after animals in US zoos, zebras are of African origin. They’re widely known for their black and white stripes, each with a different pattern. They are herbivores in nature. They are social and tend to live in groups.
To be exhibited in zoos, they must adhere to their natural habits. There are varied types of zebras, and zoos should not keep mixed zebra species together to prevent any fight. Either single type or vast areas so multiple groups can exist simultaneously.
You can find zebras in zoos like Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, the Binder Park Zoo in Michigan, and Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey. The former zoos have multiple zebra species while the latter has a single species, but all have a dedicated area allowing zebras to roam or form groups.
2. Best Zoos in the USA
2.1 Oakland Zoo, Oakland, Omaha
This zoo is a must-watch for the varied animals found here. You can watch grey wolves, meerkats, gorillas, sea lions, elephants, and many more. It has the largest indoor desert in the world. The safety of visitors is considered of prime importance here.
Moreover, the institute has conservation programs in medicines, nutrition, reproductive physiology, and so on for wildlife conservation. For more, visit their website here.
2.2 San Diego Zoo & Safari Park, San Diego
This place has a minimum footfall of millions per year. Besides protecting and caring for the animals, the zoo participates in initiatives to save wildlife. In the early 1980s, the zoo helped the California condor from becoming extinct and has global initiatives for leopards, polar bears, otters, and many other species.
If you are a wildlife enthusiast, find out about other places you can visit besides San Diego Zoo. Click here to know more.
2.3 Henry-Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Omaha, Nebraska
One of the must-visit places in Omaha, this zoo is large, so save your energy before arriving. Although there is Skyfari, which helps you get a view of the zoo from above, it isn’t the same as observing the animals closely at your pace.
The place has innumerable animals, and each is kept in a place natural to their habits, so expect desserts, snow, and different kinds of exhibits, all in one place. Amongst other things, DO NOT forget the 70-ft shark tunnel aquarium. It is a life-changing experience, best for learning about underwater lives, and a spot for your Instagram pictures.
2.4 Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio
This attraction has been around since the 19th century. You can see many animals here, like red pandas, cheetahs, orangutans, and other varied species. Cincinnati is home to the famous hippo Fiona.
It has a Safari Train which can take maximum exhibits in less time. On days with temperatures below 50 degrees, the zoo has a penguin parade, which visitors await every time. The place has conservation efforts like Plant for Pollinators.
2.5 Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, Florida
This institution has an impressive method of showing animals. The open-air exhibits allow visitors to observe animals more closely. The place cares for alligators, camels, African cattle, antelopes, lemurs, rhinos, giraffes, and zebras.
This is an exceptional place to take children as it is an educational experience. The institute has conservation initiatives through a Sea Turtle Healing Center and the Building of Living Shorelines to protect the local ecosystem, adding to the educational experience as stated.
Some other zoos you might like can be
- Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, Washington D. C.
- Saint Louis Zoo, St. Louis
- Fort Worth Zoo, Texas
- Denver Zoo, Denver, Colorado
- Indianapolis Zoo, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, Illinois
Hopefully, the article helped you build your itinerary or plan your weekend. The zoos are considered controversial, but with research, you can find institutes that go beyond to ensure that the habitat of the animals isn’t compromised and is natural. With this, even visitors have the responsibility not to disturb the animals and observe silently.