Zoos and aquariums have come a long way from the classic entertainment model. As we face a biodiversity crisis like never before, these organisations increasingly find themselves on the front line. Good zoos are working on both in-situ and ex-situ conservation projects. They are also conducting research and educating visitors about the ways their actions can have an impact on the planet.
Yet zoos haven’t, historically, had a good reputation and this is still slow to change in some quarters. Speaking to blooloop in 2019, Kevin Buley of Auckland Zoo in New Zealand spoke about how the term ‘zoo’ isincrediblypolarising:
“The unfortunate historical associations of the word don’t do wildlife conservation and the world any real favours.Idon’t like zoos, generally. If you go by National Geographic figures, there are 10,000 or more zoos on the planet. I would suggest that less than 10% are actually any good.The rest need either to beradicallyimproved or shut down.”
There is a world of difference between the type of attraction we see in shows like Tiger King, and a modern, conservation-focused institution. So what makes a good zoo or a good aquarium? We look at some of the top zoos and aquariums in the US and the work they are doing in the fields of conservation, animal welfare and education.
All zoos and aquariums listed here are accredited by AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.Accredited facilities must pass a stringent application and review process, demonstrating their commitment to animal welfare. Fewer than 10% of the 2,800 licensed animal exhibitors around the country achieve this and they must repeat the process every five years.
1 Smithsonian’s National Zoo – Washington D.C.
TheNational Zoological Park in Washington D.C is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Founded in 1889, this free-entry institution is one of the oldestzoosin the United States and sees around 1.8million visitors a year.
The zoo consists of two campuses, the 163-acre public site in Rock Creek Park and the 3,200-acre Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute inFront Royal, Virginia. Together, these are home to around about 2,700 animals of 390 different species, including giant pandas as well as a variety of birds, apes, big cats, elephants, insects, reptiles, aquatic animals and more.
Speaking to blooloop in 2022, the zoo’s director, Dr BrandieSmith, identified three priorities forzoosin the 21stcentury:
“Number one is to ensure the animals are happy and healthy, to be very focused on animal welfare, animal wellness, and to make sure we’re meeting all of their psychological, social, physiological, needs. If we’re not doing that well, then we shouldn’t be a zoo.
“Number two is engaging in conservation; actively being a force in biodiversity conservation. It’s saving animals, saving species, saving biodiversity.”
“Number three is taking advantage of the unique opportunity that we have, and that no other conservation organisation does, which is inspiring and educating the millions of people who come through our doors every single year.”
2 Monterey Bay Aquarium – Monterey, California
Next on our list of the top zoos and aquariums in the US is Monterey Bay Aquarium. a nonprofit aquarium on the central coast of California. This first opened in 1984 and is on a mission to inspire conservation of the ocean. It sees around 2 million visitors per year, who come to see its collection of 35,000 animals,belonging to more than 550 species.
A highlight is its living Kelp Forest exhibit. Standing at almost three storeys high, this is home to several fishnativeto Monterey Bay, such as leopard sharks and rockfishes. Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first aquarium to successfully exhibit living kelp. Its research and conservation staff work on projects with jellyfish, sea otters, sea birds, tuna and more.
In 2020,Emily Simpson, social media specialist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, spoke about howithas been using gaming platforms to engage, educate and inspire audiences. While hosting Twitch streams of games like Animal Crossing, the aquarium staff are able to interact with audiences in a new way:
“Our main job at the aquarium is to inspireconservation…it is our responsibility to make sure that when a young adult has a question about climate change, about ocean acidification, about the global changes that are happening in front of their eyes, it doesn’t become an overwhelming topic or a topic of doom.
“Because the aquarium trusts us to have that very welcoming, open and empathetic voice for the ocean on the internet, these young adults are coming to our channel for the video games, for Animal Crossing, for the sea otter cams. But they are staying because they know that this is a community where they can come and have those big questions answered.”
3 New England Aquarium – Boston, Massachusetts
The New England Aquarium in Boston is visited by over 1.3 million people a year and first opened in 1969. Its mission is to act as a catalyst for global change through public engagement, as well as through its commitment to marine animal conservation, its leadership in education and its innovative scientific research. It also advocates for our vital and vibrant oceans.
Its highlights include the Giant Ocean Tank which simulates a Caribbeancoral reef. This is home to sharks, turtles, stingrays, eels and more. Visitors can observe the reef’s inhabitants from a spiral walkway that surrounds the exhibit.
“I’ve always been enticed by the New England Aquarium,” said Gary Siddall, president and CEO of the Aquarium of Niagara, speaking to blooloop about what makes a great aquarium.
“They have an accomplished fusion of dynamic exhibits and remarkable architecture, as well as compelling rescue and rehabilitation stories. Their proximity to Boston Waterfront provides unique leverage when conveying importantconservation challengesaffecting wild populations of aquatic life.”
4 San Antonio Zoo – San Antonio, Texas
At number four on our list of the top zoos and aquariums in the US, San Antonio Zoo welcomes over 1 million visitors each year. Set over more than 50 acres, it houses more than 750 species, some of which are endangered or extinct in the wild.
The zoo’s mission is to “inspire its community to love, engage with, act for and protect animals and the places they live”. San Antonio Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research is working on a range of conservation projects, focusing on fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and crustaceans as well as imperilled ecosystems and cultures.
In 2019, CEO Tim Morrow spoke about the key role that modern zoos play, saying:
“Now, zoos have evolved, become smarter. We know more about the animals, and how better to take care of them.That is why zoos are now creating these incredible,naturalistic habitatsthat are engaging and enriching for the animals.
“It is all about how incredible your habitats are for your animals; how much conservation work you are doing, how much education you are doing.
“I think it’s a great time to be doing this. It is becoming, unfortunately, more and more important for zoos to exist, and for all the conservation and education about what is happening in the wilds; but at the same time we are making a bigger impact than ever.”
5 Florida Aquarium – Tampa, Florida
Florida Aquarium dates back to 1995 and houses over 7,000 aquatic plants and animals.
Like the other entries on our list of the top zoos and aquariums in the US, Florida Aquarium is AZA-accredited and it works on several conservation, research, education and outreach projects. It says that its mission is to entertain, educate and inspire stewardship of the natural environment, and its vision is to protect and restore our blue planet. In 2020, it became the first organisation to reproduce ridged cactus coral, or Mycetophyllia lamarckiana, for the first time in human care.
In 2020, CEO Roger Germann spoke to blooloop about the role of a good modern aquarium:
“I think the fact that organizations like the Florida Aquarium are starting to use our voice, to be more action-oriented, to provide messages of hope and to show people that little things and big things can make a difference, is important.
“Our model was about inspiration, about hoping that people would be inspired, that they would then go and do something. Now, you walk through the Florida aquarium – or many otherzoos and aquariumsaround the world – and we’re telling you exactly what you can do in simple steps.”
6 Lincoln Park Zoo – Chicago, Illinois
Lincoln Park Zoo is the only free, privately managed zoo in the US and was founded in 1866. It is home to over 1000 animals from around 200 species, including polar bears, gorillas, big cats, penguins, monkeys, reptiles and more. It recently opened thePepper Family Wildlife Center, a state-of-the-art lion habitat. The design of this new habitat was informed by the behaviour of lions previously held at the zoo.
“The zoo’s mission is to connect people with nature,” said Dr Megan Ross, president and CEO of Lincoln Park Zoo, speaking to blooloop in 2022.
“Our tagline is ‘For wildlife. For all’, which encompasses who we are and what we stand for. We have one of the largest science departments of any zoo in the country and are one of the top 10 science organisations. We have about 40 scientists on staff doing different research studies.
“Our vision is concerned with where we’re going, and how we can, in this urbanizing world, reallyconnect communitieswith the nature around them, making sure that not just animals and nature thrive, but that the people thrive as well.
“We are really interested in figuring out how to make sure that communities of the future can thrive and flourish.”
7 Georgia Aquarium – Atlanta, Georgia
Next on our list of the top zoos and aquariums in the US is Georgia Aquarium, which opened a major new expansion in 2020. It is visited by around 2.8 million guests a year, as well as catering to around 200,000 school students through education programmes.
The new expansion features a saltwater gallery that is designed to bring people up close to sharks, helping them to understand the beautiful yet maligned animals.
“We are about five hours from the coast,” says DrBrian Davis, President and CEO, on the importance of reaching new audiences and sharing messages around ocean conservation. “We have an incredible population of people here, many of whom are from under-served communities. They may have never had the opportunity to connect with animals that live in the ocean.”
“So, we provide somethingtrulyunique for those individuals. We educate and connect with them. Working for them to gain an appreciation. It is that part Itrulylove: knowing that we can play that role for people that would notbe connectedotherwise.”
8 Saint Louis Zoo – St. Louis, Missouri
Established in 1910, St Louis Zoo is home to more than14,000 animals from around 500 species and is well-known for its innovative approach to animal care, wildlife conservation, research and education.
It welcomes around 3 million guests each year, making it one of the most-visited attractions in the region. Its mission is “To conserve animals and their habitats through animal management, research, recreation, and educational programs that encourage the support and enrich the experience of the public.”
In 2021, the zoo celebrated the opening of the $13mPrimate Canopy Trails. This is an outdoor habitat featuring climbing structures that allow visitors to explore the forest canopy alongside the primates. It includes eight outdoor homes for lemurs and monkeys. Speaking after the official opening, Heidi Hellmuth, curator of primates at Saint Louis Zoo said:
“Being outside is critical for primates’ wellbeing, and this new habitat is a demonstration of the zoo’s commitment to providing quality animal care.
“One thing all our primates have in common is their love of the canopies and habitats situated high in the trees. However, many primates worldwide are threatened with extinction and have declining populations, mostly due to extensive habitat loss, including forests.”
9 Houston Zoo – Houston, Texas
Our next entry on this list of the top zoos and aquariums is the second most visited zoo in the United States.The 55-acre site is home to more than 6,000 animals and is visited by around 2.1 million visitors each year. It dates back to 1922.
The zoo says it is on a mission to connect communities with animals, inspiring action to save wildlife. It has worked on a number of conservation initiatives, including projects to assist in the survival of Houston toads, sea turtles, Galapagos tortoises, clouded leopards, Bornean orangutans and more.
Explaining this commitment to saving wildlife, Houston Zoo’s president and CEOLee Ehmkesays:
“It all stems from a strategic plan that we initiated when I first got here. We spent about a year really examining the role of our zoo and zoos in general, as we moved into the 21st century and the idea that we really needed to explicitly state and embody the idea that the zoo exists in order to help save animals in the wild.
“We intentionally focus on making very strong links between our exhibits and our conservation programmes. Both those already in existence and those we are starting up. So there’s a direct connection between work that’s happening in the wild and the experience that guests are getting in the zoo.”
10 Aquarium of Niagara – Niagara Falls, New York
Located in downtown Niagara Falls, the Aquarium of Niagara is home to rescued seals and sea lions, Humboldt penguins, sharks, jellyfish, and over 120 species of fish and invertebrates. It opened in 1965 and is currently in the midst of enacting a master plan which includes working to build a larger, more naturalistic habitat for its seals and sea lions.
One of the areas that the aquarium specialises in is the long-term care of rescued seals and sea lions, which cannot be released into the wild.
“Over the years, the Aquarium of Niagara focused on a variety ofdifferent animals,” says Gary Siddall, executive director at the Aquarium of Niagara. “From penguins to seals, sea lions and dolphins. And what we found in the nineties was that there was a real opportunity to tell the story of rescued seals and sea lions.
“That messaging is something that has really grown. Particularly over the last 10 years, where we’ve really been focusing on and telling the story of all these non-releasable animals that are stranded, rescued, and need long-term care and housing.
“Rescuing them is really rewarding. Each of these animals has its own distinct personality. I think that that’s what made me fall in love with them all those years ago; they are so individual and unique. Being able to talk to the public about them and share those stories is what makes our work so impactful.”
11 San Diego Zoo – San Diego, California
San Diego Zoo is one of the most visited zoos in the US, with around 4 million visitors a year. It dates back to 1916 and is home to around 12,000 animals. It was one of the first zoos to introduce open-air, cageless exhibits that recreate natural animal habitats and is active in a number of conservation projects. To date, the zoo has reintroduced over 30 endangered species back into the wild.
Working towards its vision of a world where all life thrives, San Diego Zoo says it is “committed to saving species worldwide by uniting our expertise in animal care and conservation science with our dedication to inspiring passion for nature.”
In 2022, it unveiled a new children’s experience, the $88mWildlife Explorers Basecamp, located on the site of the former Children’s Zoo. This 3.2-acreexperience combines immersive technology with animal exhibits and features several sensory attractions.
“Wildlife Explorers Basecamp speaks to the buddingconservationistwithin us all and shows us the marvels of the natural world,” saidPaul Baribault, president and chief executive officer of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “Through these gates, millions of world changers will begin their journey with nature, and demonstrate the power of empathy and compassion as they join us to become allies for wildlife.
12 Aquarium of the Pacific – Long Beach, California
Number 12 on our list of the top zoos and aquariums in the US is the Aquarium of the Pacific. Founded in 1998, its mission is to instil a sense of wonder, respect, and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants, and ecosystems. It welcomes around 1.7 million people a year and houses 12,000 animals in over 100 exhibits.
In 2019 the aquarium opened the 29,000-square-foot Pacific Visions wing, which focuses on the ocean environment and the challenges it faces.
Speaking about the Aquarium of the Pacific’s role following the opening of the Pacific Visions wing, DrJerry Schubel, president and CEO, said:
“I think we’re leading the way. All aquariums do some work in conservation. But we’re the only one that has built a new wing with 29000 square feet devoted entirely to this.”
He added that people view aquariums as highly credible and trustworthy sources of information on the ocean and marine life:
“When the public is given the options: academic scientist, government scientist, elected and appointed officials, and aquariums, aquariums always come out at the top in terms of being the most trusted. That gives us both an opportunity and a responsibility to be active inconservation. So we’ve tried to build off that.”
13 Bronx Zoo – New York City, New York
Bronx Zoo first opened in 1899 and has long been involved in conservation. In fact, the zoo’s first director,William T. Hornaday, co-created theAmerican Bison Societyin 1905, in an attempt to prevent the extinction of theAmerican bison. More recently, it has had success in reintroducingChinese alligatorsinto the wild, in theYangtze Riverin China.
The zoo’s mission is to connect visitors to wildlife and inspire them to join its conservation work. It is home to more than 10,000 animals from over 700 species and is set in a 260-acres forest in the Bronx. In 1916, it opened the first modern zoo animal hospital.
As well as visiting in person, audiences can learn more about the zoo through its popular Animal Planet docu-series online, which gives unique behind-the-scenes insights.
14 Denver Zoo – Denver, Colorado
Themost visited cultural destinationin Colorado, Denver Zoo welcomes over 2 million global visitors per year. It has nearly 4,000 animals from 600 species and is committed to species conservation, providing education programmes and guest experiences that foster human and animal connection.
It was founded in 1896, and speaking about its history and its evolution, Bert Vescolani, president & CEO said:
“This is a zoo with 125 years of history. It’s a place that has been innovative and has developed unique exhibits and approaches to conservation and sustainability work. It has an amazing team, and we’re getting better.
“We keep trying to find new ways to explore and experiment, and, maybe, to satisfy some of that curiosity as well. We focus on doing the right things for our community, while supporting and advancing our profession, and, thinking bigger about what we could be as an organisation.”
15 Zoo Atlanta – Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta Zoo first opened in 1889 but suffered neglect over the years. In 1984 it was ranked among the ten worst zoos in the United States, but thorough reforms have now ensured its place on the list of the best zoos in the country.
Talking about how the function of zoos has changed over the years, Raymond B. King, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta said:
“50 years ago, I would have said [their function] is to entertain the public, in the best and most cost-effective way. Today, that is absolutely not the case. Entertaining people is a means to an end, but what the zoo is about isconservation.
“It’s about trying to save those animals, and to do that, you have to get people to see them. So yes: we entertain people as a way to bring them in, but our goal is to educate them, to get them to be believers, to help them figure out what they can do to help, while at the same time enhancing the care delivery on an ongoing basis.”
16 Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens – Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles Zoo opened in 1966 and covers 133 acres of Griffith Park in LA. It has a collection of over 2,300 animals representing 270 different species, 58 of which are critically endangered. It has held AZA accreditation since 1979.
In 2021, the Los Angeles Zoo launched an ambitious five-year conservation plan to preserve biodiversity in LA and around the world. This focuses on six areas: social and environmental justice, human-wildlife co-existence, California conservation, illegal wildlife trade, conservation translocations, and evidence-based conservation.
Expanding on the theme of social and environmental justice, Denise Verret, CEO and director of L.A. Zoo said:
“We talk about social and environmental justice in terms of the communities that generally suffer more from environmental impacts and those that aren’t engaged to be a part of the environmental solutions that their communities need.
“We know that if we want to have the greatest collective impact, we have toengage all communitiesbroadly and meaningfully, so they understand that they all have a role in protecting wildlife, ecosystems and their environment. And we also want to do it in terms that make it meaningful to them, suggesting actions they can take that don’t seem to be insurmountable.”
17 Disney’s Animal Kingdom – Orlando, Florida
While it may seem more like it belongs on a list of theme parks attractions rather than a list of the top zoos and aquariums in the US, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is AZA-accredited and the Disney World Conservation Fund has contributed to many projects around the world.
Opened in 1998, this 550-acre animal-inspired theme park is home to 1,500 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Through its successful white rhino breeding programme, Animal Kingdom park has made a direct contribution to the conservation of this critically endangered animal. In 2006 it transported two white rhinos, who were born at the park, to Uganda. Five years on, in 2011, a white rhino calf was born there, becoming the first female white rhinoceros born in Uganda in three decades.