These popular U.S. zoos are about more than exotic animals — they’re doing their part to fund and initiate animal conservation efforts.
A visitor looking at one of the underwater tanks at the Smithsonian National Zoo
Credit: Courtesy of Giovanna Amodio

There's something extraordinarily special about seeing some of the world's most incredible animals in one, easily accessible place. Thanks to zoos, we can watch a family of orangutans swing from branch to branch and a lion cub snuggle into its mother in a single afternoon. But as amazing as it can be to witness these wild animals up close, many activists view zoos as prisons. That's why it's important to do your research and carefully choose the one you support. Many go above and beyond to ensure animal welfare, protect endangered species, revive dwindling populations through captive breeding programs, and educate people on the plight of some of the world's rarest creatures.

To help you determine the best and most ethical zoos in the U.S., the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) came up with a list of AZA-accredited locations that provide excellent care for animals and a better future for all living things. From this list, we selected 15 of the most popular zoos in the U.S., according to the AZA, to make your next visit a little easier to plan.

Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park — Bay Lake, Florida

As you'd expect from the largest theme park in the world, Disney's Animal Kingdom has plenty of exotic animals living on its 580 acres. But in addition to offering glimpses of tigers, lions, and gorillas, the zoological theme park has done wonders on growing its elephant and giraffe herds. It has even transferred a white rhinoceros born at the park to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, helping to reintroduce the animal to Uganda.

San Diego Zoo — San Diego, California

Monkeys at the Africa section of San Diego Zoo
Credit: Courtesy of San Diego Zoo

In addition to being accredited by the AZA, the San Diego Zoo is recognized by the American Alliance of Museums for its work. The zoo is home to more than 12,000 animals and more than 650 species and subspecies. Plus, its wildlife alliance arm has made great strides in areas like genetic diversity, reproductive sciences, disease, and population sustainability in an effort to help save plants and wildlife worldwide.

Lincoln Park Zoo — Chicago, Illinois

Not only is the Lincoln Park Zoo one of the oldest in North America, but it also has one of the largest zoo-based conservation and science programs in the country. The zoo's scientists constantly monitor animal behavior to improve their welfare, and have conservation initiatives set up all over the world. Overall, you'll feel good about your choice to visit this zoo, plus admission is free. A total win-win.

Saint Louis Zoo — St. Louis, Missouri

A 4-month-old infant chimpanzee holds tightly to her mom on March 9, 2021, at the St. Louis Zoo.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In addition to housing nearly 500 animal species, the Saint Louis Zoo is recognized worldwide for its innovative approach to animal care and wildlife conservation. On the conservation side of things, the zoo established two institutes to further its work: the WildCare Institute, which aids initiatives that protect animals from disease, poaching, and shrinking habitats, and the Institute for Conservation Medicine, which researches the impact infectious diseases have on the long-term survival of species and the health of animals, humans, and ecosystems. Bonus: Admission is completely free.

Houston Zoo — Houston, Texas

The Houston Zoo sees a whopping two million annual visitors, and there's a good reason for that. The 55-acre park is home to 900 species, and with every ticket sold, visitors are able to help support more than 40 wildlife conservation projects around the world. On top of its global work, the Houston Zoo spearheads local projects to save native Texas species from extinction, including the Houston toad and the Attwater's prairie chicken.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — Powell, Ohio

Just north of Columbus, Ohio, along the eastern banks of the O'Shaughnessy Reservoir, is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. In addition to being an AZA-accredited venue, this popular zoo and aquarium funds projects for land animals and sea life around the world, including coral conservation in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, medical help for gorillas in Africa, and prairie habitat creation in North America.

Brookfield Zoo — Brookfield, Illinois

Sarani, a female snow leopard, explores her habitat with her 4-month old cubs while they made their public debut at the Brookfield Zoo
Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Animals from all over the world — including wallabies, lions, and dolphins — make their home just west of Chicago at the Brookfield Zoo. In addition to Australia House (think emus, wombats, and kangaroos) and Habitat Africa (think giraffes, antelope, and crocodiles), there's an ambassador program where guests can interact with certain animals. The idea behind the zoo's human-animal encounters? "Bringing people closer to animals is just one way we can help others gain an appreciation for all citizens of the natural world."

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium — Omaha, Nebraska

You might not expect to find red pandas, Indian rhinos, snow leopards, and Amur tigers in Omaha, but all it takes is a visit to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to see these amazing creatures up close. In addition to providing a place where people can see, learn about, and in some cases, interact with animals from all over the world, the zoo delves deep into the fields of molecular genetics, reproductive physiology, and conservation medicine.

Smithsonian's National Zoo — Washington, D.C.

Visitors looking at the sloth bear at the Smithsonian National Zoo
Credit: Courtesy of Giovanna Amodio

This zoo's biggest draw may be its family of giant pandas — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji — but behind the scenes, there's a lot of conservation work going on. The zoo's Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute plays a huge role in the Smithsonian's efforts to inspire and train future conservationists as well as save wildlife species from extinction. These initiatives include breeding species that were once extinct in the wild — like the black-footed ferret and scimitar-horned oryx — and work focused on global tiger populations and regional landscape preservation.

Denver Zoo — Denver, Colorado

Lion stretches after waking up from a nap at Denver Zoo
Credit: Getty Images

The centrally located 84-acre Denver Zoo is home to more than 3,000 animals, which it sees as "ambassadors for their wild counterparts all over the world." But the zoo is about more than just encounters with giraffes and zebras — its Field Conservation and Emergency Wildlife Response teams work to protect species threatened by human encroachment, habitat loss, and catastrophic events in places like Botswana, Peru, and Mongolia.

Como Park Zoo & Conservatory — Saint Paul, Minnesota

General view of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory at Lake Como in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Credit: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Admission to the year-round Como Park Zoo & Conservatory is completely free — they just ask that you make a reservation in advance. And with more than two million annual visitors, the park has plenty of programming, from virtual classes kids can watch at home to evening strolls for seniors. Their mission is "to inspire our public to value the presence of living things in our lives," and they do that by introducing people to animals from across the globe and promoting conservation.

Bronx Zoo — Bronx, New York

Visitors view giraffes at the Bronx Zoo
Credit: Gabriela Bhaskar/Getty Images

The Bronx Zoo tagline says it all: Saving wildlife and wild places. The flagship zoo ​​for the renowned Wildlife Conservation Society is home to more than 10,000 animals and even operates its own zoo hospital. At the park, which is set in the heart of the Bronx, visitors are transported to landscapes like Tanzania and Australia as they journey through 260 acres of hardwood forest. 

Los Angeles Zoo — Los Angeles, California

A group enters the Los Angeles Zoo on reopening day
Credit: Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

You'll need to make a reservation to visit the Los Angeles Zoo, but a little planning is well worth it. The zoo is home to more than 2,200 animals and more than 60 endangered species. Highlights include a visit to the Rainforest of the Americas and the Elephants of Asia, which is the largest habitat in the zoo. The zoo's overarching goal is "to help create a better future for wildlife," a mission they fulfill by supporting field work, gathering data and insights, offering innovative animal care, and hosting speaker series and educational events.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden — Cincinnati, Ohio

Fiona the hippo is seen at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Credit: Jason Whitman/Getty Images

Ever heard of Fiona, the world-famous hippo? The Cincinnati hippo pup was born six weeks early and was too small to nurse from her mother, putting the team at the Cincinnati Zoo in the hot seat. They figured out how and what to feed her, taking over her care 24/7. The result is a healthy, happy hippo whose journey is followed by millions. In addition to their hippo success story, the zoo is involved in educating people on sustainable palm oil, pollinator conservation, and cell-phone recycling — all of which directly impact animals around the globe. In addition to housing animals since 1875 (it's the second-oldest zoo in the nation), the Cincinnati Zoo has a lovely botanical garden.

Oregon Zoo — Portland, Oregon

Youngest orangutan at the Oregon Zoo.
Credit: thanks for viewing/Getty Images

Just two miles southwest of downtown Portland, you'll find animals walking through reproductions of the African savanna and Arctic tundra. Animals include the Amur tiger, Asian elephant, and black rhinoceros. To secure a better future for these animals and all wildlife, the Oregon Zoo undertakes long- and short-term research projects and works to recover native species on the brink of extinction. They also spearhead educational efforts on the dangers of lead ammunition, which is hazardous to both humans and wildlife.