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At the Zoo: Top Spots for Animal Lovers

This one’s for the animal lovers: A menagerie of top zoos from around the U.S. and Canada. These are our favorite furry and ferocious places to visit, in alphabetical order.

  • Animal Kingdom (Orlando) – Walt Disney World’s largest theme park, Animal Kingdom, spans some 500 acres and offers guests the opportunity to commune with more than 1,700 animals representing 250 species. The park’s habitats are divided into seven areas, including Africa, Asia, Camp Minnie-Mickey and DinoLand USA. While Animal Kingdom includes an expected assortment of animals such as zebras, elephants and hippos, it has also earned acclaim for its rides and attractions, including the Expedition Everest high-altitude roller coaster, the Kali River Rapids raft ride, the Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition and the Wildlife Express Train. Daily performances also make the park exceptional.
  • Audubon Zoo (New Orleans) — More than 1,500 critters, whose habitats span the globe, shelter in a park made famous by the 1982 film “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.
  • Dallas Zoo — An Association of Zoos and Aquariums award-winner for its exhibits, the Dallas Zoo is the largest in Texas with 106 acres. Founded in 1888, the zoo features approximately 430 species (not including fish), of which 66 are part of the AZA Species Survival Plans. The Wilds of Africa exhibit, where guests embark on a Monorail Safari through six exhibit areas, was the first in the world to include every major habitat on the African continent.
  • Houston Zoo – Noted for its more than 6,000 animals of more than 900 species, the Houston Zoo‘s expansive collection of wildlife attracts almost two million visitors annually. The zoo goes beyond animal habitats and education with an emphasis on fun for the whole family, with attractions such as the Wildlife Carousel and the Kathrine McGovern Water Play Park, a 13,500-square-foot water-filled fun zone. The zoo recently welcomed gorillas back after a decade without the furry creatures, unveiling a new facility for seven western lowland gorillas to play and explore. “Meet the Keeper” talks give guests a behind-the-scenes look at how zookeepers keep the animals happy and healthy.
  • Phoenix Zoo – Recognized as one of the USA’s best zoos for children, Arizona’s Phoenix Zoo entertains, educates and amazes. Exploring the zoo’s 125 acres via 2.5 miles of walking trails (or by safari train for sore feet), visitors may discover around 1,200 exciting animals. In addition to free animal encounters, keeper talks and feeding sessions, visitors can get up close and personal at Stingray Bay – a touch tank swimming with small rays and sharks, on the back of a camel, or at the petting zoo. The zoo’s conservation programs focus on breeding and research, working with the AZA’s Species Survival Plan. The zoo also features an area called Sanctuary dedicated to animals requiring special care due to injuries and illness, rehabilitation for return to the wild, captive-breeding programs and retirement from breeding programs.
  • Promised Land Zoo (Branson) – Family-owned and operated, Promised Land is a small but mighty park dedicated to providing each and every visitor a personalized zoo experience. This includes getting up close and personal with an incredible array of species. In addition to offering live animal shows, a petting zoo and the opportunity to bottle-feed baby animals, Promised Land has been named a Feline Conservation Federation-accredited facility for its constant work to provide quality wildcat care, education and interaction between the public and the zoo’s big and medium cats.
  • San Diego Zoo and Safari Park – The zoo may well be the city’s most popular tourist attraction, and deservedly so; more than 4,000 animals representing 800-plus species call the sprawling, 100-acre animal park home. Visitors will encounter all manner of creatures, including giant pandas, polar bears, elephants and cheetahs. While the animals are the main attractions, the grounds are also a veritable wonder, having been accredited as a botanical garden featuring more than 1 million plants. To traverse the enormous grounds, jump aboard the 35-minute guided bus tour, which offers a narrated ride covering some 70 percent of the zoo. Or take the express bus, a hop-on, hop-off affair that makes five stops throughout the grounds. For a literal overview of the zoo, get sky-high on the Skyfari aerial tram, which gives riders an aerial perspective of the grounds. Must-see stops include the Scripps Aviary (filled with 130 African native birds), the Polar Bear Plunge and the Panda Trek, where visitors can wander through a bamboo forest spotting giant and red pandas.
  • Toronto Zoo — Reputably Canada’s top zoo, Toronto Zoo is one of the world’s largest, sprawling over 710 acres of Rouge Park in northeastern Toronto. Separated into six geographical “territories,” the zoo has a population of over 5,000 animals from more than 460 species. Exploring the 6 miles of trails, visitors will discover both national wildlife and animals from far-off lands, such as the African Savannah and Australasia, inhabiting naturalistic outdoor enclosures and indoor tropical pavilions. It’s a big place, so guests can hop aboard the Zoomobile to give their legs a break, and camel and Safari Simulator rides also get visitors off their feet. The zoo is passionate about its animals and protecting threatened species in the wild. Partnered with conservation organizations and other zoos, Toronto Zoo is heavily involved with research in reproduction biology and animal behavior, as well as world-wide conservation programs.

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