2. San Diego Zoo
SIZE: 4,000 animals on 100 acres
Ken Bonn/San Diego Zoo
- Boasts highly qualified staff -- 95% of animal-care employees have a degree in zoology, the most of our survey
- Operates a 30-exhibit children's zoo that contains nurseries for sick or weak baby animals; a petting paddock where kids can touch goats, sheep, and miniature horses; zany science shows hosted by Dr. Zoolittle; and "Bugtown: The Itty Bitty City," which is filled with waterbugs, diving beetles, katydids, and other insects in a tiny version of their natural habitat
- Donates 50% of proceeds to animal conservation, the most of our survey
- Features Polar Bear Plunge, which allows families to watch two polar bear cubs splash in a 150,000-gallon pool
While many zoos exhibit 300 to 500 species of animals, the San Diego Zoo showcases more than 800. "We pride ourselves on having the most diverse collection of animals of any U.S. zoo," says Richard Farrar, director. "We also loan out over 2,000 animals to zoos around the world for breeding programs."
San Diego is the only American zoo to successfully breed, birth, and rear healthy giant pandas -- and they're one of four American zoos to have them on exhibit. Three giant pandas, including Mei Sheng, who was born at the zoo last August, delight guests daily. The zoo also boasts the largest collection of okapi, the closest relative of the giraffe, and 150-plus Mhorr's gazelles, a species of deer that's extinct in the wild. It's also the only U.S. zoo with an Indian gharial, a crocodile with a long, narrow snout, and the first one to have a breeding program for the Visayan warty pig, a species found in a small area of the Philippines.
What's more, the zoo places a strong emphasis on keeping the animals in a setting that closely resembles their natural habitat. For instance, the "Tiger River" exhibit re-creates a rainforest in south-east Asia with a lush treetop canopy and waterfalls that pour into a gurgling stream. An interpretive board has buttons kids can push to hear the different sounds tigers make when they communicate with each other. "We want to convey the message that we need to protect not only animals but the rainforest," says Farrar. "If the tigers' natural habitat disappears, we will never get it back. Children are our hope for the future."
Contact information: 619-231-1515; www.sandiegozoo.org