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The 10 Best Zoos for Kids

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo

Parents has set out to find the top zoos in the country for 2009. We surveyed them to find out things like how many of the exhibits were at a preschooler's eye level, what kids could touch, and whether there were changing tables and stroller rentals. The upshot: Many zoos have built more interactive exhibits for young children and made their paths more stroller-friendly. You'll love the leaders of the pack.

 

The Toledo Zoo

Zoos have given millions of children the chance to see elephants, giraffes, bears, and other animals in person. But the most family-friendly ones aren't just about looking at wildlife and moving on. The latest trend: interactive features -- from puppet shows and plays to question-and-answer sessions with veterinarians to opportunities for feeding and petting animals -- aimed at providing children with a memorable experience.

To determine which zoos offer the widest array of animal species and hands-on activities for your whole clan, Child embarked on a five-month investigation of the more than 150 institutions belonging to the American Zoo & Aquarium Association, the first endeavor of its kind. Each member was sent a 64-question survey -- developed by our panel of experts. The categories included the number and quality of exhibits, presence of a children's zoo (a several-acre area designed just for kids), educational programs for school trips and summer vacation, staff-to-visitor ratios, animal care, family conveniences (such as many restrooms with diaper-changing tables), conservation efforts, security and safety measures, and more.

What we found was impressive. The majority of zoos find creative ways to involve children -- in fact, there was only a small margin separating the leader from the 10th-place finisher. Interestingly, too, the bigger zoos aren't necessarily the better ones. Most of our winning zoos are mid-size and make excellent use of their resources to intrigue children.

From a zoo where toddlers can take a stroller tour given by a naturalist to one that sought the yearlong counsel of more than a dozen kids in planning a new exhibit, the top 10 winners -- all of which have a lovely children's zoo -- are featured here.

SIZE: 1,614 animals on 56 acres

Gary McHall

  • Boasts a 4 1/2-acre Australian-theme children's zoo, where kids can feed and pet kangaroos and wallabies, pretend they're herding sheep, and cool off in the Billabong, a water-play area with animal statues and fountains
  • Has a strong commitment to safety, offering eight first-aid stations, conducting escaped animal drills twice a month (the most of our survey), and providing police security during operating hours
  • Hosts a 30-minute "Spirit of the Skies" show where kids learn about how birds survive in the wild and see a bald eagle, vulture, owl, and hawk fly
  • Opened the first phase of a Safari Africa exhibit highlighting giraffes, bongos, elephants, warthogs, zebras, and African ground hornbills (birds with large bills and long eyelashes) on May 28; future plans include a lodge and a train ride

The Lowry Park Zoo's exhibits and 35 educational programs are loaded with features designed to make lasting impressions. "If you tell a child about the rough texture of an alligator, he may or may not recall it. But let him touch it for himself, and he'll remember that for a lifetime," says the zoo's CEO, Lex Salisbury.

At Lowry, kids take a ride on a camel caravan, pet fish in the koi pond, and have lorikeets land on their fingers when they hold a cup of nectar. Educational programs for school trips and families teach preschoolers about an alligator's feeding requirements and habitat, then allow them to feel a small one. At a weeklong summer camp, kids in grades K to 8 learn about the dangers manatees face in Florida's waterways, take part in a mock rescue, and visit the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital. The zoo has the only nonprofit center for sick, injured, and orphaned manatees in the world.

Kindergartners through fifth-graders have an opportunity to feed stingrays and sharks in the daylong Awesome Sea Explorations program while second- to fifth-graders taking part in Lowry's Wild Theater summer camp design stage props, create nature art projects, make their own costumes, and go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo.

Contact information: 813-935-8552; www.lowryparkzoo.com

 
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

 
SIZE: 1,520 animals on 110 acres

Tara Henson/OKC Zoo

  • Hosts a monthly stroller safari, a guided tour for toddlers given by a naturalist who examines insects, leaves, plants, and other things at their eye level
  • Hands out a free family-activity packet designed to fine-tune children's observational skills, such as finding colors and patterns throughout the zoo
  • In April, opened a new Jungle Gym, a $1.1 million playground with a slide resembling an elephant's trunk with ears on both sides, a giant bird's nest where kids can pretend to fly, underground tunnels for burrowing like a groundhog or snake, and a climbing wall kids can scale alongside a snow leopard sculpture
  • Is celebrating its 100th birthday this year with special events and attractions, including swan paddle boats, a centennial choo-choo, a new enclosed house for butterflies, and zoo keys, which kids can use to unlock boxes within the exhibits to learn animal facts and hear jingles

One of only a handful of zoos with certified botanical gardens, Oklahoma City puts its 539 animal species in enchanting settings. For instance, in its 2 1/2-acre children's zoo and discovery area, the flamingo pond is surrounded by an azalea garden for a burst of color that's unmatched in the springtime. In the lakeside butterfly garden, more than 15,000 plants -- including such nectar-producing flowers as penta, lantana, and verbena -- attract hundreds of the winged creatures. And in the "Great EscApe" exhibit, a tropical rainforest is re-created with fallen trees, waterfalls, and pools. "Kids love it because it feels like they're in another world and they can see gorillas, orangutans, and other animals up close," says Bert Castro, the zoo's executive director.

The zoo even gives a purpose to trees that are no longer living: They're used to make beautiful animal carvings, such as a striking one of an eagle with wings spread. Other art includes bronze sculptures that children love to climb. "Toddlers just hop on our baby rhino, modeled after the one born at the zoo in 2001," says Castro. "They think it's great fun."

Contact information: 405-424-3344; www.okczoo.com

 
SIZE: 5,938 animals on 216 acres

Jim Schulz/Brookfield Zoo

  • Houses a 2,000-seat Dolphinarium, where children from the audience are selected to participate in dolphin shows
  • Showcases 20 species of butterflies as part of a screened-in, landscaped exhibit that features a winding walkway where kids can get eyeball-to-antenna with them
  • Was the first zoo to exhibit animals in a barless setting, to display pandas in North America, and to breed black rhinoceroses
  • Offers a quiet room to feed an infant and impressive restroom facilities that include two large family bathrooms and 26 changing tables -- 11 of which are located in the men's rooms

Several years ago, the Brookfield Zoo, 14 miles from Chicago, decided to add to the area devoted exclusively to children. The first step: gather the most imaginative people in the children's education and entertainment industries. "We held a brainstorming session with writers and producers from kids' favorite TV shows, award-winning teachers, and the nation's leading playground architects," says Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., the zoo's CEO.

But the most fun ideas came in phase two when the zoo recruited thirteen 5- to 10-year-olds to meet on the third Saturday of every month for a year. During the two-hour sessions, the kids gave their opinions through drawings, sculptures, discussions, journals, games, and other activities. They also used their artistic skills to create murals and designs that are on permanent display.

The result: The Hamill Family Play Zoo opened in 2001. In this 2-acre, 15-setting area, which is separate from the children's zoo, kids can touch animals, build habitats, paint murals, perform make-believe medical procedures at the animal hospital, plant gardens, discover insects, dress up in animal costumes, and make mud pies with their parents.

And there's more: "We teach children how to plant and grow a banana tree, then we lead a procession of kids to the Tropic World facility where zookeepers feed the gorillas bananas," says Dr. Strahl. "We want to stimulate children to think outside the walls of a classroom."

Contact information: 708-485-0263; www.brookfieldzoo.org

 
SIZE: 1,300 animals on 125 acres

Phoenix Zoo

  • Operates Wilderness Experience Night Camp, where families stay lakeside in a private tent, enjoy a grilled dinner with s'mores, learn about nocturnal animals, take a guided hike, and receive advice on how to navigate using the stars
  • Launched a landmark conservation program that saved the Arabian oryx (an antelope) from extinction; 30 years ago the population was only 14 animals worldwide, and now there are several thousand, with a baby due this summer
  • Offers milk at all food-service locations and healthy foods such as salads and grilled chicken sandwiches at most
  • Strings more than 2 million lights -- often in the shape of animals -- for its holiday festivities, which kick off on Thanksgiving weekend

As soon as families walk through the front gate of the Phoenix Zoo, they find themselves in the "Enchanted Forest," a magical exhibit created for kids ages 5 and under. Little ones can splash through Critter Creek and search for toy fish and ducks, watch a puppet show, and explore Rock Island, which features plants of different textures, colors, and scents. In the attached Busy Bee Toddler Play area, kids can have fun in the sand or climb over a miniature version of the Papago Buttes, the mountainous area behind the zoo.

The exhibit is also the setting for many parent-child educational programs, like Breakfast Tortoise Style (featuring a morning meal, songs, games, a craft, and a visit with Ralph and Mary, the tortoise's parents) and Bug Mania! (where kids wriggle like a bug and sing insect-theme songs). One class, Toddler Nature Time, even accepts children starting at 18 months; Phoenix is one of the only zoos to offer a course for children this young.

But older kids certainly aren't left out of the fun. In the "Forest of Uco," an exhibit designed to replicate a Colombian rainforest, kids can walk past a waterfall, look for the pacu fish, and see rare spectacled bears (they have two white circles around their eyes, giving the illusion that they're wearing glasses). Kids may encounter an archaeologist at a dig site who teaches them about ancient civilizations and suggests they look for treasure. Says Jeff Williamson, the zoo's executive director: "Since Phoenix is located right in the middle of a desert, this exhibit transports families to an entirely different place."

Contact information: 602-273-1341; www.phoenixzoo.org

 
SIZE: 1,733 animals on 75 acres

David Jenike

  • Celebrates the newest animal arrivals with Zoo Babies special events on weekends from May 15 to June 20; visitors are given a map to locate the latest additions and are treated to appearances by cartoon characters and a family-oriented show in the 1,100-seat amphitheater
  • Is home to the largest venomous snake in the New World, the bushmaster, and one of only two U.S. zoos to showcase the Chinese giant salamander
  • In 2001, delivered the first Sumatran rhino calf to be bred in captivity in 112 years; the calf's mother, Emi, is expecting another calf in late July
  • Offers 12 Ask Me Stations, where visitors can get their questions about the zoo's animals and plants answered, and a Comfort Zone with water misters, drinking fountains, and shaded tables

When the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden opened in 1875, there was little around it. Now the second-oldest zoo in the country is just a 10-minute drive from a bustling downtown. "We're an oasis in the center of Cincinnati for parents and children to escape from their busy lives and come spend time with each other," says Gregg Hudson, the zoo's president.

What are the best things to see? The award-winning "World of the Insect" exhibit includes one of the largest buildings in North America devoted to the display of live insects. Kids can step on a scale that gives them their weight in bugs and walk through a butterfly aviary. Another must-stop: "Dino Zone," an exhibit running through Labor Day, where children can walk among life-size animatronic dinosaurs and dig for fossils in an oversize sandbox.

But the most popular place is actually the nursery within the 5-acre children's zoo, says Hudson. "The infant animals housed here bring out a sense of wonderment in both adults and kids," he says. The children's zoo is also home to rare domestic breeds such as Dexter cattle, Jacob's sheep, a miniature donkey, and pot-bellied pigs, which kids can pet and feed. Other exciting spots: Otter Creek (offering underwater viewing of otters and seals) and the Discovery Center (featuring climb-on animal sculptures, climb-in tortoise shells, and a rope spider web).

Contact information: 800-94-HIPPO; www.cincinnatizoo.org

 
SIZE: 4,427 animals on 265 acres

WCS/D. Shapiro

  • Features a year-old "Tiger Mountain" exhibit, a 3-acre re-creation of Amur Valley on the border of Russia and China with dramatic views of Siberian tigers; kids can test their strength against a tiger's by pulling a spring-loaded ball
  • Shows animal-theme plays from April to October at the children's theater in its 3-acre children's zoo
  • Operates a Skyfari that transports visitors across the park
  • Will host Kids' Zoodays on July 31 and August 1; children will learn about the toys that animals play with and take part in a scavenger hunt

This year, the Bronx Zoo marks the 75th anniversary of its educational programs. The first zoo in the world to teach students, Bronx remains the leader in the field, offering 30 courses for preschoolers to 12th-graders. Its teaching materials have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and African languages, and its curriculum is used in every state and 15 nations. "Our zoo is a living classroom," says Richard Lattis, general director. "Children are constant fountains of knowledge who are going to keep adults headed toward saving wildlife."

The zoo's programs are divided into school or children's group visits, summer camps, and family outings. Pablo Python Looks at Animals is one of the most popular day camps -- a weeklong adventure for 5- to 7-year-olds. "It introduces kids to animal sizes, shapes, colors, patterns, textures, sounds, locomotion, and diet," says Lattis. "They can explore the tiger exhibit, go on a safari, and do Animal Aerobics as they sing with Pablo."

Other unique classes: Baby's First Year, where 5- to 7-year-olds help a baby tortoise celebrate its first birthday, learn the "Bullfrog Baby" song, and complete a My First Year baby book; and Daddy and Me or Mommy and Me, two-hour parent-accompanied excursions for 4- to 8-year-olds that focus on the zoo's animal moms and dads and end with a craft-making session (a mobile for fathers and a bird's nest for mothers).

For tourists who don't have time to schedule an educational session, the zoo has recently installed computers in many of the exhibits to provide additional information. In the "Congo Gorilla Forest," 21 learning bays allow visitors to try new technology, including thermal imaging, biotelemetry, and other sophisticated devices that are used to study animals. The exhibit -- which hammers home the consequences of the destruction of the rainforest -- is so powerful that it persuaded the president of Congo to declare a pristine section of his country's rainforest, which had been scheduled for logging, a wildlife preserve.

Contact information: 718-367-1010; www.bronxzoo.com

 
SIZE: 4,723 animals on 74 acres

The Toledo Zoo

  • Distributes a trading card of Eddie the Education Dog, an Australian shepherd mix who performs agility demonstrations several times daily; the back of the trading card highlights the important responsibility of pet ownership
  • On May 1, opened a 5-acre African exhibit landscaped to replicate the plains of the continent (complete with simulated termite mounds) and featuring numerous free-roaming African animals such as Masai giraffes, Grant's zebras, greater kudu, Nile lechwe, impalas, and wildebeests
  • Offers a newly renovated aviary with a walk-through exhibit of desert birds and a keyboard kids can use to play bird songs
  • Ensures that all exhibits are stroller-accessible and offers rentals of wagons and strollers at low cost

With one of the highest ratio of staff to visitors in our survey, the Toledo Zoo provides personalized attention for even the smallest guests. Its children's zoo has a minimum of four zookeepers at all times. "We want to make sure that every child has a great experience," says Bill Dennler, the zoo's executive director. "For example, some kids get scared when a goat comes up to them. If that happens, a zookeeper sits with the child on a bench where he can still pet the farm animals, but they're inside the enclosure."

The extra staffing also fuels another goal of the zoo: interactivity. In the "Arctic Encounter" exhibit, children can turn a wheel to see how Arctic animals change their coat in the winter from brown to white to blend in with their surroundings and go up to six stations that ask them questions. One, for instance, tells visitors they've been stranded in the Arctic with a big storm coming and prompts guests to figure a way out. The zoo's new "Africa!" exhibit also features a Passport Program. Kids receive a passport with pictures and facts about animals at the gate and get it stamped at five locations in the exhibit.

Contact information: 419-385-4040; www.toledozoo.org

 
SIZE: 1,500 animals on 38 acres

Todd Anderson

  • Showcases the only Tasmanian devil outside of Australia and features an Australian Welcome Center, where kids can try on swagman's (the Down Under version of a cowboy) clothes and climb into a giant kangaroo's pouch
  • Built the first Endangered Species Carousel with animals like tapirs (relatives of horses) from the Indonesian rainforest and southeast Asia
  • Was the first North American zoo to breed rare black storks; after a 15-year effort, Chocolat was hatched in 2001
  • Has family-friendly amenities such as graded walkways and a drinking fountain shaped like a lion's head

One of a handful of zoos designed for kids, the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo lives up to its mission of "not letting youngsters just see things, but do things." Although it's one of the smallest zoos in our survey (a trek from the front gate to the outermost walkable point takes about 15 minutes), it's packed with activities.

Two of the zoo's best experiences: driving a zebra jeep through the 22-acre "African Veldt" exhibit where kids will spot giraffes, ostriches, storks, and wildebeests, and visiting Dr. Diversity's Rainforest Research Station. There, kids can touch an elephant skeleton, use a short-wave radio to tune in to broadcasts from the jungle, dress up in boots and pith helmet, and climb in to the doctor's hammock. Other cool features include listening to a frog tell riddles, pumping water from a well at the "Indiana Family Farm" exhibit, and taking a pony ride.

The zoo delivers the same excitement in its educational programs, which reached more than 100,000 students last year. Many of the sessions take place within the buildings that house the animal exhibits (one, for instance, allows kids to dig in the dirt for millipedes; there's even a sleepover on the floor of the viewing area below the snake tanks), but when a classroom is required, the zoo has an amazing one: Jungle Lab, made to look like a large tent with tables, chairs, and small animals inside a circular room.

Contact information: 260-427-6800; www.kidszoo.org

 
SIZE: 11,773 animals on 90 acres

G. Jones/Columbus Zoo & Aquarium

  • Has a Tidepool Touch Tank, where kids can feel sea stars and horseshoe crabs
  • Operates a Baby Cam when the zoo has newborn animals; visitors can watch the infants bond with their mothers on TV screens in the zoo
  • Is one of only two U.S. zoos to have Victorian koalas and one of three to have kiwi, an Australian bird
  • Offers Stings, Wings, 'N Playthings, an insect-theme playground with a giant monarch climb and millipede slide

From walking though a new kangaroo yard to taking a boat ride past Komodo dragons and orangutans, the exhibits at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium are most impressive. And during the year, the zoo provides extra incentive to visit: a swarm of fun-filled special events.

On Wednesdays from June 23 to August 11, the zoo hosts Family Night in the Hollow -- with professional musicians, storytellers, craft tables, and a kids' jam session -- at Habitat Hollow, the 2-acre children's zoo. It will team up with the Columbus Children's Hospital on August 7 for its annual Teddy Bear Safari; kids can bring their bear to the park for free checkups and enjoy bear-theme programs and character visits. "Our goal is to make medical procedures -- even a routine visit to the doctor's office -- less scary for children," says Gerald W. Borin, Columbus Zoo's executive director.

The fall brings an insect fair, a Halloween event with candy and a train ride, and the first weekend of Wildlights, a holiday celebration with ice skating, wagon rides, and 2 million lights.

Contact information: 614-645-3550; www.columbuszoo.org

 

11. Saint Louis Zoo

12. Houston Zoo

13. Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

14. Indianapolis Zoo

15. Zoo Atlanta

16. Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum, OK

17. Fort Worth Zoo, TX

18. Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, LA

19. Potawatomi Zoo, South Bend, IN

20. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, NE

Thanks to Our Panel of Experts

The following zoo professionals served on the advisory board for this story: Jeff Flocken, International Affairs Specialist, United States Fish and Wildlife Service Division of International Conservation in Arlington, VA; Conrad Schmitt, zoo consultant, Kansas City, MO; Geralyn Warfield, director of Project WILD at the Council for Environmental Education in Houston and former director of education at the Houston Zoo; and Bruce Read, former director of the Birmingham Zoo and curator at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and currently a zoo consultant, St. Louis, MO.

To be included in this survey, all zoos had to meet the safety requirements of the American Zoo & Aquarium Association, which conducts on-site inspections of everything from the walkways to the alarm systems for escaped animals. Unfortunately, it's not foolproof.

The recent tragedy at the Dallas Zoo, where a gorilla escaped and injured three people, underscores the need for parents to keep safety in mind when visiting any zoo. Follow these suggestions from Child's advisory board of zoo professionals.

  • Respect the animals. Loud noises, shouting, and horsing around may agitate animals. Some reports suggest that the gorilla at the Dallas Zoo was teased before it broke free. And don't feed the animals unless instructed otherwise; most are on special diets.
  • Obey the rules. They're for your protection. Stay behind safety barriers at all exhibits, and make sure your little ones keep their hands out of the cages -- unless a zookeeper instructs them that it's okay to pet an animal in the children's zoo.
  • Wash up frequently. If your child does pet an animal, immediately wash her hands to remove any possible E. coli, bacteria that can make her seriously ill. For the same reason, don't eat or drink near petting areas. If a pacifier, bottle, or sippy cup falls in this area, don't use it until you're able to sanitize it at home. Your best bet: Pack extra.

Originally published in the June/July 2004 issue of Child magazine.