A small zoo with a modest collection of well-cared for animals can provide a delightful and educational experience for children and the grown up kids who accompany them. If such a zoo is also mindful of research and conservation, it can be considered as great a zoo as Singapore or San Diego, two of the strongest contenders for best zoo in the world.
Such a zoo is Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, New York, where menagerie-style cages have almost disappeared in favor of open, natural habitat enclosures. There is a strong emphasis on education and the zoo has a modern animal hospital and an interactive Z.O.T. Zone, (Zoologists of Tomorrow). There are many such zoos in areas where the welfare of the animals is the primary consideration. But, when it comes to considering other criteria for greatness, they are overshadowed by the bigger zoos whose reputations rest on collecting and displaying exotic animals.
The oldest zoo in the world is one located in the grounds of SchönbrunnPalace, Vienna, which was housed a menagerie of sorts as early as 1570, and was declared an imperial menagerie in 1752 by Emperor Franz I. Today TiergartenSchönbrunn,as the Austrians call it, is a scientifically administered zoo whose main purpose iseducation and species conservation.
Other zoos in continental Europe which make most lists of great zoos are Basel, founded in 1874 with an animal population currently 6000-strong; the fairly recent Beauval zoo in France with show-stopping white tigers; Berlin zoo which survived World War II (just) and now boasts some 14,000 animals including many rare species; Barcelona and Prague. Surprizingly absent from these lists is London Zoo, the world’s first scientific zoo, which was originally intended to be a collection for scientific study. Since it opened to the public in 1847, it has delighted millions of visitors with innovative programmes like “Meet the Penguins” and “Adopt an Animal”. Both of these establish a close relationship between visitor and animal, and that, in turn, can make a huge difference to the attitude of the public towards animals and conservation.
The Southern Hemisphere is represented by the Taronga Zoo in Sydney where you can experience “Roar and Snore” styled as the ultimate sleepover –good food, luxurious tents and Lions, Snow Leopards and Meerkats on call. The South African National Zoo in Pretoria has long had a reputation for a great Zoo experience, but the nearby Johannesburg provides great up-close-and-personal experiences with elephants, penguins and reptiles have delighted generations of families of all colors.
The United States is home to many excellent zoos – The National Zoo in Washington, DC; the Philadelphia Zoo; the Bronx Zoo (250 acres in the heart of New York), the tiny but delightful Central Park Zoo; and San Diego with its signature life-size topiary of an elephant. The Toronto Zoo rivals San Diego in size (its bigger) and number of animals, as well as interactive education and conservation activities.
The zoo that seems to rise to the top of most lists is not the oldest, or the biggest; it is not in Europe or America. It is the zoo which in 1973 introduced the concept of open exhibits. This is the tiny (63 acres) Singapore Zoo set in tropical rain forest – orchids rampant – where is it possible to meet an Orangutans wandering the paths. Not neglecting conservation and education, the Singapore Zoo offers it 1.6 million annual visitors the chance to view animals living in captivity, yes, but as close to nature as it is possible to get.