Best Zoo Midwest

Maria Johnson
• Wednesday, 30 December, 2020
• 7 min read

Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting. Home to several zoos considered among the best in the world, the Midwest offers plenty of memorable animal experiences.

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Several zoos participate in conservation programs aimed at saving endangered animals and protecting their natural habitats. The exhibits dedicated to African animals feature forest and Savannah areas, where you will find okapi as well as giraffes and painted dogs.

Pro Tip: Following your visit to the Brookfield Zoo, make the short drive to the Irish Times Pub, where you can enjoy traditional Celtic fare like corned beef and cabbage and Guinness beef stew. The zoo attracts millions of visitors each year with its exhibits highlighting animals from around the world.

The minute you see the impressive life-size animal sculptures at the entrance of the Saint Louis Zoo, you’ll know you’re in for a fun experience. Located in the city’s famous Forest Park, the zoo features six sections to explore, from the Lakeside Crossing area with sea lions and other sea creatures to the Red Rocks area with all kinds of cats, including mountain lions and tigers.

Additional attractions like the sea lion show, stingrays at Caribbean Cove, and seasonal safari tours also require an extra fee. Pro Tip: Following your visit to the Saint Louis Zoo, head over to Crown Candy Kitchen for a unique dining experience.

The diner is popular and wait times can last up to 40 minutes, but once you’re inside and seated at one of the booths, you’ll appreciate the decor and atmosphere. You can see more than 1,800 animals on the zoo’s almost 200 acres, and you’ll love feeding the giraffes and watching the brown bears relax in a hammock.

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The neat raptor exhibit is free, but the sea lion show and other special attractions require an extra fee. Pro Tip: Just minutes from the zoo, La Fuentes offers fantastic Mexican food.

From chips and dip to combos featuring enchiladas, tamales, burritos, and tacos, there’s something for everyone in your party. Again joined the family in 2018, and now the zoo houses one of the larger elephant herds in the Midwest.

Pro Tip: After your visit to the zoo, head downtown for an impressive Mediterranean meal. Animals that live above the 45th parallel can be found on the Northern Trail -- that’s why you’ll leave the Siberian tiger exhibit and find yourself staring down an American bison.

Along the Tropics Trail, which is located inside the rainforest, you’ll encounter animals such as red pandas, sloths, and flamingos. The Medtronic Minnesota Trail showcases animals native to the state, including black bears, wolverines, gray wolves, and lynx.

Don’t forget to stop by Russia’s Grizzly Coast and check out the brown bears roaming about. The restaurant, which was founded in 1987, features a top sirloin steak cooked to perfection, along with grilled chicken, fish, and other great entrée choices.

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Conservationists have been able to double the world population over the past 20 years, bringing the animal back from near extinction. While the numbers continue to improve, more work is required to save the black rhino.

The Great Plains Zoo is home to nearly 1,000 animals from around the world, including snow leopards, zebras, Humboldt penguins, gibbons, squirrel monkeys, and brown and black bears. Pro Tip: After visiting the Great Plains Zoo, head to Tap house 41 and try one of the unique burgers.

The Oklahoma City Zoo’s 10-acre elephant exhibit is one of the largest in the country and features play areas that are designed to help the pachyderms behave the same way they would in their native environment. The Oklahoma Trail highlights animals native to the area, including the black bear, alligator, bison, and several snakes.

Pro Tip: Head to Tucker’s Onion Burgers for a local treat. It’s great fun to watch the North American river otters swim and scurry about.

Be sure to purchase a ticket for the Kenyan cruise boat that offers a great view of the African animals. The burnt-end burger features spicy pickle slaw and is topped with tangy barbecue sauce.

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The Henry Poorly Zoo is also home to one of the country’s largest exhibits featuring African animals. The African Grasslands exhibit occupies about a third of the zoo’s 160 acres and houses cheetahs, lions, and giraffes.

The Asian Highlands exhibit includes animals such as the red panda, sloth bear, and taken. Other fan-favorite exhibits include the Gorilla Valley, Meadowlark Theater, and Butterfly and Insect Pavilion, as well as the Scott Aquarium, home to a popular penguin attraction and a tunnel that allows visitors to walk amidst sea life.

Pro Tip: Following a fun-filled day at the Henry Poorly Zoo, head to Malaria’s Italian Restaurant. The dishes are still made with the pasta maker that owner Caterina Malaria used to make ravioli in her basement more than 30 years ago.

When you taste the unique pasta and special sauce (a recipe known only to Caterina), you’ll feel like you’re in Italy. Try the old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs or pasta carbonate, and start with an order of the famous fried ravioli.

4.1 Shed Aquarium contains over 1,500 different species, including fish, marine mammals, birds, snakes, amphibians, and insects. 4.7 One of the world's top-rated free-admission animal parks, features both indoor and outdoor exhibits, as well as a children's petting zoo.

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4.6 Located on the road to Mount Rushmore, Reptile Gardens was entered into the Guinness World Records in 2014 for being the largest reptile zoo 4.8 Get a glimpse of 1,500 animals and 56 species from around the world at Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.

4.6 Home to 25 animal exhibits and a garden containing nearly 50,000 plants, Como Park Zoo & Conservatory pairs the education of a wildlife park 4.5 Toledo Zoo, home of 4,800 animals, was chosen by USA Today as the best zoo in America for 2014.

4.5 Despite its relatively small size, Henry Vila's Zoo showcases animals from around the world in a mix of indoor and outdoor habitats. You hate to pay the full price for a major zoo, deal with the hassle of a large parking lot, and leave after a few hours.

This is small, six-acre free Columbian Park Zoo is great for a couple of hours with little ones. And, although it was a tight squeeze, I couldn’t resist crawling into a tunnel and popping up in the midst of the prairie dog town.

Leave it to Skip to scratch the head of a goat in the petting zoo. Future expansion plans include an Africa area, walk-through aviary, carousel, and more.

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Approximately 500 animals represent 160 different species at Dickerson Park Zoo. Today, like most modern zoos, exhibits are themed around geographical areas: South America, Australia, Tropical Asia, and Africa.

In addition, a water play area lets kids cool off on a hot Ozarks day. For a FREE subscription, enter your e-mail address in the Subscribe2 box to the right and click Subscribe.

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo was designed with kids in mind, but we adults love it, too. With many of the same features as a large zoo, but on a smaller scale, it’s easy to spend several hours here.

Approximately 1,000 animals cover the gamut from penguins to leopards, peacocks to orangutans. Lush landscape, full of greenery and fountains, add to the zoo’s appeal.

The newest ride, a narrated Crocodile Creek Adventure, takes you down an Australian river in a log boat. In the Africa exhibit, large animals include white rhinoceros, African lion, and giraffe.

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In July 2015, about the same time we visited, the Pottawatomie Zoo unveiled its new master plan for revitalization. The Pottawatomie Zoo is home to over 400 animals on 23 acres, including big cats, zebras, and chimpanzees.

The 90+ species in this 15-acre zoo include Bengal tigers and grizzly bears. Lure colorful parakeets with a feed stick, and they’ll perch on your hand.

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