Meet the 25 Most Famous Zoo Animals
Everyone can remember the zoo animal that most impacted them as a child, but some are so popular, they transcend our memories, and for better or worse, they find themselves on the world stage.
Meet the 25 zoo animals who have captured our attention over the past two decades, and find out what they’re doing today.
Kept at: Cincinnati Zoo
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Born six weeks premature at the Cincinnati Zoo on Jan. 24, 2017, Fiona weighed only 29 pounds at birth — 25 pounds less than the lowest recorded weight for her species for a newborn.
Against all odds, she survived and later thrived, due to the zoo’s tireless efforts to feed and care for her all day, every day.
Now a healthy weight for a hippo her age (more than 1,500 pounds), she is now a young woman, but not yet ready to date. That won’t happen until she’s about five.
At the time, the zoo will hopefully bring her a boyfriend: "We don't want her going anywhere," said Wendy Rice, head keeper of the zoo’s Africa Department. "We're hopeful that, if she gets a breeding recommendation, a male would be brought here for her so she wouldn't have to leave Cincinnati."
Kept at: SeaWorld Orlando
Location: Orlando, Florida
At 22-feet long and weighing more than 11,000 pounds, Tilikum had been in captivity since the mid-1970s. He performed for adoring crowds for decades and sired nearly two dozen calves in SeaWorld’s breeding program.
However, his tenure at the park was not without incident. Over time, he became known for his aggressiveness, and by the 1990s, he had killed two people — a marine biology student and a man who had climbed into his tank overnight.
His problems were virtually unknown to the world until 2010 when he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in front of a live audience. SeaWorld came under fire for keeping orcas in captivity, particularly after the film “Blackfish,” which documented cruelty toward Tilikum.
After massive public outcry, SeaWorld made the decision to stop its orca shows and breeding program altogether. It still keeps captive whales at the park, but this generation will be its last. Tilikum died of old age in 2013.
Kept at: Vancouver Aquarium
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
During the pandemic, the internet became captivated by an orphaned baby sea otter discovered off the coast of Kyuquot, British Columbia, in July 2020. Joey was found crying near his already dead mom, and he was taken to the Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Rescue Center.
For three months, caregivers provided around-the-clock care, which was streamed to YouTube where he gained legions of fans.
After 33 days, the thriving otter pup was transferred to the Vancouver Aquarium where he currently resides with a number of other otters, but his internet fame continues. There's a 24/7 camera over the otter lagoon where fans can watch him play with his newfound family and symbolically “adopt” him and the others for $35.
The money goes toward his care and the operation of the aquarium itself, which has fallen victim to financial problems due to the pandemic. So far, more than $200,000 in donations have been given.
Sir Nils Olav (Penguin)
Kept at: Edinburgh Zoo
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Plenty of zoos have penguins, but Sir Nils Olav is no ordinary animal — he has a military background.
In 1961, Norwegian King’s Guard Lieutenant Nils Egelien visited the Edinburgh zoo and was fascinated with its penguin colony, so much so that he arranged for the Guard to adopt a penguin and give it a rank.
So far, there have been three penguins who have been in the Norwegian Guard, and they go up in rank each time the Guard visits the zoo. The latest Sir Nils has the highest rank yet — brigadier — and was made official in 2016 with all the pomp and circumstance his role warrants.
When he’s not on duty, he lives a happy, civilian life in the zoo’s penguin colony.
Kept at: San Diego Zoo
Location: San Diego, California
Diego, a Galápagos tortoise, was taken from his home of Española, an uninhabited island off Ecuador some time in the 1930s and lived at the San Diego Zoo. In the mid-1960s, it was discovered that there were so few tortoises on Española that the breed was in danger of becoming extinct.
Diego, one of the last of his kind, was brought to the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz island to help propagate his species — and help he did.
Diego sired more than 2,000 tortoises, which now make up more than 40 percent of the island’s population. He was so successful, Galápagos National Park ended the breeding program after having met its conservation goals.
Diego was retired and brought back to Española to live out his days in his true home. At just 100 years old, he still has quite a few decades to enjoy it!
Kept at: Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Location: Clearwater, Florida
In 2005, Winter was found tangled in a crab trap off the Florida coast. The two-month-old calf was rescued but severely injured — the trap had cut off circulation to her tail.
She was brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where she was nursed back to health, but her tail would eventually have to be amputated.
To give her as normal a life as possible, the aquarium worked with health professionals to create a prosthetic tail that would help her swim normally. After 14 years, she continues to be a popular attraction at the aquarium and around the world.
The 2011 film “Dolphin Tale”is based on her life and stars Winter herself!
Knut (Polar Bear)
Kept at: Berlin Zoo
Location: Berlin, Germany
Knut was an adorable sensation when he was born in 2006. Rejected by his mother, he was reared by zookeepers and was an immediate tourist attraction.
“Knutmania" became a cottage industry for the zoo, spawning books, toys and everything in between. The Berlin Zoo also became the most profitable it had ever been.
Knut made it to adulthood, but his life was tragically cut short. In 2011, at only four years old, he died in his enclosure from what looked like a seizure.
During an autopsy, it was found that he had contracted anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease that had only occurred in humans until that point.
Kept at: Cincinnati Zoo
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Harambe was captive-born; he had never known life in the wild. He had lived an uneventful existence at the Cincinnati Zoo for a few years and was a popular attraction.
However, his fate would change in an instant on one day in May 2016. It was during that month that a three-year-old boy fell into Harambe’s living area and was dragged around by the imposing silverback who weighed nearly 400 pounds.
Zookeepers had no choice but to shoot the animal, as they were sure it was going to injure the boy. There was plenty of public outcry against the zookeepers; however, officials insisted that there was no other alternative.
Cincinnati Zoo Director Thayne Maynard later said it was the boy’s screaming that was a threat to Harambe: "If the child had been knocked unconscious and hadn’t made a sound after he fell in the enclosure, things would have turned out differently."
Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
Kept at: Bronx Zoo
Location: Bronx, New York
In 2011, the Bronx Zoo began a rather unusual tradition in honor of Valentine’s Day.
It allows people to name a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach after a loved one (or someone that perhaps isn’t so revered anymore), and it’s become more and more popular with each passing year.
For just $15, participants get a downloadable certificate with their newly monicked roach’s information to give to the object of their affection. Donation upgrades get a plush roach, a scented roach candle or the opportunity to meet their roach virtually.
All proceeds go to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Kept at: Leipzig Zoo
Location: Leipzig, Germany
A North American Virginia opossum named Heidi had a home and huge fan base in Germany's Leipzig Zoo. In December 2010, the adorable cross-eyed animal became an international celebrity after her photo was printed in Bild magazine.
She inspired songs, toys and had a Facebook profile that was more than 300,000 followers strong.
Heidi's crossed eyes were said to have been caused by malnutrition in her youth. While she was mostly healthy, her eyesight made her vulnerable to predators in the wild.
The zoo put her on a healthy diet and kept her fit and happy until her death in 2011 from old age.
Kept at: Sea Life Centre
Location: Berlin, Germany
Paul had a talent not many octopuses have — he was able to accurately predict the outcome of soccer matches. To place his bet, the animal oracle was given two boxes of food, which were identical in every aspect, except for the team flags that adorned them.
Whatever box Paul first ate from was predicted to be the winner of the upcoming match.
Paul was indeed prescient — he picked winners in four of six matches in 2008 and accurately predicted all of the World Cup matches in 2010.
He died of natural causes the same year.
Kept at: Primarily Primates
Location: Bexar County, Texas
Oliver was a chimpanzee that exuded human qualities — he walked upright and physically looked like a “missing link.” As a result, he spent much of his early life on display for entertainment until he was sold to an animal testing lab in 1988.
No tests were performed on Ollie due to his human-like appearance and behavior, but he was kept in a cramped cage for almost a decade.
Texas sanctuary Primarily Primates acquired him in 1996. He lived out his golden years at the sanctuary and even found love in a chimp named Raisin.
He died at 55 years old in 2012.
Kept at: Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary
Kavaan was stuck in a decrepit zoo in Pakistan since he was a one-year-old calf. A gift from Sri Lanka, he was chained and abused for more than three decades and lost his only companion in 2012. He spent the next few years depressed and showing aggressive behavior to his handlers — it was only a matter of time before something tragic occurred to him and the people around him.
By 2020, a Pakastani court ordered the zoo’s doors shut, but officials still didn’t know what to do with Kavaan.
Enter Cher, who learned the elephant’s plight via the internet. Through her charity, she offered to help find Kavaan and other animals a home better suited to their needs.
Kavaan was transferred to Cambodia's Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in December 2020. The former “world’s loneliest elephant” is now thriving — he has plenty of room to roam and is slowly getting to know the other elephants in the sanctuary.
Kept at: SeaWorld San Diego
Location: San Diego, California
Shamu is not just one orca but has been several orcas over the past four decades. SeaWorld’s first killer whale, the original Shamu, was captured in 1965 and sold to SeaWorld San Diego that year.
Much like Tilikum, she became aggressive with humans over time, particularly a SeaWorld employee who was bitten before a performance. After the employee sued the park, Shamu was retired from performing, and another whale took her place.
No one was killed during the original Shamu’s reign; incidents were swept under the rug, and the “Shamu” brand became a cottage industry for the park.
The original orca died in 1971 from septicemia and pyometra, but the brand lasted until Tilikum’s (i.e., one of the last Shamus) tragic accident in 2010.
Xiao Qi Ji (Panda)
Kept at: National Zoo
Location: Washington, D.C.
The moment pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1972, they were celebrities. They represented the thawing relations between China and the U.S. and were a gift from the Chinese government to the zoo after President Richard Nixon’s visit to the country.
During their lifetimes, the pandas captured the hearts of visitors from all walks of life with their playful antics. Zookeepers tried to breed them over the years; however, attempts proved unsuccessful — five cubs were born in the 1980s but never made it past infancy.
The National Zoo’s breeding luck has finally changed — it’s been blessed with three cubs over the past decade, courtesy of panda Mei Xiang. At 22, she became the oldest panda mother in the U.S. to give birth when she introduced the world to Xiao Qi Ji in August 2020.
The baby, now a toddler, has legions of fans from around the world and will live at the National Zoo with Mei Xiang and mate Tian Tian before all three are relocated to China at the end of 2023.
Kept at: Animal Adventure Park
Location: Harpursville, New York
In 2017, millions watched and waited as a pregnant giraffe named April went into labor and gave birth on a Facebook streaming channel.
Animal Adventure Park created such a viral moment, it continued the livestream, so viewers could also get to know April’s adorable brood.
The 17-year-old giraffe gave birth to five calves before retiring out of the breeding program in 2019.
Since then, the camera has been following her daughter, Johari, who they believe is also about to become a mother.
Kept at: Denver Zoo
Location: Denver, Colorado
At the end of 2020, the Denver Zoo lost a Sumatran orangutan named Nias, mother to Cerah, three, and, Hesty, 10. The zoo was concerned as to how Cerah would survive without her mom, as she is still a child and will be for some years (orangutans can live up to 60 years in captivity.)
They need not worry, however — her dad, Berani, has stepped up to the plate.
While it may not seem unusual for a male orangutan to take on the role of single dad, it doesn’t happen in the wild. "To see Berani step up as ‘Mr Mom,’ is an extremely rare situation — and Cerah couldn't have asked for a better father," an official from the Denver Zoo said on Facbook. “Berani is so attentive and protective of her, seeing to all her needs. He will carry her, comfort her and even snuggles her when she sleeps.”
Hesty has also stepped in, and the three have created a solid family unit in the absence of their matriarch.
Kept at: Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Location: Columbia, South Carolina
Lottie had a grand life at the Riverbanks Zoo and was a favorite of patrons as well as staff.
She had a massive impact on the zoo koala population — she had 11 joeys, who, in turn, had 15 grandchildren. She has seven great-grandchildren and three great-great grandkids.
The zoo’s director of animal care and welfare, John Davis, said, "Lottie was always receptive to the keepers, she was always great on exhibit, she was a wonderful mom, and she took such great care of her joeys.”
Koalas live, at most, 18 years, but Lottie made it to the ripe old age of 19 before passing away in January 2021.
Kept at: Gorilla Foundation
Location: Woodside, California
Koko was probably the world’s most well-known gorilla. Beloved by millions, she got her start at the San Francisco Zoo.
When she was a year old, she was loaned to Stanford University for communications research and was later adopted by the Gorilla Foundation, who continued studying her ability to “speak.”
Koko was able to communicate via sign language — she learned 1,000 words and was able to understand twice that number. During her lifetime, she met and chatted with celebrities including Robin Williams and Mr. Rogers, among others.
Koko died in her sleep at age 46 in 2018.
Kept at: Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary
Location: Ontario, Canada
Most people remember the image of a small monkey dressed in a warm coat and a diaper looking lost in a Toronto Ikea back in 2012.
Later named Darwin, he was a victim of the exotic animal trade and had been taken from his mother far too early. His owner fought to keep him, but as it was illegal to own him in Ontario, she agreed he should find a home more suited to his needs.
In 2013, Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary took him in, and it was there he learned how to be a primate.
According to the organization, Darwin “has adjusted to sanctuary life by being surrounded by other macaques who have taught him appropriate monkey behaviors such as grooming and learning … and he isn't necessarily first in line to get treats and meals.”
Quy Bau (Francois Langur)
Kept at: Philadelphia Zoo
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The “newest” zoo animal on this list, Quy Bau was born on Dec. 13, 2020, at the Philadelphia Zoo and has already gone viral due to her adorable looks.
Born to two other langurs at the zoo, she had a rough start, according to zoo officials: "When she was first born, our team noticed Mei Mei (Quy Bau’s mom) wasn’t attending to her, which isn’t uncommon.”
Vet staff took over for the tired mom for a few days, feeding Quy Bau and giving her a warm bath until the elder monkey was up for the challenge.
Since then, she, her mom and her dad have finally bonded.
Maki (Ring-Tailed Lemur)
Kept at: San Francisco Zoo
Location: San Francisco, California
Maki was just another lemur enjoying life at the San Francisco Zoo when, on the morning of Oct., 14, 2020, it was discovered he was missing.
The zoo found evidence of a break-in and was soon aware that Maki had been kidnapped.
The zoo posted a reward for his return and pleaded for help from the public. Within 24 hours, the zoo got its wish — a five-year-old boy spotted the lost lemur in the parking lot of a church where he attends daycare.
Maki was captured without incident and is happy, healthy and back where he belongs.
Billy, Eric, Tyson, Jade and Elsie (African Grey Parrots)
Kept at: Lincolnshire Wildlife Park
Location: Lincolnshire, England, U.K.
Five African grey parrots from five different households joined the 200-strong flock at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in August 2020.
While healthy, they didn’t stay together for long — sometime during the quarantine, one learned to swear, taught the others and they all showed their newfounds skills to curious onlookers whose reactions would encourage them to continue.
While they still have a home at the park, they’ve been separated from the general public. Most zoo patrons got a kick out of their antics, but officials were concerned for underage visitors, and as parrots communicate mimicking what they hear, they did not want the birds to pass their colorful vocabulary any further.
Park CEO Steve Nichols said, "I'm hoping they learn different words within colonies, but if they teach the others bad language, and I end up with 250 swearing birds, I don't know what we'll do.”
Kept at: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
Location: Tacoma, Washington
E.T. was found orphaned by oil workers off the coast of Alaska in 1982. He made his way to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium where he grew to be nearly 4,000 pounds.
Thanks to the internet, he wowed people all over the world with his adorable personality and his talent for vocalizations — he could whistle, bray and mimic the sound of a bell.
In 2015, E.T. had surgery on his pharyngeal pouch, but as he was already geriatric and had a host of health problems, he didn’t survive. Senior Staff Biologist Lisa Triggs, who worked with him for 19 years, said: “E.T. was an utterly amazing animal. He was extremely bright … and forgiving with his keepers.”
Today, a nearly life-size sculpture of E.T. sits at the entrance to Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.
Toshi (Black Rhino)
Kept at: Zoo Miami
Location: Miami, Florida
Toshi was born in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1977 and found a permanent home at Zoo Miami (then Miami Metrozoo) in 1983.
This gentle giant was a well-loved ambassador for the zoo and met thousands of people, from celebrities to school children who were immediately taken with his charming personality.
At 44 years old, Toshi had a variety of ailments that came with old age, but over time, the treatments for them became less effective. Eventually, the zoo had no choice but to end his suffering in early 2021.
He sired several offspring, ensuring that his species would continue — at the time of his passing, he was a great-great grandfather many times over.