10 Worst Zoos in the U.S.
Does anyone remember going to the circus as a kid? Seeing wild animals perform and snacking on peanuts might seem like a dream, but for the animals, it was a nightmare. Now, we know better. Circuses have been called out for their unethical practices, and now the worst zoos are coming under fire as well.
Zoos like to make it seem that they're all about conservation and animal welfare, but the sad reality is that many are just in it for profit. Elephants, in particular, are difficult to care for properly. They require tons of space, socialization, the right climate and plenty of other elephant amenities to help them live long, happy lives.
Using the In Defense of Animals ranking of worst zoos for elephants combined with one-star Tripadvisor reviews, we compiled a list of the 10 absolute worst zoos in the U.S. So, the next time you consider visiting one, maybe just watch Animal Planet instead.
10. Cameron Park Zoo
Location: Waco, Texas
Year opened: 1993
What visitors say: “We have been to quite a few zoos, and this was one of the most poorly maintained. The place was just not maintained ... trash in and beside the walks, trash in the exhibits. One of the large cats had a fairly large wound on the upper portion of his left hind quarter. It shouldn't have been on display, it should have been at a vet. Additionally, one of the coyotes was constantly pacing, this is an indication of being stressed.” — Paul T, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: It’s bad enough keeping a pair of elephants alone. At Cameron Park Zoo, however, one of the two elephants kept there died in September 2020. This leaves the remaining elephant, Tembo, in complete isolation. That’s the equivalent of living the rest of your life without ever seeing another human face.
9. Myrtle Beach Safari
Location: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Year opened: 1983
What visitors say: “Please reconsider your way of conservation. It all seemed very nice ... But I will never go again! People, please stop posing with wildlife to look cool on a picture. It's not natural nor animal friendly.” — Robin S, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: At the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, the internet was abuzz about the Netflix documentary, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness." This is one of the zoos mentioned in the show. The series focused on the big cats there, but Bubbles, an African elephant, is held in isolation, too. The zoo’s owner, Bhavagan Antle, claims to have rescued Bubbles. In reality, he trafficked her during the 1980s — solidly earning its spot on the list of worst zoos, if you can even call it a zoo at all.
8. Memphis Zoo
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Year opened: 1906
What visitors say: “This zoo seems old and run down. Bathrooms were very dirty. They need to expand most of the areas. There are two huge hippos in a very small pool. Several situations like this. It is very sad to see the animals in too small of a space. They need to hire more help to keep it clean, and 25 percent of the animals were not out to view. Very disappointing zoo.” — kleee3, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: To start, Memphis Zoo has sketchy connections with circuses. The elephants in their “care” were previously subject to abuse in circus acts before “retiring” at the zoo. One of the worst zoos in the country, Memphis Zoo likes to advertise that it has the oldest African elephant in North America, but it glosses over the fact that elephants consistently live much longer in the wild.
7. Fort Worth Zoo
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
Year opened: 1909
What visitors say: ““DIRE LIVING CONDITIONS FOR MOST ANIMALS. Animals pacing back and forth at the exact same spot for long periods of time (signs of caged distressed animals), some visibly underweight like the white tiger or [some have] a discolored/unnatural look, and terribly small cages for the vast majority of the animals. First and last time I’ll visit, can’t support places that treat animals like this. I encourage you to please not choose to look the other way; those animals deserve better!” — Karen P, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: Recently, Fort Worth Zoo tried to buy two female Asian elephants for breeding purposes from another terrible zoo in Canada. Elephants are traumatized by frequent transfers, and zoos can’t breed elephants fast enough to make up for their premature deaths, earning it a prime spot on our top 10 list — especially when it comes to elephant care.
6. Pittsburgh Zoo
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Year opened: 1898
What visitors say: “The zoo was fine EXCEPT for the orangutans!!!! The orangutans are kept in a small concrete prison with no natural light. It is one of the worst animal exhibits I have ever seen. I was stunned; it was like they were serving time but without the luxury of time in the yard. Also, somehow all but one meerkat died months ago, and now on exhibit is one single meerkat for months now. They need socialization, and this little guy is so alone. So be warned, this zoo can be pretty depressing.” — OminousRex, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: In the world of wild animal care, it’s a well-known fact that concrete flooring is harmful to elephants. But, sadly, the Pittsburgh Zoo doesn’t seem to care. It still has elephants housed in cramped enclosures with concrete floors, causing chronic pain and severe physical disabilities. Definitely one of the worst zoos.
5. Seneca Park Zoo
Location: Rochester, New York
Year opened: 1894
What visitors say: “Underfunded/need to move large cats. This zoo is far too small, and its enclosures are so outdated. They need to consider moving many of the animals. It appears they just don't have the funding to keep them. Especially the large cats.” — Nicole R, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: Elephants are native to warm climates. They can tolerate the cold temporarily, but they’re not meant for icy, New York winters. This has led to several of Seneca Park’s elephants developing illnesses, particularly severe, painful arthritis. This led to one elephant’s premature death after she could no longer bear to stand up.
4. Hogle Zoo
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Year opened: 1931
What visitors say: “Animals should not be incarcerated ... I wouldn't spend $1 visiting this prison for animals. It is far from a world-class zoo that allows animals outside often. They are confined in cell blocks unless it's feeding time or time for visitors. Close this zoo down!” — Will H, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: Elephants aren’t meant to be loners. Hogle Zoo keeps Christie and Zuri, a mother-daughter pair, alone, which is lower than the bare minimum of three. Ideally, the elephants would be kept in a much larger social group. It’s not the absolute worst zoo, but it’s far from the best.
3. The Bronx Zoo
Location: Bronx, New York
Year opened: 1899
What visitors say: “Animal cruelty. There is a seal with a huge brand on its back! They say it’s because the seal was hunting endangered fish, but why would you burn numbers into its back and have it swimming in a pool that is way too small? This needs to be addressed.” — Kevin, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: While the Bronx Zoo is accredited, it's ignored the widely published research surrounding elephant care. Both of their Asian elephants, Happy and Patty, live in isolation. This goes against every modern convention for elephant welfare standards.
2. Monterey Zoo
Location: Salinas, California
Year opened: 1994
What visitors say: “Elephants there are mistreated. Be aware that when you visit this zoo you're funding elephant abuse. Two elephants have died there recently in suspicious circumstances, and the zoo has recently been sued for violating the California law prohibiting the use of bullhooks and other instruments designed to inflict pain on elephants. I visited recently and it was clear that the elephants are abused and need to be relocated to a sanctuary that serves their needs.” — patgarrett, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: Monterey Zoo is purported to be a “retirement home” for elephants, but that’s far from the reality. This is why Monterey is one of the worst zoos in the U.S. The average age their elephants have passed away so far is only 22, which is extremely young. They died not from old age but from illness caused by the poor conditions in which they were kept.
1. Natural Bridge Zoo
Location: Natural Bridge, Virginia
Year opened: 1972
What visitors say: “Shut it down!!!!!! Truly one of the saddest days of my life. Shut this place down. The animals are abused in this privately owned disgrace. Horrible.” — Cameron H, Tripadvisor
Why it’s the worst: After seven years on the list of worst zoos for elephants, Natural Bridge Zoo hasn’t improved. The roadside zoo has a history of almost 150 Animal Welfare Act violations. The resident elephant, Asha, gives thousands of rides to visitors each year and is under threat of physical harm if she doesn’t cooperate. Yes, worst zoo ever.