25 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 and Yelp reviews, we compiled a list of the 25 absolute worst zoos in the U.S. So the next time you consider visiting one, maybe just watch Animal Planet instead.
25. The Los Angeles Zoo
Location: Los Angeles, California
Year opened: 1966 (at current location)
What Visitors Say About the Los Angeles Zoo
"No large felines (except the napping tiger), no canines (OK, a duiker was there), no hippos, no rhinos, no baboons, no bears (polar, brown, black, panda). And due to Covid precautions, the many smaller enclosures were chained off so that the visitors could not get close to the glass/fence. Also, many areas in the info map were faded out implying that they were unavailable." —Rosanna S., Yelp
Why the Los Angeles Zoo Is the Worst
The Los Angeles Zoo has had its issues over the years, but the staff clearly cares about the animals. The problem is that officials want to change the zoo, located in Griffith Park, into more of an amusement park for humans, which will not only do untold damage to the animals in the zoo, but also those in the surrounding areas of the park.
Shockingly, the Los Angeles Zoo wants to add a hilltop structure with a vineyard above the zoo, a gondola, and rock climbing wall that's 60-feet high. The construction alone would stress the animals already at the zoo, as well as destroy 23 acres of native woodland and 227 city-protected trees.
24. Three Bears General Store
Location: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Year opened: 1979
What Visitors Say About Three Bears General Store
"Keeping bears in concrete pits is cruel. These poor animals are suffering to help you sell novelties to tourists. Please allow them to be released to a sanctuary." —Jessica M., Yelp
Why Three Bears General Store Is the Worst
Less a zoo and more roadside attraction, Three Bears is on PETA's watch list. The three Asiatic black bears live in a barren concrete enclosure near the store and spend their days begging tourists for food.
Because of their unnatural living situation, they often fight with each other. Three Bears is said to have a history of animal welfare violations, including a lack of adequate veterinary care and clean water.
23. Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
Location: Palm Harbor, Florida
Year opened: 1954
What Visitors Say About Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
"The animals would be better served by being in a larger, more rural location, with expanded acreage to social and more active, rather than being confined to boxes and cages. I've read about primate sanctuaries in the U.S. and other countries that are very humane and well run. I'm sorry to say that this facility doesn't quite live up to the promise of being a sanctuary." —Anthony W., Yelp
Why Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Is the Worst
The Department of Agriculture pulled Suncoast's exhibitor’s license in 1999. It didn't reopen until about a decade later, and not much has improved since.
The primates live lonely lives in small, concrete cages, and their toys and blankets are said to be covered with algae. As a result, Suncoast is on PETA’s blacklist.
22. Fresno Chaffee Zoo
Location: Fresno, California
Year opened: 1929
What Visitors Say About Fresno Chaffee Zoo
"Every time I go here random zookeepers are more than willing to tell me about all the animals the zoo 'terminates.' A long time ago when the hippo disappeared, I asked a zookeeper where the hippo went, and she just casually told me he was terminated and recently this cool bird another zookeeper told me that was scheduled for termination because it was 'too friendly.'" —Corbin W., Yelp
Why Fresno Chafee Zoo Is the Worst
In February 2022, In Defense of Animals ranked the Fresno Chaffee Zoo as one of its worst for elephants.
A month later, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition for habeas corpus against the zoo, which is typically a process to release people from prison who should have never been arrested. The organization wants to use it to release the elephants and has a similar lawsuit against the Bronx Zoo (further down on the list.)
Fresno Chafee Zoo CEO Jon Forrest Dohlin said of the elephants and their treatment, "They have acres and acres of habitat. They have free choice to move throughout. The social grouping is up to these animals — they can group together in either mom and cow and the bull separately, or all three together, or individually, depending on how they want to do. That is a well-designed exhibit that was designed to facilitate that kind of natural behavior."
21. The Jackson Zoo
Location: Jackson, Mississippi
Year opened: 1921
What Visitors Say About the Jackson Zoo
"This zoo will break your heart. Lonely animals in small single cages, empty exhibits, shuttered dining and bare shelves in the gift shop. The bones of the place show what it might have been. The reality is so incredibly sad. I left wishing I could do something for the animals.
"People need to know what's going on here. It's a tragic place. It's in dire need of something drastic for the sake of every single animal that's not living its best life here. Sigh. Truly the worst zoo in America that our family has seen and we are zoo aficionados. We cannot stop talking about how shocking our visit was and yes we live here. Jackson deserves better. The animals deserve better." —Vicki M., Yelp
Why the Jackson Zoo Is the Worst
Even before Covid, the Jackson Zoo fell on hard times. Since it opened in 1921, the area around the zoo changed, and it now sits in a crumbling part of the city. Less and less visitors came and with them went philanthropic support.
In 2021, the city of Jackson declared the zoo an endangered historic site and is making efforts to save it and revitalize the area around it. It seems to be working. While visitors are starting to trickle back into the area and the zoo, there's still a long away to go.
20. Birmingham Zoo
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Year opened: 1955
What Visitors Say About Birmingham Zoo
"The park was in such disrepair and it was depressing. What was a beautiful place has been left to rot. Maybe they need new leadership? Not even a reptile house. Not one. Only reptile I saw was a tiny lizard that ran across us as we walked, and I think he was trying to find a least depressing place.
"It was difficult to find animals as about half of everything was barricaded or roped off. So many exhibits were empty or had signs saying 'animal under veterinarian care.' What's going on with the health of these animals here? Doors and glass were extremely dirty and filthy. Why do I have to pay full price when you get about half a zoo? Birmingham should be embarrassed by this half-hearted effort. This place used to be amazing! Gondola boards were rotted and falling apart above our heads and everything appeared grown over and many places looked abandoned." —Patrick H., Yelp
Why Birmingham Zoo Is the Worst
In Defense of Animals rated Birmingham as one of the worst zoos for elephants. The organization stated that the zoo's "bachelor herd" of male elephants was created by the zoo only to be separated a few years later.
In October 2021, two of the zoo's lions Kwanza, a male, and Akili, a female, contracted Covid. A month later, Kwanza passed due to age-related health issues.
19. Phoenix Zoo
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Year opened: 1962
What Visitors Say About Phoenix Zoo
"It's clean but the lack of animals is astounding. We saw one bear, rhino, wolf and elephant.
There were lots of birds but people usually go to see the big critters. And everywhere is a sign asking for money through adoption or other means. Just sad. ... Personally I'd pass." —Bob V., Yelp
Why Phoenix Zoo Is the Worst
Phoenix Zoo is another zoo that is not good for elephants, according to In Defense of Animals. It landed at number No. 4 on the 2022 list due to its too small enclosures.
The Phoenix Zoo has refuted these claims, saying the elephants are treated well, and it has raised more than $2 million to double their enclosure size.
18. Dallas Zoo
Location: Dallas, Texas
Year opened: 1888
What Visitors Say About Dallas Zoo
"Compared to Ft. Worth Zoo, this zoo is missing many types of animals. No aquarium, no lions (only tigers), no kangaroos, no cheetah or puma, no mountain lion, no bears. The reptile house was very warm and stuffy, we couldn't stay inside for long. It was mid-March, so the temperature was 75 outside, but I think they turned on heater inside!
"The giraffe feeding area was pathetic. Only 3 giraffes to be fed. Ft. Worth Zoo had over 10+ giraffes in the feeding area." —Monalisa Z.
Why Dallas Zoo Is the Worst
Multiple zoo patrons have complained about the Dallas Zoo's expense, lack of exhibits, and rude staff.
The Dallas Zoo has also landed on In Defense of Animals list of worst zoos for elephants multiple times. In 2016, it was one of the three zoos that received "the stolen 18," elephants that were secretly flown out of Swaziland.
The zoos that took the animals said they would have been culled in their native country due to drought. However, just two years later, the Dallas Zoo transferred at least two of the elephants to Fresno Chaffee Zoo for breeding, and "upended these traumatized elephants' lives once more," according to In Defense of Animals.
And as you already know, Fresno Chaffee Zoo has made the 2022 list of the worst for zoo elephants.
17. ABQ BioPark
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Year opened: 1927
What Visitors Say About ABQ BioPark
"I'm glad that the poor living conditions and poor treatment of the animals is now receiving national attention. The facility was dirty, passive-aggressive management when you ask any further questions about anything relating to the animal welfare. ... It's a very sad facility and I don't recommend it. There have been events here that were fun, but overshadowed by seeing dilapidated conditions for the animals. Your director takes issue with what has been said, but yet can't explain why 3 baby elephants all died within a 6-year span from the same ailments. You're not taking care of your animals and profiting from their suffering. I am urging all to boycott this business until they remove the animals they clearly can't take care of." —David C., Yelp
Why ABQ BioPark Is the Worst
Elephants pacing back and forth is commonplace at ABQ BioPark, according to In Defense of Animals, which places the zoo on its 2022 worst zoo list.
The elephant enclosure is too small, as herds roam about 100 miles a day in the wild. Noise from a nearby, well-traveled road only adds to that stress.
The BioPark seems to be aware of these issues and is expanding the elephant enclosure as well as the Asia Exhibit, which includes orangutans, tigers, and snow leopards.
16. San Antonio Zoo
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Year opened: 1914
What Visitors Say About San Antonio Zoo
"The hubs and I took a drive to the SA Zoo. ... It had been years since either of us had been to that zoo and I'd been hearing for a couple years how much the zoo had been improved. We saw very little improvement. Actually, just about everything, the animal pens, the snack bars (we could find only one open) and the trails to walk on were in disrepair. The restaurant(s) were closed so I can't fairly say how good or bad they looked.
"We've been to good zoos (those that make it as normal for the resident animals as possible) and we've been to bad zoos (those that don't seem to care if the animals in their charge feel at 'home') and the San Antonio Zoo is barely somewhere in the middle.....barely." —Kelly B., Yelp
Why San Antonio Zoo Is the Worst
At less than 60 acres, the San Antonio Zoo is small. The 9,000 animals living there don't have nearly enough room to roam.
Most of the zoo's animals live in inadequate and dated enclosures. Many species need space and a social structure — which they don't have — for their physical health and mental stability.
15. Alligator Adventure
Location: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Year opened: 1995
What Visitors Say About Alligator Adventure
"I did not realize what I was supporting when I came here. I understand some of the animals and reptiles here who do not truly need room to roam, run, exercise, etc. It's so wrong to keep bobcats here as well as hyenas. I've never seen animals pace so much or look more stressed. As soon as I came across the bobcats I was so upset that I gave this place money and support. Please reconsider." —Lauren G., Yelp
Why Alligator Adventure Is the Worst
Alligator Adventure isn't terrible at caring for alligators, but they should stick with what they know. The roadside attraction also keeps big cats despite being poorly equipped to do so.
The cats are kept in tiny enclosures that aren't even remotely close to their natural habitats. To make matters worse, visitors are invited to pet the cats for a price.
14. Oklahoma City Zoo
Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Year opened: 1902
What Visitors Say About Oklahoma City Zoo
"Any place that doesn't have adequate care for their animals is not a place to take a family. Elephants neglected to the point of death makes me believe they have no idea of how to a manage an animal sanctuary." —Katherine D., Yelp
Why Oklahoma City Zoo Is the Worst
This Oklahoma Zoo doesn't seem too bad at first glance. They have tons of animals, and many of them seem to be in excellent health. The problem is their care of elephants.
While elephants are notoriously challenging to care for well, Oklahoma City Zoo should never have had them in the first place. They took in two Asian elephants in 2016, and one passed away soon after due to cold temperatures.
One of the other elephants housed there fell ill with a virus from the new elephants and passed away too. The remaining elephant has been left alone since, which is pretty traumatic for such a social species.
13. Waccatee Zoo
Location: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Year opened: Unknown
What Visitors Say About Waccatee Zoo
"I love animals. The people here do not. AT ALL. They are all zombies just earning a paycheck, and have no care or sympathy for these poor animals that have no room or toys to play. They look malnourished and depressed and when you leave here you will feel the same way. Places like this make me feel embarrassed to share the same air with these heartless people." —Matthew S., Yelp
Why Waccatee Zoo Is the Worst
What is it about Myrtle Beach that inspires unethical animal attractions? Waccatee Zoo, if it can even be called a zoo, doesn't even pretend to be about animal preservation. It's clear from the moment visitors enter that the establishment is all about entertaining people, not caring for wildlife.
The zoo first made the news in 2015 after a chimp died in their care. Animals pass away for all kinds of reasons, of course, but this one had been kept in isolation for 25 years. Waccatee Zoo claimed they didn't know he had a heart condition that entire time. They've also been cited for numerous either reasons. Visitors have reported suffering animals left and right as recently as 2020.
12. Tregembo Animal Park
Location: Wilmington, North Carolina
Year opened: 1958
What Visitors Say About Tregembo Animal Park
"The animals are kept in tiny cages without enrichment and it is incredibly depressing. A previous reviewer said that negative reviews are just left by animal activists... I am not sure what that even means, but I would disagree. The negative reviews are likely left by those of us who appreciate animals and visited the park only to be disturbed by the lack of adequate facilities, socialization, space, hygiene, and toys for the animals." —A. Rose F., Yelp
Why Tregembo Animal Park Is the Worst
Tregembo Animal Park isn't as well known as some of the other zoos on this list, but it was back in the 90s. In 1998, it was voted "worst zoo in America." It's under new management today, but the living conditions of the animals remains appalling.
They were cited in 2021 for failing to meet sanitation standards, failure to provide proper veterinary care, keeps their creatures in concrete and wire cages that are much too small, and enclosures.
11. Topeka Zoo
Location: Topeka, Kansas
Year opened: 1933
What Visitors Say About Topeka Zoo
"This zoo has been cited time and time again for neglect of animals especially their elephants one who died at age 35 after not receiving proper and another who just died. ... As long as unconscious humans visit these prisons innocent animals will be exploited by greedy people. Wake up!!" —Kate G., Yelp
Why Topeka Zoo Is the Worst
Topeka Zoo in Kansas is deceptive. It advertises its involvement in international conservation projects, but its treatment of elephants leaves much to be desired.
One of their elephants died in 2017 due to neglect. Keepers knew she was ill, but left her alone, and they have had 51 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
10. Cameron Park Zoo
Location: Waco, Texas
Year opened: 1993
What Visitors Say About Cameron Park Zoo
"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 Cameron Park Zoo Is 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 About Myrtle Beach Safari
"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 Myrtle Beach Safari Is 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 About Memphis Zoo
"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 Memphis Zoo Is 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 About Fort Worth Zoo
"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 Fort Worth Zoo Is 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 the worst zoos list — especially when it comes to elephant care.
6. Pittsburgh Zoo
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Year opened: 1898
What Visitors Say About Pittsburgh Zoo
"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 Pittsburgh Zoo Is 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 About Seneca Park Zoo
"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 Seneca Park Zoo Is the Worst
Elephants are native to warm climates. They can tolerate the cold temporarily, but they’re not meant for icy, New York winters.
The frigid conditions have led to several of Seneca Park’s elephants developing illnesses, particularly severe, painful arthritis.
Because of this, one elephant suffered a 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 About Hogle Zoo
"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 Hogle Zoo Is 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. Bronx Zoo
Location: Bronx, New York
Year opened: 1899
What Visitors Say About Bronx Zoo
"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 Bronx Zoo Is 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 About Monterey Zoo
"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 Monterey Zoo Is 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 About Natural Bridge Zoo
"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 Natural Bridge Zoo Is 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. Other animals like the macaque pictured above have been reportedly left with untreated wounds for weeks.
Yes, this is the worst zoo ever.
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