The Seven Best Zoos in American Small Towns

These small town zoos may not be as big as the San Diego Zoo, but they bring passion and heart to what they do and kids will love all of the animals!

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

No two zoos are the same – so much depends on local wildlife and ecosystems. Zoos are a way to not only further wildlife preservation but to inform younger generations and residents of the critters lurking in their backyards. Some rehabilitate, some take the form of wildlife preserves, some allow petting, some have shipped exotic species across oceans, but all have visitors smiling their way out. Whether your thing is reptiles, bald eagles, kangaroos or the Scottish Highland Cow, there’s a small town zoo for you!

Reston Zoo in Vienna, Virginia

Don’t let this little-known Washington D.C. suburb fool you. Humble as it may look from the bright lights and action of the city of government, Vienna is actually a treasure trove of eccentric restaurants, boutique shops, upscale shopping complexes and expansive parks both wild and groomed. Why not take a day out of the city to go to a friendly petting zoo? Everyone is moved to at least a smile when they see a young child petting a goat, and by that very airtight logic, the Reston Zoo is a place packed with smiles. Their walking paths and exhibits feature monkeys, kangaroos and other adorable and exotic animals; their petting barn houses tons of adorable fuzzy creatures like sheep, lambs, goats and pot-belly pigs, and their wagon rides, included in the admission price, are a fun way to ride through the shaded areas of the landscape and pet and feed antelopes, buffalo, camels and more. Just try to frown in this place.

Big Bear Alpine Zoo in Big Bear Lake, California

Big Bear Lake, one of California’s premier ski destinations, is full of fun family activities off the slopes. A festive village, a healthy selection of restaurants and even an alpine zoo are all great family activities for the days you’re just too tired to keep skiing. At the beginning, back in 1959, the Moonridge Animal Park opened following a tremendous wildfire throughout the San Bernardino National Forest to take in and rehabilitate injured animals in the area. Now it’s similar to a normal zoo, home to over 85 species and educating visitors to the natural wildlife in Southern California by holding events, feeding tours and presentations by the zookeepers, but its primary mandate is still to take in injured animals and nurse them until they’re strong enough to go out into the wilderness.

Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, North Dakota

Minot, North Dakota, a small town an hour from the Canadian border, has undergone several transformations over the past century, but in this time has retained several key elements: its sweeping rural landscapes, a deeply rooted Scandinavian heritage and the wildlife integral to the area’s natural ecosystem. Established in 1920 with the arrival of a bison from Montana, the Roosevelt Park Zoo is something of a Minot institution. It’s very kid-friendly, a welcoming and clearly well-run zoo. The animals are quite eclectic: there are bears, a leopard, an African lion, a giraffe, a kangaroo, gibbons, a Chilean tarantula and a Scottish Highland Cow. There are also occasional educational events such as a Zoo Camp.

Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Bartlesville, Oklahoma, has struck a perfect balance of small-town friendliness and big city skyline. Located in the town is Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper; not too far out of it are huge natural preserves and natural parks. Established as a ranch retreat of oil tycoon Frank Phillips in 1925, the 3700-acre wildlife preserve Woolaroc (made up of the the words Woods, Lakes and Rocks, all three in loving abundance on the site) is open to whoever desires to get out into the open. In addition to over 30 kinds of wild inhabitants such as buffalo, elk and longhorn cattle, Woolaroc contains a museum that displays a variety of Western art and artifacts and the rustic ranch house that was home to the Phillips’ family and hosted parties and meetings.

The Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka, Alaska

Like most destinations in Alaska, Sitka is remote. Situated on a series of islands in the Pacific, miles off the coast of Juneau, the only way to reach Sitka is via ferry, cruise ship or plane. Because it’s so remote, most visitors choose to stay for at least a few days, which is good, because there’s lots to see. One example is the Alaska Raptor Center. Designed to rehabilitate injured or displaced birds, Alaska Raptor Center is America’s foremost bald eagle hospital and educational center. The goal of the dedicated workers at the center is to release as many of the birds back into the wild as possible. One of the state’s most popular attractions, it attracts an impressive 36,000 visitors a year. The center is set on 17 acres of rainforest and river, which makes for a perfect home for the bald eagles and other birds that call it home.

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Three hours east of New Orleans, four from Baton Rouge and about 50 miles from the Mobile airport, is Gulf Shores, a little coastal town hugging the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama. Hurricanes racked the Gulf Coast during the mid-2000s, most notably with Hurricane Katrina, but the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo battled on. The Animal Planet television series The Little Zoo That Could followed the zoo’s efforts to keep the animals safe and cared for, and thankfully everything worked out. Today the zoo is home to more than 500 animals, and takes up over 17 acres of beach-side real estate. The zoo comprises a petting zoo, reptile house, aviary and more. Kids and adults can get into the pens and get some serious cuddle time with tigers, lemurs, kangaroos and reptiles – all under the watchful eye of the zookeepers, of course.

Bayou Pierre Alligator Park in Natchitoches, Louisiana

Natchitoches is a picturesque, historic getaway full of historic and natural appeal: there’s a handsome historic downtown district, former plantations and other local sites that inform visitors and pay tribute on the local history and wildlife. For an exciting day out, head to the Bayou Pierre Alligator Park, a seven-acre plot in the Cajun countryside where you can see hundreds of alligators. Be entertained at their hourly feeding shows where you can even feed and touch them yourself. Those brave visitors who dare to get close enough can also have their picture taken with the alligator. After a day with the gators, check out the surrounding restaurants for traditional Cajun fare.

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