For as long as humans and animals have co-existed, our wild counterparts have fascinated and amazed us. The original "zoo" concept has undergone a number of great changes over the last few decades, and today the focus is more on animal conservation, research and appreciation. This month we decided to count down the Top 10 Zoos, with our own focus being on facilities that we think put the animals first.
Best Traditional 'Zoo'
San Diego Zoo
Located in Balboa Park - one of the most stunning public parks in the United States - the San Diego Zoo is set on 40 hectares of prime California land. It is home to 650 species of rare and endangered animals, as well as 70,000 exotic plants, making it a serious winner for school trips, family outings and first date venues. This multiple award winning facility (for its conservation programs and recycling efforts among others) is exactly what you'd expect from a major American tourist attraction: it's friendly, efficient, clean and full of the biggest and best animals from around the world. From bears to zebras, rare birds, primates and reptiles. In addition to the park is the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research and the San Diego Safari Park - a wildlife sanctuary that is home to one of the country's most renowned botanical collections, as well as thousands of animals.
For more information about their research institute and visiting the zoo, log on to www.sandiegozoo.org
Best For Big Cats
Shamwari Game Reserve, South Africa
The King of the Jungle finds himself at the top of almost every tourist's To-Do list, but no one wants to see the most respected animal in the world sitting a rusty cage, looking sad-faced and bored. Enter Shamwari Game Reserve - the best kind of zoo you can visit. Located in a remote corner of the beautiful Eastern Cape province, the reserve offers a personal encounter with Africa's Big 5 in their natural habitat without sacrificing safety or authenticity. The reserve offers drives "in modern open game viewing vehicles that have been specially converted to maximise comfort and viewing potential." They assure that "your personal game ranger will provide insightful and valuable information about the fauna and flora." For an even closer look, you can opt for a guided walk, which is basically as close as you can get to the animals without camping in the wild.
Shamwari Game Reserve also works together with the Born Free Foundation (UK), which aims at "providing long term humane care for rescued African cats that have been subjected to inhumane conditions internationally as well as to provide an education resource for visitors, school children and students."
For more information about the reserve, booking and their conservation work, check out www.shamwari.com.
Best For Sea Life
Dubai Aquarium And Underwater Zoo
Dubai is fast becoming the new Las Vegas with outstanding features like the Dubai Mall - which boasts a ski slope, a waterfall and the highly impressive Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. One of the city's Guinness World Record holding features is the 32.88 by 8.2 metre acrylic viewing panel at the aquarium. This giant window offers visitors a peek into the lives of over 30,000 living marine animals - including sharks and rays. The nearby underwater zoo includes a rainforest and a living ocean display, which takes you into the home of piranhas, otters and other exotic animals.
For more information visit www.thedubaiaquarium.com
Most Enduring Animal Sanctuary
The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon
There couldn't be a more picturesque, dignified or relaxing place for aging donkeys - previously abused and neglected - to live out their days. The story behind the Donkey Sanctuary is almost like a Doctor Doolittle plotline - it is the brainchild of Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE, a kindhearted donkey lover from Yorkshire, who turned a bad experience at the Exeter market into the gorgeous facility in Devon that stands today. Thousands of donkeys have found a loving home at the good doctor's farm, where visitors are welcome to meet and pet these enduring characters. The sanctuary is open 365 days a year (except for the Hayloft café that closes during the first two weeks of January). From nine in the morning till dusk, the sanctuary is a free to all. It's an amazing family venue (kids love it) and the onsite café serves great food.
For more information about the sanctuary, whether you intend to visit or wish to assist in making a donation, please visit www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/
Best For Birds
Keoladeo National Park, India
The Keoladeo National Park is internationally touted as a bird watcher's Mecca. It's repeatedly described as 'a birder's paradise' in reviews by visitors and experts who are wowed by the magic of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Close to 400 bird species live and pass through the sanctuary during the year, making every season exciting for a new reason.
Look Out For: Painted Storks, Great Egret and Siberian Cranes.
For more information visit www.keoladeonationalpark.com
Most Progressive Zoo
The Royal Zoological Society's work at Edinburgh Zoo has been applauded for the research and conservation conducted there, as well as the immense expense and effort that has gone towards making animal enclosures that are comfortable, natural and as eco-friendly as possible. Sir David Attenborough was even quoted as saying, "The Royal Zoological Society has shown not what zoos can be, but what they should be" - a massive thumbs up from the Morgan Freeman of the natural world. The zoo offers a massive range of animal viewing and young children will be especially excited by the gorgeous pandas and primates.
We do understand that no zoo can offer any animal a completely natural life, but with cases like the panda bears in Edinburgh, where their species is on the brink of extinction, the zoo's role as a safe haven is essential.
For more information about Edinburgh Zoo and its work visit http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk
Best For Koalas
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Brisbane
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary (the first and oldest of its kind in the world) offers an intimate experience with these sleepy, sweet marsupials that are synonymous with the land Down Under. Not only will you get to see them (130 of them to be precise), but you'll also get to cuddle one of these living teddy bears for free - just watch your children, in case they try to take one home. Less than an hour drive from the Gold Coast, the peaceful reserve makes for a fantastic day trip when you're ready to take a break from the beach.
For more information visit www.koala.net
Best For Bears
Libearty Bear Sanctuary, Romania
The idea for Libearty Sanctuary was also born after a kindhearted individual, Cristina Lapis, saw three bears in a cage outside a restaurant. The poor bears were being used to attract customers. She would go on to learn about institutionalised cruelty of bears throughout her country, which prompted her to take action. After years of organising, pleading with authorities and good old fashioned hard work, her dream of creating a sanctuary for mistreated and abused bears in Romania has come to fruition. Libearty is set on 70 hectares of oak and hazel forest in the Carpathian Mountains. Over fifty bears that once lived as dancing sideshow acts, or inside a cage the size of a washing machine, now have free reign in the sanctuary. While this is not your standard 'zoo' experience, you are watching free bears with a new lease on life, in an environment unlike anything they've ever experienced.
For more information on the sanctuary, visiting there and how you can help, check out amp.milioanedeprieteni.org/
Best For Orangutans
Bukit Lawang, Indonesia
Bukit Lawang is home to the famous orangutan rehabilitation centre. Located in rural Sumatra, where the wild river and forest make up the architecture of the landscape, you are stepping into a world completely unlike the one back home. The trees above you are home to these strangely beautiful and bizarre looking primates, along with a host of other forest animals that will have you snapping away a photo-a-minute. The centre first started as a safe haven for orangutans, after they faced near-extinction due to hunting. There are no bars separating you from them, but a fair amount of etiquette needs to be practiced for your safety and their wellbeing and that is just part of the natural experience.
For more information visit www.bukitlawang.com
Best For Elephants
Addo Elephant Park, South Africa
The Addo Elephant Park offers visitors a chance to observe these incredible mammals in a natural setting without any bars or annoying trainers. In fact the setting is quite the opposite of a regular zoo experience. You are seated in your little car driving through their big open space, rather than the other way around. The park is one of several hot spots along the picturesque Garden Route - a passage of beauty on the South East coast of South Africa. It originally started as a conservation project back in 1931, when only 16 elephants remained in the area. More than eighty years later it has grown into a full-on eco-system that is home to over 500 elephants and a full cast of Africa's finest wildlife.
For more information visit www.sanparks.org
Bonus Tip For Serious Travellers:
Whale Watching In Alaska
Anyone who saw Free Willy ended up nagging their parents for a pet orca whale. And while Sea World (and other marine parks like it) provide an opportunity for you to see orcas, it's not the same as watching them in their natural habitat. The Alaskan wilderness is certainly no zoo, but as far as animal viewing experiences go, the whales in Alaska are second to none.The glaciers in the frozen North Pacific and white hillsides create a surreal stadium for them to play in. Aside from orcas, you will see grey whales, porpoises and humpbacks. There are several tour options available, ranging from large vessels that take up to 150 people on board at a time, to smaller and more intimate tours for you and the family - price is obviously the major separating factor.
For more information visit www.orcaenterprises.com