There’s nothing like a living, breathing animal to enchant a child—or even a jaded adult. Here’s the best of the wild and wonderful creatures in the Pacific Northwest, all safely conserved and behind exhibit borders.
Born well over a century ago on the former Phinney estate (of Phinney Ridge fame), the state’s biggest zoo by animal count draws more than a million visitors in a normal year. This is a zoo so classic that Richard Scarry might as well have devised it—lions and zebras in the African savanna exhibit, gorilla and toucan in a rain forest enclosure, a total of nearly 1,000 animals. But for all its tried-and-true aspects, Seattle’s hometown zoo makes bold moves in accessibility with community programs and a detailed sensory guide that lays out what parts might be loud, smelly, or intense for sensitive visitors. They’ve long centered conservation goals over simple entertainment—not that the toucans aren’t plenty entertaining.
Of all the attractions crammed into one South Sound peninsula—rose gardens, Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, actual outdoor slides—the combo zoo and aquarium manages to stand out. It holds nearly 14,000 individuals (most of those are invertebrates, like bugs and sea creatures), including a dazzling array of sharks in the new Pacific Seas Aquarium. Rakhan, a clouded leopard cub, arrived at the zoo in late 2021 to help sustain the endangered species through eventual breeding, though for now he mostly romps and bats at palm fronds like the kitten he is. Given the variety of exhibits, this is a spend-all-day kind of destination.
Don’t mistake the singular focus of downtown’s aquatic attraction—Puget Sound’s marine environment—with a narrow experience. Here, “aquarium” doesn’t just mean a glass tank with a few fish (and when it does, there are plenty of fascinating stories inside—see if you can spot the pirate-like rockfish with missing eyes). An underwater dome delivers calming, up-close views, and the giant Pacific octopus shows off one of the Sound’s most mysterious residents. The marine mammal exhibits are home to creatures that are more feisty than fishy, like harbor seals and sea otters, including returning resident Sekiu, who had a four-year vacation to Point Defiance as part of a shared conservation mission.
The most common thing said about Issaquah’s zoo is “There’s a zoo in Issaquah?” Tucked at the base of Cougar Mountain, just across from Lake Sammamish, the small property appropriately houses cougars, but also Siberian tigers, wolves, reindeer, and macaws, among others. The more intimate setting can feel like a more up-close look at the animals than other zoos can provide, and keeper staff circulate to share about the residents. Educational programs happen every day the zoo is open, and special keeper tours and encounters will let you get up close or even feed a tiger—from a safe distance, of course.
Like a Noah’s Ark for the western Cascades, the wildlife center tucked into 725 rural acres is run by Metro Parks Tacoma in conjunction with Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. The roster here ranges from cougar and bobcat to gray wolves and bears—both black and grizzly varieties. The free-roaming area lets moose, bison, elk, and bighorn sheep wander a forested enclosure so big visitors must drive through their territory (and heads up, May is baby animal season). Brand-new electric trams debut in 2022, the environmentally friendly system all the more welcome for how quietly they can putter by wildlife.
Not the name of your last nightmare, but a free-to-visit collection of some of the world’s most misunderstood creatures. Live exhibits remind viewers that even less cuddly animals have personalities—the blue-eyed skink, a kind of lizard, goes by the name Blooper—and from behind glass, even a Madagascar hissing cockroach can be appreciated for its beauty. Kids may struggle with the juxtaposition of live ant colonies with butterfly specimens pinned inside a glass case, but a variety of illustrated scavenger hunts create an easy road map for the small museum. Amateur entomologists and herpetologists will be in creepy-crawly heaven.