The Best Little Zoo, For Real!


I moved to the Idaho Falls area seven years ago from the east coast. My husband and I lived in Baltimore and worked in Washington D.C. We both worked for the Smithsonian Institution, but my husband was lucky enough to work for the National Zoo for several years. He understood what it meant for a zoo to be AZA-accredited and how difficult it is to achieve and maintain, so we were very surprised to learn that the Idaho Falls Zoo was accredited! We just assumed because it was a small zoo in a small city that it wouldn’t be, but it really does fulfill its motto to be “the best little zoo in the West.” Less than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors in the U.S. are accredited and our zoo was the first zoo in Idaho to achieve the standard, which it did in 1998.

Photo of exterior of Idaho Falls Zoo
Idaho Falls Zoo and William J Maeck Education Center, photo by Petra

Accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is the establishment and maintenance of professional standards in animal care and welfare, conservation, veterinary programs, education, and safety. Accreditation lasts for five years, at which point organizations must go through the entire accreditation process again in order to maintain their qualification. In short, if a zoo is AZA-accredited, you can be assured that they are not only taking care of their animals to an extremely high standard, but they are also participating in important conservation and public education efforts. The Idaho Falls Zoo, for example, participates in over 40 species survival plans and implements a huge number of educational programs for all ages. There is no requirement in the U.S. for an animal exhibitor to be AZA-accredited, so if a zoo takes the immense time and effort required to accomplish accreditation, it means they really care about what they do.

The accreditation process includes a detailed application, a meticulous on-site inspection by zoo experts, and interviews with senior staff at a formal hearing. The Idaho Falls Zoo received its most recent accreditation in September of 2019, during which the AZA team were particularly impressed by the new William J. Maeck Education Center, the plans for future expansion (I’ve heard rumors about what animals might be included in this expansion, and I’m excited!), and the significant increase in conservation involvement through the zoo’s Quarters for Conservation Program.

One of the important things that zoos do to help the conservation of the animals they care for is to make more animals! Zoos will take breeding pairs of animals when possible and try to make babies. The young animals are then moved to other AZA-accredited zoos to hopefully make new breeding couples and maintain genetic variation. Cooperative breeding programs are extremely important in the ongoing survival of many species and can even lead to an animal being “delisted” from the endangered species list. So, news of new baby animals at the Zoo is exciting for many reasons and not just because they are super cute!

photo of two kids looking at at Otter
My kids enjoying the antics of one of the North American River Otters

I loved the Idaho Falls Zoo before I had kids, but now that I have a 6yo and a 3yo, I love it even more! The entire facility feels extremely safe and well maintained. I can let my kids run wild without any concern (and they do!). The variety of animals that you can see is incredible for a small zoo and the interpretation is accessible and engaging. My personal favorite exhibit is the Serval, but my kids love the Sloth Bears and the Otters. The Zoo has a brand new app available (for free!) that provides a wealth of new ways to interact with the animals.

I didn’t realize until researching this post that every time we pay admission we contribute to local and global conservation efforts, and that’s awesome. I honestly feel very proud of our zoo and incredibly lucky that my kids have access to such a great resource.

Photo of a toddler brushing a goat
Visiting with the goats in the Contact Yard in the Children’s Zoo

We always buy a family membership, which means we can just pop in any time we want during the summer, and we’ve participated in several of the programs for younger kids that they offer. I truly believe that zoos are very important because they teach our kids (and us) about the amazing animals that we should be trying to protect. It is because of our connection to and understanding of these creatures that we ultimately care more about their preservation.

Photo of two children looking at a snake
Participating in the Zoo Tots program

The Zoo is currently open for the 2021 season, including registration for their amazing educational programs. Zoos and aquariums around the world have been hit hard by COVID-19 shutdowns, so visiting/donating/purchasing a membership really does help the animals that live there and the dedicated, passionate staff that care for them. The Idaho Falls Zoo has been operating for 85 years, believe it or not, so we need to ensure that it sticks around for at least another 85 years!

If you visit in person, keep an eye out for the two new sloth bear cubs as well as Pickles, the new three-banded armadillo that is part of their Animal Ambassador program. And if you see a loud, crazy 6yo boy with a loud, crazy 3yo girl with insane hair, be sure to give their frazzled mom a wave.

This post was originally published in June 2020 and has been updated to more accurately reflect the 2021 season.