The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo outranked some of its most iconic counterparts, including the San Diego Zoo and Disney's Animal Kingdom, in a list released Friday of the nation's best zoos.

The local zoo placed sixth in USA Today's 2017 Readers' Choice awards, behind zoos in St. Louis, Omaha, Neb.; Tucson, Ariz.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Columbia, S.C.

"We're in great company in that list," said Jenny Koch, marketing director for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. "We think that all accredited zoos have something that you should come and see, so we don't feel like we're in competition with other zoos, but we do feel like we have a unique experience that you won't find anywhere else."

The lofty ranking of the nation's only mountainside zoo could be due to the natural beauty of the surrounding area or the opportunities that people have to get up close and personal with its wild tenants, Koch said.

"We also hear a lot from our guests that they're able to get closer to our animals than they are at other zoos, so I think that's something that people enjoy," she said. "We try to encourage that interaction and that feeling that you are right there with them. A lot of times just a pane of glass separates you from our animals."

And then, of course, there's the zoo's renowned herd of 16 giraffes - the largest at any zoo, according to the zoo's website.

A team of travel and zoo experts chose the initial 20 nominees, and USA Today readers then voted for their top 10 choices.

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Kyle McCarthy, an editor of a family travel website that helped pick the nominees, said she chose the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for its efforts to engage children, hands-on activities, and special events, such as the WildNights sleepover program and Electric Safari holiday lights display.

In the past, high rankings have been good for the zoo's business, Koch said.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo ranked sixth in the United States and 16th in the world on a list of best zoos published by TripAdvisor.com in 2015.

The zoo has set an attendance record every year for the past three years, Koch said. In the most recent fiscal year, the attraction saw about 750,000 guests.

"More and more people around the country have started to know about our little secret here in Colorado Springs, so we're really glad about that," Koch said.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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