Exotic animal sanctuaries can be exciting and fun places for families to spend a day or weekend together. These nature centers provide plenty of opportunities for adults and kids alike to view exhibits, as well as learn about and even interact with wild or habituated animals. Some sanctuaries even add hands-on voluntourism components to their programs.
1. Animal Adventures Family Zoo & Rescue Center in Bolton, Massachusetts
A hobby-turned-professional animal education facility, Animal Adventures takes in abandoned, orphaned and neglected exotic creatures. For more than 20 years now, it has been rescuing and re-homing (none are caught in the wild) 500 to 1,000 animals annually. About 400 animals and 200 species, including African bush babies, Bennett’s wallaby, ring-tailed lemurs, kinkajous, axolotls and many more, call the center home.
The nature center, which was founded by Ed and Brenda Laquidara in 1997, operates an entertaining and educational camp for kids during the summer. It’s truly a unique hands-on experience with animal hold sessions. Children aged 12 to 16 years can volunteer at the camp in its Counselor in Training Program, where they’ll also learn to clean cages, and handle and feed animals. (Admission: $14 for ages 4 and up, $7 for ages 2–3, free for children under 2)
Driving distances: 1 hour from Providence, Rhode Island, and Manchester, New Hampshire | 3 hours 35 minutes from New York, New York, and Burlington, Vermont | 2 hours from Portland, Maine | 3 hours from Albany, New York | 4 hours 40 minutes from Scranton, Pennsylvania
2. 3 Palms Zoo & Education Center in Clayton, Delaware
You won’t soon forget a visit to Delaware’s only rescue zoo and education center. Far from a typical zoo experience, you can hand-feed and pet select animals such as llamas and alpacas. You’ll be fascinated with the residents—a mix of domestic and wild animals—and their interesting backstories. This wildlife park is home to one of the state’s only alligators and only silver fox; Virginia opossums, the only North American marsupial; and visitor-favorites, African pygmy goats and mini-pigs. An offshoot of a landscaping business, 3 Palms Zoo rescues all its animals, except those born on-site.
Bring plenty of quarters for the coin feeders when you visit. Arrive on a weekend to see more animals, such as bearded dragons, chameleons and boa constrictors, or volunteer and learn more (open for kids and adults). (Admission: $10 per individual or $5 per person for families)
Driving distances: 1 hour 40 minutes from Baltimore, Maryland | 1 hour 15 minutes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | 2 hours from Allentown, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. | 3 hours 15 minutes from Richmond, Virginia | 4 hours 40 minutes from Morgantown, West Virginia, and Ithaca, New York
3. National Tiger Sanctuary in Saddlebrooke, Missouri
Keith Kindade and Judy McGee opened the National Tiger Sanctuary in 2000 with a focus on big cats. It houses tigers, lions, black panthers, dogs, cats and a lemur. The animals are kept in enclosures with natural surfaces (dirt, grass, straw) and given individualized diets, in keeping with the sanctuary’s mission of improving the environment and conditions for animals in the wild and captivity.
Believing public education is key, the organization only offers guided tours. There are six in total, including the Feeding Tour, Behind the Scenes Tour and Tigers by Twilight. The sanctuary also accepts individual or group volunteers, docents (volunteers who commit to work 16 hours per month) and interns. Tasks include guiding tours, cleaning habitats and bathrooms, gardening and more. (Admission: $25 for adults, $20 for seniors 55+ and locals, $12 for children ages 3–12)
Plan your trip: VisitMO
Driving distances: 18 minutes from Branson, Missouri | 40 minutes from Springfield, Missouri | 2 hours from Fayetteville, Arkansas | 3 hours from Kansas City, Missouri | 4 hours 30 minutes from Wichita, Kansas | 4 hours 48 minutes from Memphis, Tennessee
4. Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Phelan, California
This High Desert sanctuary, located in a remote part of Phelan, was kick-started by a family’s passion to rescue abused, neglected and abandoned exotic animals. You’ll need to travel 1.5 miles on a bumpy dirt road to get there, but the trip will be worth it.
Forever Wild has a nice variety of animals, most notably many big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, panthers and mountain lions. A white tiger named Princess Diana is a crowd favorite. They also have alligators, snakes, birds and other animals from the desert region.
A guided tour is the best way for families to visit, and the feeding option makes for an unforgettable experience. It’s important to call ahead to book the guided tour, and note that the sanctuary may cancel the event in the case of inclement weather. (Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 50+, $60 for children ages 3–12, children 2 and under are free)
Driving distances: 35 minutes from San Bernardino, California | 1 hour 15 minutes from Los Angeles, California | 2 hours 10 minutes from San Diego, California | 3 hours from Las Vegas, Nevada | 3 hours 45 minutes from Lake Havasu City, Arizona | 4 hours from Fresno, California
5. White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Florida
White Oak is currently run by Mark and Kimbra Walter, who purchased the property in 2013 from the Howard Gilman Foundation, but its conservation efforts date back to 1982 with philanthropist Howard Gilman. This unique conservation space and its strategies have helped threatened and endangered species, such as okapis, rhinos, Florida panthers and cranes, which thrive in captivity and become ambassadors of their wild counterparts. Wild Oak has 32 species of animals, including babirusa, zebra, giraffe, deer, antelope, buffalo, birds, tigers, cheetah and maned wolf.
The facility provides families with plenty of opportunities to learn, ranging from tours to events to safaris to summer camps. Those aged 14 years and above who meet certain physical requirements can even try working with animals in a conservation breeding center through their Conservation Caretaker Experience. (Admission: $100 per adult, $50 children 3–10, free for children 2 and under)
Plan your trip: Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce | Visit Florida
Driving distances: 25 minutes from Jacksonville, Florida | 1 hour from St. Augustine, Florida | 2 hours from Savannah, Georgia | 2 hours 30 minutes from Orlando, Florida | 3 hours from Tallahassee, Florida | 3 hours 30 minutes from Charleston, South Carolina | 4 hours from Macon, Georgia