If you’ve ever dreamed of close encounters of the wild animal kind, you’re in luck. With dozens of sanctuaries, zoos, parks, and specialized wildlife care centers around the U.S., you can spend some quality time with your favorite critters, face to face, or from an up-close but safe distance. The best wildlife encounters follow ethical and respectful care practices for the animals and provide a safe, educational, and fun experience for visitors.
More than 450 rescued animals, including lions, bears, wolves, tigers, and other carnivores, call this 720-acre, open-habitat, serene sanctuary home. A 1.5-mile elevated walkway allows visitors to stroll through the sanctuary while the animals roam freely below. This highly respected and accredited facility has been in operation for more than 20 years. Be prepared for a lot of walking. It takes between three and five hours to complete the tour, but it will top the list of your best animal encounter experiences.
If you love wildlife, you’ll be in heaven at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, one of the world’s leading conservation facilities. Located in Glen Rose, the dinosaur capital of Texas, it sits about four hours north of San Antonio. More than 1100 animals from four dozen species — including endangered ones like the American red wolf, the Addax antelope, the Grevy’s zebra, and the Southern black rhino — roam its 1800 acres. Drive your car on a seven-mile tour through the park or hop aboard a guided tour vehicle and help feed the wildlife.
The Netflix program, Tiger King, opened our eyes to the massive exploitation of big cats around the globe. But the Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary is a nonprofit, accredited rescue and educational facility. It provides a permanent, caring home for abused and neglected big cats. Choose from a variety of tours, learn about the care and background of the resident cats from the expert staff, and stay overnight at one of its on-site lodging options.
While zoos provide opportunities to see exotic wildlife from around the world, they’re also places to learn more about behaviors, their natural environments, and their conservation. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is committed to ongoing wildlife conservation efforts. Here you’ll find 146 acres of hippos, elephants, monkeys, lions, and wild hogs living their best lives in natural habitats. You can join in on a long list of exciting encounters, including a giraffe feeding experience, a behind-the-scenes look at a super-rare Amur leopard, or an Australian walkabout amid free-roaming wallabies.
While some may consider horses more of a domesticated farm animal, the mustang is a holdout, one of the enduring symbols of the American West. The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary provides a home for American mustangs, a place where the unadopted and unwanted equines can run free across 11,000 acres of protected, private, undeveloped land. Schedule one of the two-hour cross-country or photo tours to witness the beauty of wild horses galloping at full speed across the open prairies.
Thousands of elk migrate to the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole each winter. Dress warmly, grab your camera, and hop aboard a horse-drawn sleigh to get an up-close view of these magnificent animals. You may also see other wildlife along the way, including wolves, deer, badgers, bison, coyotes, eagles, and more. Just head to the Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center in Jackson Hole to book your hour-long sleigh ride.
For those who love the creatures that live in the world’s oceans, rivers, lakes, and swamps, the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium may be the perfect destination. Visit the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Center, a treatment facility that rescues, rehabilitates, then releases them back into their natural habitats. You can also enjoy an up-close experience at the Penguin Encounter, dive beneath the surface to feed sharks and groupers at the Sea Feeding Frenzy or explore the array of wildlife exhibits.
Each year, between mid-February to mid-April, 600,000 sandhill cranes make a stop along a stretch of the Platte River to congregate and rest up before continuing their arduous journey northward. Take a guided two-hour tour or watch this phenomenon from one of the viewing platforms near Kearney. Visit the Rowe Sanctuary to learn more about the local ecosystems and other wildlife living in the area. Plan a sunrise or sunset viewing at the Plautz Platform or Fort Kearney Bridge for the most spectacular views.
Africa may have incredible safari experiences, but the USA has Alaska, a land of endless, breathtaking landscapes and extraordinary wildlife. Brooks Falls is the premier choice for up-close views of the park’s brown bear population. Catch the awe-inspiring scene of these fascinating carnivores, frolicking and fishing for salmon in the falls. Getting to the locale is part of the fun and includes a flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, then a 20-minute seaplane flight to Brooks Camp. Enjoy four to six hours of taking in nature at its best, exploring the vast preserve, and bear-watching from platforms around the camp.
This chimp sanctuary is the largest in the world. It’s also the official retirement home for research chimps owned or supported by the federal government. This 200-acre, forested, nonprofit sanctuary, located just outside of Shreveport, provides long-term chimpanzee care for more than 300 chimps ranging in age from four to 61 years old. The sanctuary allows visitors a few times each year during its Chimpanzee Discovery Days, where you can observe the chimps with their families, enjoy a hayride tour, and learn all about primate care from the knowledgeable staff.