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Visit a wild animal sanctuary or wildlife sanctuary with kids

The Zoo Alternative: 3 Wild Animal Sanctuaries in Florida & Georgia

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If your kids love animals like mine do, then a visit to a wild animal sanctuary can be an entertaining and fulfilling side trip while on vacation. Not only can they provide much-needed breaks during long car rides, animal sanctuaries are usually low-cost (or free) and help support a worthy cause. Wildlife sanctuaries are a great way to learn about animals indigenous to the region you’re visiting and help children understand how humans can participate in animal welfare. Although some of the stories of animal exploitation and endangerment can be hard to hear, our daughters are learning all about the animal world and the importance of environmental stewardship.

Why Visit a Wildlife Sanctuary?

Different from zoos, most wildlife sanctuaries are not-for-profit facilities whose main mission is to accommodate rescued animals who may be too injured or too tame to return to the wild. Refuges or sanctuaries are typically much smaller than zoos and are often located on the outskirts of major cities. By allowing the public limited access to these sheltered animals, they tap into a much-needed revenue stream.

My main concern in choosing a wild animal sanctuary to visit is ensuring that it is a reputable organization whose mission is animal welfare and NOT profit via animal exploitation. While planning a trip, I research any wildlife sanctuaries that might be en route or close to our destination. Our travels in the southeastern U.S. have taken us to several wildlife centers that we would recommend as great places to visit and worthy of our support.

1. Big Cat Rescue – Tampa, Florida

Located a short distance from Busch Gardens in Tampa, Big Cat Rescue (BCR) is the world’s largest, accredited wildlife sanctuary dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats. This well-run facility offers 90-minute, guided tours through their expansive refuge housing more than 100 big cats. Tours are offered once per day during the week, and twice on the weekends. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

Important to note: Children under 10 are not permitted on the regular tour. There is a special tour for kids under 10 available at noon during the weekends.

We visited in April and were impressed with how knowledgeable our guide was about each of the cat’s traits and personalities. BCR provides a unique opportunity to observe at close range some of the world’s most beautiful and endangered big cats.

Hilton Tampa Downtown is only 10 miles away from Big Cat Rescue, and Hilton Clearwater Beach is about 16 miles from the center and also close to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium mentioned below.

Visit a wild animal sanctuary or wildlife sanctuary with kids - Big Cat Rescue

Four of the beautiful big cats residing at Big Cat Rescue wild animal sanctuary in Tampa, FL.

2. Clearwater Marine Aquarium – Clearwater, Florida

Have you heard of or seen the movies Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale II? The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is home to Winter, the star of the movie, along with other animals and birds who cannot be released back into the wild. Due to Winter’s popularity, this wildlife sanctuary is enjoying its day in the sun and crowds may be a factor during your visit.

Located just across the bridge from the beach and Hilton Clearwater Beach, this small aquarium offers an up-close look at Winter, as well as sea turtles, otters, sea birds and sting rays. Tickets can be purchased online, and if you’re staying in Clearwater Beach, you can take the trolley for a small fee.

Visit a wild animal sanctuary or wildlife sanctuary with kids - Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Some of the residents you can visit at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

3. Noah’s Ark Animal Rehabilitation Center – Locust Grove, Georgia

Located an hour outside of Atlanta right off of I-75, Noah’s Ark wildlife refuge is home to an unlikely trio: Baloo, Leo, and Shere Khan, a bear, lion and tiger (affectionately referred to as “BLT”) who have shared the same habitat since they arrived at Noah’s Ark back in 2001. The refuge is also home to 1,500 animals and birds, all of whom had been abused, neglected or abandoned.

The animal habitats are only open from 12 pm to 3 pm daily, but the welcome center and picnic area are open all day on Tuesdays through Saturdays. On the day we visited, we arrived early, enjoyed a picnic lunch and then spent the full three hours touring the park. Afterwards, we returned to the picnic area to play on the playground before we made the trip back home.

Similar to the other sanctuaries, Noah’s Ark does not charge admission, but does accept donations. Hilton Garden Inn Atlanta South is not far from Noah’s Ark off of Interstate 75 in McDonough, GA.

We usually leave these wildlife centers feeling a little closer to nature, grateful for the ecology lesson, and satisfied in the knowledge that the animals we just encountered are no longer in jeopardy. And after a week’s vacation in where ever you consider paradise, a stop at a wild animal sanctuary can be a pleasant way to ease back into reality.

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Erin is a native Floridian who has resided in Atlanta since 1995. Her husband Mike and she have two funny, smart, active girls, ages 12 and nine,…

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