Love the call of the wild? Unless you have lots of free time to camp out in the hinterlands and stalk the inhabitants, your chances of having face-to-face encounters with wild animals are about as good as having a beer with Bigfoot.
The next best thing is visiting a wildlife sanctuary or refuge, where you can get reasonably (and safely) close to some of the most beautiful, exotic, and often the most endangered species on the planet. And by including a sanctuary destination in your travel plans, you can support the efforts of these nonprofit organizations that work to save animals from cruelty, neglect, and even extinction.
- At Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, founder Carole Baskin’s vision is to end the abuse and abandonment of captive exotic animals and promote preservation of the species in the wild. According to Baskin, this educational sanctuary strives to give the cats “the best care we can while… educating the public on the plight of these animals so that some day there will be no need for a sanctuary to exist.” From tigers to lions, cougars, leopards, and bobcats, the big cats at this refuge are a stunning sight to see. Many of them started life as house pets or were bred for their fur.
- The mission of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, is to advance “the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands, and the human role in their future.” The center is closely aligned with world-renowned biologists and naturalists who share their findings during informative lectures open to the public. The facility offers a variety of educational programs for adults and families, including classes, howling trips into the deep Minnesota woods, and week-long learning vacations. The “ambassadors” housed on the grounds were rescued by International Wolf Center staff, and include both gray wolves and arctic wolves. They’re beautiful animals and fascinating to watch as they interact with each other, exhibiting pack behaviors.
- At Bearizona in Williams, Arizona, the founders work to “promote conservation through memorable and educational encounters with North American wildlife in a natural environment.” Their vision is to connect visitors “to wildlife and the land in which they inhabit, while using best practices for economic, environmental and social sustainability.” The smaller animals are kept in enclosures along a walking path, but the larger animals—including black bear, bison, and wolves—are visible from a gravel road accessible only by car. The adult bears and wolves are spectacular, and the baby bears, foxes, and raptors will keep you entertained for hours.
- While there are dozens of private sanctuaries and preserves, don’t forget the refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, such as the J.N. “Ding” Darling refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida or the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, our National Wildlife Refuge system is the world’s best collection of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants. Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first wildlife refuge in 1903, the refuge system has grown to more than 150 million acres, 556 national wildlife refuges and other units, plus 38 wetland management districts.