Animal Sanctuaries Worth Visiting

Credit: Lillian Cunningham / The Washington Post / Getty Images

With the recent news that Ringling Bros. Circus will be phasing out elephant performances in its shows, there’s been a renewed focus on the welfare of wild animals captured or bred for entertainment. Across the world, wildlife sanctuaries are expanding their efforts to save and care for animals living in dire conditions. Here are seven wildlife sanctuaries ranging from rescue centers to elephant-size retirement communities that not only offer a healthy habitat in which the creatures can live, but also opportunities for visitors to come see them and even volunteer to help with their upkeep.

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand 
Thailand has long used Asian elephants as beasts of burden for local loggers and as carnival fun rides for tourists. The Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand has been a leader in the rescue and care of retired, abused, and injured elephants since the 1990s. People can visit the park for a day, feed the animals, and even jump in the river with them to help with a bath! Volunteers can stay for a week and learn how to care for the elephants and assist in area conservation efforts.

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Sweetwaters Chimp Sanctuary, Kenya
In partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, this Kenyan sanctuary has been providing a safe haven for orphaned, abused, and rescued chimpanzees since 1993. Visitors can ride a boat along a river separating the two natural habitats for dozens of chimps. And in a change from a typical zoo setting, it’s the people who are caged aboard the boat (to protect against any mischievous chimps chucking stuff their way). Outside the chimp sanctuary, the 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy protects African wildlife in a private preserve.

Wild Animal Sanctuary, Colorado
This 720-acre sanctuary outside of Denver is home to the carnivorous triumvirate of lions, tigers, and bears, along with other large animals saved from captivity. Visitors can stroll on walkways 30 feet above the enclosures of recently rescued animals and along the “mile into the wild” pathway above the larger habitats of acclimated animals frolicking with others of their kind. Rescued animals include Hollywood performance rejects, illegal pets grown too big for their homes, and a lion from a Mexican circus.

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Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Alaska
Sort of an Into the Wild experience without actually going into the wild, this sanctuary south of Anchorage allows visitors to see native Alaskan wildlife like bears, wolves, moose, and elk in a natural setting from the safety of a walkway or enclosures. The Conservation Center takes in orphaned and injured wildlife, reintroducing some into the wild, while those animals unable to go back remain as permanent guests, some even producing cute babies. The center is now working on a project to reintroduce wood bison into Alaska. 

Marine Mammal Center, California
Not all animal sanctuaries are land-based: Since it began in 1975, this rescue and rehabilitation center on the Northern California coast has helped over 18,000 stranded, orphaned, and injured marine mammals from the Pacific Ocean. The center cares for sea lions, seals, and sea otters, and even assists on the occasional beached whale rescue. Visitors to the center can take tours of the facility and see some of the pinniped patients and learn about the local marine ecosystem. They even have overnight sleepovers and a week-long science camp for kids.

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PAWS ARK 2000 Sanctuary, California
Founded by a former Hollywood animal trainer, PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, has a mission to help retired, abused, or unwanted wild animals, many of which suffered in their lives as performers. The ARK 2000 sanctuary in Central California is spread over 2,300 acres and is currently home to 22 tigers, 11 elephants, 4 lions, 7 bears, and 1 black leopard.  The sanctuary hosts regular open house events for visitors and even two-day “Elephant Getaway” packages, which include insider tours of the facility and overnight lodging in a local B&B.  

Na’an Ku Se Wildlife Sanctuary, Namibia
Ever wanted to sleep with a baboon? Feed a cheetah? Hang out with a pack of wild dogs? This wildlife sanctuary in Namibia offers visiting volunteers the chance to give up-close-and-personal care to native wildlife rescued from capture in nearby farmlands. The care can include not only bottle-feeding orphaned baby baboons, but also taking them to sleep with you “so they have someone to cuddle with at night and don’t feel scared.” The goal of the sanctuary is the rehabilitation and release of most of the animals back into the wild. During a two-week volunteer program, you’ll be able to feed and care for the animals while learning about the local environment and cultures.

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