RUB NOSES WITH A CAMEL OR COZY UP TO A FENNEC FOX. YOU CAN FEEL THE LOVE AT ANY NUMBER OF GEORGIA WILDLIFE CENTERS AND SANCTUARIES.
WHAT IF I TOLD YOU that you have lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!) as your neighbors? Don’t look for them at your block party, but you can visit and explore your own animal nature almost anytime at the wildlife habitats, sanctuaries, zoos and environmental education centers around Georgia. Many sites offer a triple bonus: They’re entertaining, economical and educational. In some cases, you’re even supporting conservation and rehabilitation efforts.
If your idea of a natural encounter is letting bison eat from your hand or seeing majestic giraffes roam freely, you’re in the right state of mind and place. Here are five spots, arranged alphabetically, to start your walk on the wild side. No animals were harmed in the making of this story.
[READ: HOW THE LION KING’S WILD THINGS CONTINUE TO ROAR ONSTAGE
Center for Wildlife Education at Georgia Southern University
The Statesboro center, a 12-acre wetland preserve with a beaver lodge and walking paths, includes the Lamar Q. Ball Jr. Raptor Center. Its mission is to support the university’s environmental education programs and provide wildlife encounters for humans.
See eagles scrape the clouds. See the habits and habitats of raptors, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Learn about native species like alligators and invasive ones like the coypu, “marsh dog” or nutria (they look like beavers but don’t build dams).
Choose a self-guided tour, see skunks and bunnies, follow the Children’s Discovery Trail or take in a raptor flight/demonstration. Spend the night in the campground (tent rentals available), hike after dark and learn from staff members about nocturnal animals. Feeling brave? Sure you are. Pet the center’s pal, Monty the python.
$2; $1 age 3-11 and military with ID. Hours: 9 a.m-4:45 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1-4:45 p.m. Saturday (closed Saturdays in June-August and holidays). 1 Southern Drive, Statesboro. Details HERE or at 912.478.0831.
Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo
Here you can get cozy with emus (flightless birds), elk, zebras, lions, grizzlies and Foxie, a super-cute Fennec fox with really big ears. The smallish 20-acre Chestatee preserve in Dahlonega is home to some 100 exotic species and domestic animals, many of them rescues. You’ll have to wait until spring to see them, though, the facility is closed for winter (and renovations).
When open, it brings human and beast together through education, observation and interaction. Pack a picnic and watch the wild things play. Take a selfie with a hedgehog or hold a corn snake during a private small-animal encounter. Breakfast with the big cats is a mane event here, a chance to help zookeepers feed lions, tigers and leopards, and then toss a treat or three to bears, zebras and horses. You’d be wise to book your visit at least a week in advance.
Chestatee is nonprofit and staffed mostly by volunteers. Your new friends will roar and grunt in appreciation if you can donate fresh veggies or canned food (peaches, pears, green beans, peanut butter).
$10, $5 age 11 and under. Small animal encounter $100 (per family or group). Breakfast with big cats $250 per person. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., weather permitting. 69 Old Dahlonega Highway, Dahlonega. Details: HERE or at 678.859.6820.
Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary
This 250-acre nonprofit sanctuary in Locust Grove, 45 minutes south of Atlanta, heals and houses wild things rescued by the Department of Natural Resources or transported from zoos and learning centers.
Noah’s Ark is home to more than 100 species and 1,500 critters. Residents range from monkeys and macaws to white tigers and wolves. Hundreds more furred and feathered creatures find their way here for rehabilitation each year. If an animal cannot be safely returned to the wild, then hakuna matata (no worries), it stays for the rest of its life.
Allow at least an hour for a free, self-guided tour. Animal encounters are available for a fee. Get ultimate access as a “Keeper for a Day” — working and lunching alongside a zookeeper.
Caring for the animals costs the Ark $33,000 a month, so donations of cash, food and supplies are always welcome. Check online for a wish list and ways to help.
Self-guided tours free noon-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $75-$500 Keeper for a Day tours booked in advance. 712 LG Griffin Road, Locust Grove. Details HERE or at 770.957.0888.
Oatland Island Wildlife Center of Savannah
The beauty and delicate eco-balance of coastal Georgia is highlighted in the compact, zoo-like Oatland Island preserve, surrounded by a hundred acres of maritime forest.
Conservation and education is a priority at this Savannah area facility. See cougars and bobcats as you walk, plus a regal bald eagle, a ghostly barn owl and hawks at the Birds of Prey sanctuary. The elusive gray wolf is found in the Wolf Wilderness section, along with the Southern flying squirrel and other Deep South forest dwellers.
Visit goats, turkeys and donkeys in the Barnyard, and end your tour with the bison. Educational events focus on such activities as open-fire cooking and beekeeping. Summer camps available for kindergartners through eighth-graders.
$5; $3 kids, military, age 65 and up. Hours: 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 711 Sandtown Road, Savannah. Details HERE or at 912.395.1500.
Wild Animal Safari
Here in Pine Mountain, you drive on the wild side to see hundreds of roaming camels, zebras, American bison, giraffes, Watusi cattle and water buffalo.
You’ll be far from any traffic jams on this 3.5-mile route, but don’t be surprised if someone lumbers up to your car to say hello. You haven’t really lived until a camel pulls you over. If you’d rather not use your own ride, rent a park zebra van or take the tour bus (not available year-round; bus schedules posted at park entrance).
Your admission includes entry to the Animal Walkabout where, in a more zoo-like setting, you’ll meet lemurs, alpacas, monkeys, exotic birds and Athena the white tiger. Plan on at least two hours to explore both sections of the park.
$26.95; $23.95 ages 3-12 and age 65+. AAA, military and emergency responder discounts available. Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. 1300 Oak Grove Road, Pine Mountain. Details HERE or at 706.663.8744.
BLESS THESE BEASTS, TOO
Georgia wild adventures can also be found from Albany, Athens and Cleveland to Quitman and Valdosta. If you don’t want to do a day trip or overnighter, Zoo Atlanta (404.624.9453) is in your backyard. Read on to learn about the others.
BEAR HOLLOW ZOO: This Athens spot is home to non-releasable wildlife that faced physical or behavioral challenges and will live out their lives as species ambassadors. Meet a bald eagle named Honovi; assorted owls; a red-tailed hawk named Ohoopee; wild turkeys; a turkey vulture; black bears named DJ, Athena and Yonah; a bobcat named Katie; an American alligator, various snakes, gopher frogs and gopher tortoises, among others. Free. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Exhibit hall open 1-4 p.m. Saturday. Details HERE or at 706.613.3580.
NORTH GEORGIA ZOO & FARM: Come to Cleveland for hands-on exhibits, tours and a petting zoo (donkeys, pigs, llamas young and old). The “family” includes cougars, lynx, New Guinea singing dogs, lemurs, marmosets, any number of birds, plus reptiles, amphibians, insects and hoofstock (camels, donkeys and such). Various encounters available. $23; $21 age 2-11 (infants free). Petting Farm only is $8; $6 children. Farm tours are $19; $15 for children. Encounters are priced separately. Hours vary by day of week; check ahead for winter hours. Details HERE or at 706.348.7279.
TIGER STRIPES EXOTIC ANIMAL SANCTUARY: This Quitman nonprofit rescues exotic and farm animals, providing a permanent home in which they’re cared for and protected for life. It also provides educational tours and has a petting zoo. $10; $5 age 10 and under. Open 11:45 a.m.-4 p.m. every third Thursday (but check ahead). Details HERE or at 229.506.9099 or 220.263.6805.
WILD ADVENTURES THEME PARK: This zoological park in Valdosta reopens March 10 for a season that runs weekends only through until June 1, and is then open all week long. Its animal kingdom includes African cranes and parrots, alpacas, gators, Asian elephants, Asian water buffalo, pygmy goats, a black bear, an India black buck, snakes, desert lynx, giraffes, giant zebras, the greater one-horned rhino, hedgehogs and meerkats, tortoises and much more. The park includes rides, games and creature talks. $39-$60. Includes admission to Splash Island Waterpark in season. Hours vary. Details HERE or at 229.219.7080.
ZOO OF CHEHAW PARK: The Wild Animal Park in Albany was designed by naturalist Jim Fowler of TV’s “Wild Kingdom.” Chehaw, with more than 700 acres of conservation land and animal habits, calls itself “nature’s playground.” It’s home to more than 200 animals of more than 125 species — cheetahs, black rhinos, meerkats, black bears, monkeys, camels, emus and tortoises, among many others. The zoo, founded on conservation, preservation and education, is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Park only: $3 age 13 and up; $2 age 4-12, age 62 and up, and military. Zoo only: $8.20 age 13 and up; $7.20 age 62 and up; $5.30 age 4-12 and military; under 3 free. Park open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Sunday. Zoo open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Sunday. Details HERE or at 229.430.5275.