Want to kiss a kangaroo? Finger-feed a porcupine? Rub the belly of a pot-bellied pig? There’s a place for that! Los Angeles is home to all sorts of awesome animal centers, many of which will give your budding Dr. Doolittles up close and personal encounters with critters of every kind. Read on to find out where to give your tots a taste of the wild.
Hold a hedgehog! Feed a ferret! Touch a tortoise! At Animal Tracks, an animal rescue organization just a stone's throw away from the (must-see!) Vasquez Rocks geological park, visitors can get an up-close-and-personal tour of a veritable Noah's Ark of critters. The 16-year-old ranch houses a menagerie of animals — from monkeys, foxes and ferrets to tarantulas, parrots and pythons. All of the animals are rescues, either having been injured and unable to return to the wild, or saved from the illegal pet trade. What really makes this place different, says Animal Tracks owner Stacy Gunderson, is that visitors are allowed to "touch every animal that's touchable." That means kiddos can cozy up to a variety of cute and cuddly creatures (all included in the cost of admission!). The ranch's 1-hour Children's Tour includes a meet-and-greet with 10 of small animals. Keep in mind, children's tours don't include up-close encounters with monkeys, large mammals, or predators like wolves and servals (encounters with these animals are included in the adult tours). Cost: Free for children under 2; $15 for kids ages 2-13; $20 for kids 14 and up. The ranch is open to the public with reservations only.
Want to help? If you're planning a visit, bring some yummy treats! The ranch is more than happy to accept food donations for the animals. This can include produce (grapes, oranges, avocados, broccoli), grains (wheat bread, Cheerios, rice cakes), yogurt (fruit-flavored only), or pet food (chicken feed, Pedigree brand canned dog food). Agua Dulce, CA (the ranch is a private residence, so the address is provided only upon reservation)
Peter Weber Equestrian Center
If you're in the South Bay and you've got a little one who loves horses (or goats, pigs, alpacas, tortoises, bunnies, and sheep!), a visit to Peter Weber Equestrian Center makes the perfect playdate. While it's not open to the public for walk-ins, private "field trips" can be arranged Monday through Friday for as low as $50 for up to six people. For that, you'll have the entire petting zoo area all to yourselves for 30 minutes, which means your little animal-lovers can pet the goats and sheep, feed the bunnies, touch the tortoise — then play in the enclosed play area that includes a small slide perched on bales of hay, two giant rocking-horses, and a make-believe Wild West jail facade that's perfect for Instagram (#Jailbirds). Want more? For $150 (up to 15 people), you can reserve the 90-minute trio of activities that includes 30 minutes in the petting zoo, a 30-minute hayride around the ranch, and pony rides for everyone. It's a great deal if you can split the cost with friends.
6401 Crenshaw Blvd.
Rolling Hills Estates
The Gentle Barn
The Gentle Barn is an animal rescue shelter with a mission: to rescue, rehabilitate and give sanctuary to abused animals. A visit to The Gentle Barn is a relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon (they’re only open to the public on Sundays from 10 a.m.–2 p.m.) to teach kids how to love and respect all animals. While here they can groom the horses, brush the cows, give the pigs tummy rubs, hug the goats and sheep, sit under the shade trees, munch on popcorn, and make new friends. A $20 donation per adult and $10 per child is requested. You must purchase tickets in advance to visit.
Note: When you visit, they ask that no one brings in meat, poultry, fish or dairy foods onto the property out of respect for the animals. Feel free to bring snacks that respect that request, or purchase vegan food from the snack shop.
15825 Sierra Highway, Santa Clarita
These tours are honestly life changing! The morning starts with an orientation talk about the importance and lives of wolves. Then you get to move to actually meeting the wonderful wolves that call this sanctuary home. Pet them, feed them and even have them give you kisses; this up close and personal encounter with wild animals is a moving and amazing experience, and a wonderful way to learn about the importance of the protection and preservation of all Earth’s creatures. Public tours are available Saturdays at 10 a.m. by appointment only for $35 for kids and $50 for adults; or, schedule a private visit for Tuesday, Thursday or Friday at 10 a.m. for $300 (that includes up to five people). All tours are recommended for kids 8 & up.
18832 Pine Canyon Rd.
STAR Eco Station
Meet parrots and pythons and piranhas – oh my! You can take kids from babies to teens on a tour of the Eco Station to see a host of exotic rescued wildlife. Each tour is led by an expert Eco Station staff member who explains the habits and history of hundreds of rescued exotic animals. The tour also features exhibits on the current challenges facing the environment and offers tips on how to help save the planet through small changes at home and at school. Tours are $6-$8 (kids under 3 are free) and start every hour on Saturday & Sunday from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
10101 Jefferson Blvd.
Wildlife Learning Center
More than 50 different species of zoo-born and rescued animals thrive at the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar. Visitors may stroll through the gorgeous, landscaped setting to view the animals, or sign up for a more intimate, customized tour that features engaging animal interaction. Touch a fox, feed a porcupine, hold an owl, and meet lovely Lola the sloth — as well as many smaller mammals and reptiles in the center’s 1-on-1 animal experiences. They’re open daily from 11 a.m –5 p.m., and tickets are $7 for kids, $9 for adults (2 and under are free). One-on-one animal encounters start at $25 for up to four people.
16027 Yarnell St.
Marine Mammal Care Center
The Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro is a hospital with a very different kind of patient: the inhabitants here are mostly baby seals who have lost their moms and cannot feed themselves, along with other sick or injured sea mammals. Your little animal lovers can see (from behind the fence line) a plethora of adorable harbor seals and California sea lions, learn how they are cared for and how helpers here prepare to return them to the wild. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. Staff to answer questions is usually around daily between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you'd like to learn more, you can arrange for a tour for a group of 6-30 people for a donation of $30.
Marine Mammal Care Center
3601 S. Gaffey St.
Gibbon Conservation Center
The Gibbon Conservation Center is for the study and conservation of gibbons; the small apes from the forests of Asia. More than 40 gibbons live here in family groups, which allows kids see up close how these apes live with their families and take care of their own babies. The GCC is open weekends only and you can take a self-guided tour anytime from 9:30 a.m.-noon, or take a guided tour at 10 a.m. Kids are $5, adults are $15 and kids 5 and under are free.
19100 Esguerra Rd.
Giraffe and Hippo Encounters at the Los Angeles Zoo
The zoo is always a beloved destination for tots who want a one-stop spot for animal-viewing — and two new LA Zoo experiences let visitors get an even closer look. Want to see just how long a giraffe's tongue is (Pssst: It's 14 inches!)? Pay just $5 to get a chance to grab a branch and feed a giraffe at the zoo's daily public giraffe feedings (Read Red Tricycle's review of the awesome experience here!). Or, if you've ever wondered what the shiny skin of a hippo feels like, sign up for the zoo's "Hippo Encounter," which takes small groups of visitors close the the giant mammals. You'll see how zookeepers care for them, you'll watch their mighty jaws chomping on food, and you'll get a chance to feel that cold, wet skin for yourself. When you're done, stroll the vast zoo grounds and try to visit all 1,100 animals — a menagerie that represents 250 different species! — housed at the zoo.
Details: The Hippo Encounter costs $15 in addition to zoo admission* and is offered at noon on weekends and holidays only. Advance sign-up is recommended since tickets are limited. Giraffe feedings are held daily at 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $5 and available at the giraffe exhibit during feeding time.
*Zoo admission is $16 for kids 2-12; $21 for ages 13-61; $18 seniors 62 and up. Children under 2 are free.
5333 Zoo Dr.
Moorpark Teaching Zoo
This teaching zoo is small enough that the kids don't get too tired exploring here, and they get to see everything. Like the ocelot, Mowgli (pictured), who likes to rest in the shade. Another thing we love is that there are docents everywhere, happy to teach all they’ve learned about the animals. There are also plenty of animal shows, demonstrations, encounters and discovery stations that take place throughout the day. There’s even a new “Behind the Scenes Tour” you can take (for an additional $7). Open weekends from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; kids are $6 and adults are $8.
Note: Swing by an ATM on your way – they only take cash or checks.
7075 Campus Rd.
Animal-loving kids love to visit Farm Sanctuary’s Southern California shelter, which focuses on compassionately rescuing and protecting farm animals — especially from factory farms. Here you can meet rescued cows, pigs, turkeys, and other farm animals, each of whom has their own special story. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, tours are offered where kids can “cuddle cows” and “talk to turkeys.” Tours cost $5-$10, and kids 3 and under are free. No reservations are necessary but call first to make sure a tour is taking places and plan on arriving 15 minutes early.
Note: If you're a meat-eating family, be prepared for some hard-to-answer questions from your kids after a visit to this place.
5200 Escondido Canyon Rd.
The Sanctuary at Soledad
Located about an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles in beautiful, remote Mojave, the Sanctuary at Soledad is an animal sanctuary run by devoted animal lovers. This is a kids’ paradise, where your own little beings are free to frolic with the goats, commune with the horses, stand eye-to-eye with a Jersey cow, and scratch the tummy of a pot-bellied pig. There is no cost to visit, although their products (including awesome vegan cheeses and candles) are available for purchase and donations to the Sanctuary are gladly accepted.
Contact the founders, Julian and Carol Pearce, to set up your visit. It’s a day that the kids will remember forever, and you’ll know you helped some of these amazing animals stay on the farm forever.
More in the mood for creatures that swim? Check out places you can meet fishes and other wet critters.
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—Meghan Rose & Missy Heckscher