When it comes to meeting furry and feathered friends, online encounters can be great, but there’s nothing like getting up close and personal with primates, penguins, pups and more. So give your kids an off-screen chance to meet some amazing animals… safely, of course. Here are six Los Angeles area animal sanctuaries and zoos currently open for in-person visits—and others we can’t wait to visit when the time is right.
Gibbon Conservation Center
OPEN FOR PRIVATE TOURS
The Gibbon Conservation Center is a nonprofit center dedicated to the study and conservation of gibbons, small apes from the forests of Asia. More than 40 gibbons live here in family groups, which allows kids to see up close how these animals live and take care of their young.
While the center isn't currently open for walk-in visits, private tours are available by reservation. All visitors must be in good health and wear an approved mask at all times. In addition to washing hands before entering, the center also requires visitors to sanitize their shoes.
Tours are $75 for groups of 5 ($15 for each additional person, with a 10-person maximum). Children under 3 are not allowed at this time.
19100 Esguerra Rd.
Santa Clarita, Calif.
Aquarium of the Pacific
OPEN FOR OUTDOOR EXHIBITS AND "PENGUIN ENCOUNTERS"
The indoor portion of LA's biggest aquarium has been closed since March, but the sprawling outdoor section is a go! This means kids can explore outdoor exhibits like the Moon Jelly Touch Lab, the Shark Lagoon, the Lorikeet Forest and the June Keyes Penguin Habitat. Kids will love dipping their fingers into the various touch tanks to see what a sting ray, a sea urchin or a jellyfish feels like—and watching the joy on your child's face when a colorful (and hungry!) Lorikeet lands on his arm will make it all worth it.
Want an even cooler up-close experience? The aquarium recently started re-offering its popular Penguin Encounters, which let visitors sit next to a penguin and learn all about it as it waddles around outside its exhibit before the aquarium opens. Kids must at least 7 to participate. The cost is $150 per person; $135 for aquarium members.
Covid rules: Masks are required for anyone over age 2. Temperatures will be checked before entry. Maximum party size is six. Social distancing guidelines of six feet must be maintained throughout the space. Tickets are $12 and must be purchased in advance.
100 Aquarium Way
Wildlife Learning Center
OPEN FOR PRIVATE TOURS
If feeding a giraffe or getting up-close with a porcupine is on your bucket list, now's the time to check off those boxes. While the Wildlife Learning Center's grounds are currently closed for walk-in visitors, it is still offering private tours to give visitors a close-up look at its resident critters. And there are a lot of them! The sanctuary houses more than 50 different species of zoo-born and rescued animals, from a Bermese python and an American alligator to a bald eagle and two-toed sloth.
As for tours, the basic "Zoofari Tour" includes a 30-minute guided walk around the grounds plus the chance to have at least one special encounter with an animal (You get to choose between touching an armadillo or feeding a giraffe or porcupine). The pricier 90-minute "Adventure Tour" offers a guided walk plus the chance to do all of the above experiences and more (sloths are involved!). Both tours are led by one of the center's biologists.
To keep visitors safe, Wildlife Center staff will be wearing masks, doing extra cleaning of animal and public areas, maintaining 6-foot social distancing guidelines between groups and staff, and making hand sanitizer readily available. Guests must wear masks and attend as family or household units. No penalties are given if visitors must reschedule for health reasons.
Cost: The Zoofari Tour costs $159 for up to 5 people (additional people are $10.60 each); The Adventure Tour costs $318 for up to 5 people.
16027 Yarnell St.
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The Gentle Barn
OPEN FOR DRIVE-THROUGH VISITS THROUGH AUG. 29
The Gentle Barn, an animal rescue shelter dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating abused farm animals, is normally the sort of place where kids could spend a lazy Sunday giving tummy rubs to pigs or petting cows and goats. For the time being though, driving through its sprawling grounds will have to suffice (But hey: If you've got very little ones, sometimes keeping them strapped into their car seats makes for an easier outing anyway!).
The new "Gentle Drive-Through" will—you guessed it!—let you tour the gorgeous grounds without getting out of your cars. The Covid-safe experience starts with a tour of the Sun Chlorella: Healing Center in Agua Dulce, 10 miles up the road; then winds its way down to the main Gentle Barn property and ends with visitors getting the chance to cast a wish in the resident wishing well. Visitors will hear from Gentle Barn Founders Ellie Laks and Jay Weiner on audio recordings along the way. Tickets are $28 per person with a two-person minimum. A vegan lunch is included and provided to your car. Tours run Sundays through the end of August.
For those who prefer to keep it virtual, the Gentle Barn also offers 2-hour virtual tours that give virtual visitors a close-up look at all the animals that live at the Barn (as well as sharing their stories of rescue and recovery). Visitors will also learn about the history of the organization and its goals of teaching kindness and compassion to animals.
15825 Sierra Hwy.
Peter Weber Equestrian Center
OPEN FOR PRIVATE VISITS, HAY RIDES AND PONY RIDES
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 seven days a week for as low as $50 for up to six kids. 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). You can also book a pony ride for up to five children for $50 more.
Want more? Mon.-Fri. 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 one pony ride for everyone.
Cost: $50 for up to six kids to mingle with the farm animals in the petting zoo for 30 minutes; $50 for a pony ride for up to five children; $200 for the petting zoo/hayride/pony ride combo.
6401 Crenshaw Blvd.
Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.
Shadowland Foundation, a sanctuary dedicated to preserving and honoring wolves and their contribution to the environment, may not be offering its signature group visits on weekends; however, those who want to experience a personal visit can still arrange for private sessions, which take place at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Private wolf sessions—an experience which one of our RT editors called "life-changing"—include a personalized tour and an opportunity to meet, pet and take pictures of (and with!) one or more of Shadowland's nine Alaskan Timber wolves.
Cost: $300 for five people (additional guests, $60 each). Recommended for children 8 and up due to the length of the tour/talk.
18832 Pine Canyon Rd.
Open for Virtual Visits Only
The following animal encounter spots are currently closed to the public but are offering virtual learning opportunities:
Wallis Annenberg PetSpace
OPEN FOR VIRTUAL VISITS
Calling all Fido and feline fans. Wallis Annenberg PetSpace is now offering virtual Field Trips for classes grades K-12. The live, interactive "trip" gives kids an hour of animal fun and education. Kids will get a behind-the-scenes tour, observe training demonstrations, visit the Health Center and explore Annenberg's adoption suites.
OPEN FOR VIRTUAL VISITS
Normally, this small animal sanctuary is the place to go if you want to feed a ferret, touch a tortoise, or otherwise get up close with all sorts of adorable creatures. For now though, Animal Tracks is limiting its visits to Zoom calls. But just think about it—Getting Zoom bombed by a monkey, or a fox, or a wallaby, makes for a pretty memorable virtual birthday party... Right?
Virtual visits are 10-15 minutes in length and can be arranged with any of the center's animals (all of which are rescues, by the way, either having been injured and unable to return to the wild, or saved from the illegal pet trade).
The center asks for a $50 donation for the virtual meeting, as this helps fund the animals' care.
Moorpark Teaching Zoo
OPEN FOR VIRTUAL MEET-AND-GREETS AND VIRTUAL FIELD TRIPS
While the Moorpark Teaching Zoo is currently closed to the public, the staff is offering virtual meet-and-greet birthday parties and field trips with the animals (which includes special, personalized experiences for the birthday girl or boy). Kids will learn about the many animals that live here, as well as get plenty of time for questions.
Calling itself "the living, breathing classroom for the Exotic Animal Training and Management program," the zoo (a part of Moorpark College) exists to educate its students on animal husbandry, training and care. More than 200 animals live at the 5-acre zoo, including alligators, geckos, monkeys, tigers, camels, snakes, lions and more.
7075 Campus Rd.
CURRENTLY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC, WITH EDUCATIONAL PRESENTATIONS AVAILABLE VIRTUALLY
While a live visit to the Farm Sanctuary would let kids meet rescued cows, pigs, turkeys, and other farm animals in person—the Farm Sanctuary is still doing its best to educate the public about the humane treatment of farm animals and the effects of animal farming to the world's ecosystem. Its virtual education program offers a variety of free classes for kids of all ages, many of them dealing with topics such as climate change and compassion toward animals; there's even a "How to Draw Animals" class for kids in grades K-6 and a singalong puppet show for kids in K and first grade.
The Sanctuary is also moving its popular "Sanctuary Weekend" event (formerly the Hoedown) to the online stage. The event, which will be held August 22-23, is designed to bring together individuals who care about farm animals with leading experts on issues related to our modern food system. It includes speaker presentations, time to meet the farm animal residents. For information and registration, go to: Farmsanctuary.org/events.
5200 Escondido Canyon Rd.
Marine Mammal Care Center
CURRENTLY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC
The Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro is a hospital with a very different kind of patient: 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 is around to answer questions daily between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Have a larger group? Make sure you request an appointment.
3601 S. Gaffey St.
STAR Eco Station
CURRENTLY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC
Meet parrots and pythons and piranhas—oh my! Kids, from babies to teens, can tour 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 2 are free) and start every hour on Sat. & Sun. from 10 a.m. with the last tour starting at 3 p.m.
10101 Jefferson Blvd.
Animal Encounters at the Los Angeles Zoo
CURRENTLY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC
The zoo is always a beloved destination for tots who want a one-stop spot for animal-viewing—and these LA Zoo experiences let visitors get an even closer look. Want to see just how long a giraffe's tongue is (Pssst: It's 18 inches!) From 11a.m. to 1p.m. and then between 2p.m-4p.m., pay just $5 cash 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!).
Flamingo Mingle is the newest animal encounter where you can feed the pink birds and learn all about their care. Cost: $25 in addition to Zoo admission and is available daily (except the second and fourth Wed. of the month) at 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Maximum six guests per encounter and the minimum age is 2 years. Advance online ticket purchase is strongly recommended.
*Zoo admission is $17 for kids 2-12; $22 for ages 13-61; children under 2 are free.
5333 Zoo Dr.
—Meghan Rose & Missy Heckscher