You don't have to be a kid to enjoy playtime with animals or having an opportunity to get up close and personal with wild animals. From drive-through wildlife parks to sanctuaries, the Midwest offers a variety of animal encounters. My wife Lisa and I look for such attractions when we plan trips. You can usually take your time and soak in the attractions, appreciating the opportunity to visit however you choose. From big cat sanctuaries with tigers, mountain lions, and bobcats, to opportunities to feed birds, penguins, and tortoises, the Midwest’s animal encounters offer a variety of experiences.
Whether you’re a zoo enthusiast, animal lover, or just interested in new and unique experiences, these nine animal encounters are must-sees in the Midwest. These are actual wildlife sanctuaries or experiences, and they’re nothing like you may have watched on so-called reality TV series.
1. Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, Orr, Minnesota
During the Great Depression, while loggers went off to cut down the day’s trees, black bears -- with the scent of the great food that was prepared earlier in the day -- would destroy the loggers’ camp and steal the food. Common for the time, loggers would destroy the bears. However, owner Vince Shute grew tired of it over the years, and during the 1970s, decided to feed the bears, keeping them away from the camp. With daily feedings, the bears started gathering at the new area and left the camp alone.
Today, the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, about two hours northeast of Duluth, continues the tradition of daily feedings. Now, you can actually watch the daily feedings. Open seasonally from May 29 until the first Sunday of September, visitors take a shuttle to an observation deck, where you are several feet above the feeding grounds. Team members scatter food around the feeding zone. The bears are fun to watch, as they play and frolic in the area. You’ll see families join in for the feedings, with cubs climbing trees or wrestling with each other.
2. Oswald’s Bear Ranch, Newberry, Michigan
Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for nearly 30 years, Oswald’s Bear Ranch is one of the largest bear sanctuaries in the United States. Home to about 40 rescued bears -- no longer able to live on their own in the wild -- Oswald’s sanctuary includes two large habitats and two smaller ones. Open Memorial Day weekend until October 4, visitors freely roam the ranch, visiting any area they like. During the summer, you’re sure to catch bears enjoying some playtime in ponds, as well as roaming around their habitats.
Pro Tip: While it’s designed for visitors to enjoy a walk, Oswald’s Bear Ranch offers a cart for elderly visitors or anyone who may have difficulty walking.
3. Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory And Education Center, Louisburg, Kansas
Home to big cats, such as lions and tigers, for more than 20 years, Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center provides sanctuary to animals that have been turned in by their owners or rescued in other ways. Once domestically owned, big cats can’t live on their own in the wild, so Cedar Cove becomes their new forever home. Located about 45 minutes southwest of Kansas City, the Louisburg, Kansas, attraction has also been home to other cats, such as panthers and bobcats. You’ll also find wolves living at Cedar Cove.
Open year-round, public tours are offered on weekends. Sanctuary volunteers lead tours, sharing Cedar Cove’s history and mission. You’ll see almost 30 animals in large facilities, and, just like kittens and cats at home, the big cats love playing with giant balls and toys.
4. Lazy L Safari Park, Cape Girardeau, Missouri
As a walk-through zoo, Lazy L Safari Park features about 50 species of animals, from camels to zebras. As you stroll around the grounds, you’ll be entertained by animals, such as lemurs, who appear to enjoy checking out visitors as much as visitors enjoy checking them out. The park consists of outdoor attractions, a barn, and a petting zoo. One of the most popular exhibits is the parakeet jungle, where about 20 colorful birds may land on you. Bring in birdseed on a stick and they’ll love you like you’re one of their own, pecking away until all the seed is gone. Visitors can also feed other animals with treats that can be purchased around the park. Open weekends April to May and September to December, the park is open daily from June to August. It’s closed from January to March.
Pro Tip: While the park is wheelchair accessible, inclement weather can impact such access.
5. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa
A five-mile autoroute takes visitors through bison and elk enclosures at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. With about 800 bison, the national mammal travels in herds and can often be seen from designated areas, such as the Overland and Tallgrass Trails, as well as along your drive. Elk roam their area, and you may get to see them butt heads during rut season. The wildlife refuge, located about 30 minutes east of Des Moines, features walking trails where visitors can find several bird species, including owls and a variety of sparrows. During the spring and summer months, you’ll find endangered monarch butterflies along the tallgrass prairie near the visitors center.
6. The Wilds, Cumberland, Ohio
You may find it difficult to believe you’re in Ohio when you visit The Wilds. With animals you’d normally see in Africa, Asia, and Australia, such as camels, wild dogs, and zebras, you may think you’re on safari. With about 10,000 acres, The Wilds is one of the nation’s largest wildlife conservation areas and a must-see for animal encounters. Offering scenic tours that take you into the middle of the animals’ habitats -- don’t worry, you’re in an open-air vehicle -- you can come face-to-face with giraffes, ostriches, wildebeest, and rhinos. The Wilds is home to more than 20 animal species. You can even reserve overnight stays, where you can sleep under the stars at the Outpost, or stay in yurts, cabins, or at the lodge.
7. Wolf Creek Habitat And Rescue, Brookville, Indiana
Home to more than 30 rescued wolves, Wolf Creek Habitat and Rescue offers up-close animal encounters as educational opportunities. About a dozen of the wolves interact with visitors, are socially adaptable, and showcase how wolves work together and survive in packs. During your visit, you may have a wolf hang out at your side. Each wolf at the center has been rescued from situations where the owners couldn’t care for them. The wolves that don’t interact with visitors have quirks or preferences that are better served away from visitors. Open year-round, the best time to see the wolves at their most active is during cooler weather. Located about halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, Wolf Creek is also home to a few rescued foxes.
8. Tanganyika Wildlife Park, Goddard, Kansas
Tanganyika Wildlife Park, about 20 minutes outside Wichita, grew from the founder’s dream of having his own wildlife park. The former zookeeper at Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo opened a bird breeding company, which eventually grew into a 51-acre park with more than 400 animals and 40 exhibits, featuring okapis, monkeys, big cats, wild hogs, and camels. Tanganyika also participates in almost 40 breeding programs with international zoos.
You’ll have fun feeding everything from giraffes and hippos to penguins here. While unlimited personal encounters are an add-on to your visit to Tanganyika Wildlife Park, an all-day pass takes you up-close to animals such as ring-tailed lemurs, giant tortoises, kangaroos, and more.
9. Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park And Wildlife Safari, Ashland, Nebraska
With buffalo roaming the plains and hills, as well as a herd of elk walking the hillside, the Nebraska wildlife safari features a four-mile drive-through attraction about 30 minutes southwest of Omaha. Named one of the best wildlife parks in the United States, the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari includes pelicans seemingly dancing and strutting their way around a wetlands area while turtles sun themselves on logs and bullfrogs sing. The park includes a raptor exhibit, a bear canyon, and a wolf sanctuary. A petting zoo invites kids of all ages to hang out with chickens and miniature goats. As you drive through the bird meadows, you’ll have sandhill cranes walking up to your vehicle for a close encounter. The park is open from April through October.