Come snorkel-to-snout with a manatee. Watch wild horses swim across an ocean channel. Drop food onto a bison’s bluish-purple tongue. Set off an alligator feeding frenzy with the toss of a few biscuits.
Whether it’s a national park, a wildlife refuge or a zoo, these Southern destinations give visitors the chance to come face-to-face with exotic animals and connect with wildlife.
Swim With Manatees
Crystal River, Florida
There’s only one place in North America where people can legally swim with manatees, and that’s Crystal River, Florida.
“When you get in the water with a manatee, it will change your life,” said Terry Natwick, sales and marketing manager for Discover Crystal River Florida.
The headwaters of the Crystal River are known as Kings Bay, where the water temperature hovers around 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round thanks to more than 70 natural springs pumping out 600 million gallons of warm freshwater every day. When water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico drop below 68 degrees, manatees can swim to the springs to stay warm, making November to March the best time to visit.
Groups have many options in the area to swim with the manatees, such as Plantation on Crystal River, which has a fleet of pontoon boats. Guests don wetsuits, and guides steer the boats to the manatees. Once there, the group gets into the water, which is usually shallow enough to stand in, and waits for the curious manatees to come over — which they usually do. Guests can float, swim and snorkel alongside the manatees; although it’s OK to touch them, visitors should observe as passively as possible.
“They are the gentlest wild animal you will ever encounter on Earth,” Natwick said.
Groups can also rent kayaks and paddleboards to see the manatees or take boat tours without getting in the water.
The ultimate passive observation experience is at the 57-acre refuge in the middle of the city. Trolleys shuttle groups from the off-site Three Sisters Springs Center to the park to see dozens or hundreds of manatees gather in the aquamarine springs. A boardwalk circles the one-acre Three Sisters Springs complex, where a record of 528 manatees was recorded in December 2014.
Wild Horses at Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island National Seashore spans two states: Maryland and Virginia. Groups make the trek to the island to see its famous herd of wild ponies.
Most bus tours visit in spring and fall, when access on the island’s two-lane road is a little easier. Because the horses roam where they like, there’s no guarantee of seeing them, but groups often have a good chance aboard pontoon boat tours or during kayak, canoe and bike outings.
On the Virginia side, the horses are privately owned by the town of Chincoteague’s Volunteer Fire Co. For nearly 100 years, the town has held its annual Pony Penning and Carnival every July. The last Wednesday and Thursday of the month, thousands of people gather to watch as the feral ponies are rounded up to swim across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island to be auctioned the next day. The best way for groups to experience the swim is aboard a charter boat, but local operators can also reserve prime viewing spots on land. Throughout the year, small-bus and boat tours take groups to see the Chincoteague ponies.
At the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, groups can climb the Assateague Lighthouse or stop at two visitor centers for exhibits, films and displays.
Global Wildlife Center
In Folsom, Louisiana, about an hour’s drive north of New Orleans, visitors will find giraffes, kangaroos, Watusi cattle and five species of antelope at the Global Wildlife Center. The 900-acre free-roaming wildlife preserve allows guests to go on safari without leaving the country.
The park also has five different types of deer, including fallow deer, and visitors can feed several different kinds of camelids by hand, including alpacas, llamas and two different types of camels.
Groups have their choice of two experiences: wagon safaris or private tours. The center has four canvas-covered, open-air wagons that can each seat 30 people. Tractors pull the wagons out to the fields, where guests can feed the animals.
“It’s up to the animals to decide whether to come up to the wagons, which they usually do because they know you have food,” said Allisyn Fauntleroy, tour operations manager. One of visitors’ favorites is the African Cape eland, “which we like to call our cup stealers,” she said.
The park also has Pinzgauer all-terrain vehicles available for private tours. Each vehicle — with roll-up canvas sides — seats about eight adults, and because they can go off-road, drivers can take guests directly to the animals.
“It offers that up-close-and-personal experience,” Fauntleroy said. The giraffes “will even stick their heads in the vehicles sometimes.”
The park has a large picnic pavilion, but groups can also reserve one of two 50-person pavilions overlooking a large pond filled with koi, catfish and turtles.
Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo
The Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo began as a cattle ranch, but today it’s home to a lot more than livestock roaming the range. In 1997, owner Dan Franklin began adding bison and removing cattle, growing the bison herd to over 300 at one point. Eventually, Franklin and his wife, Sheila, began construction of a zoo, and the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo opened in 2001.
Today, the 210-acre park has 330-some animals, including 34 bison and a slew of other exotic animals: giraffes, ostriches, llamas, zebras, camels, addaxes and one wildebeest, to name a few.
The park has two trolleys; each seats 50 and can lead drive-through group tours, giving guests a chance to feed animals. Currently, visitors drive through in their own vehicles because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“The ostriches and buffalo come running up, and the ostriches are sticking their heads in the car,” co-owner Sheila Franklin said. “We get tickled because [the guests are] screaming and rolling up their windows.”
During a walk-through experience, guests will see giraffes, primates, various birds, two sloths, two species of camel, two species of small cat — caracal and lynx — foxes, coatimundis, kangaroos, reptiles, donkeys, goats and sheep.
Park staff can also arrange an educational animal encounter for groups, depending on what animals may be available. Pavilions are available for private group reservations, and the park has picnic areas open to visitors.
West Virginia State Wildlife Center
French Creek, West Virginia
At the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in French Creek, “we concentrate on wildlife species that are native to the state,” said Zack Brown, assistant chief of operations for the Wildlife Resources Section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
Though some species have been introduced, most of the animals at the center are native — or were once native — to the state. That includes black bear and white-tailed deer, elk and buffalo, mountain lions and bobcats, river otters and bald eagles.
The park features a 1.25-mile paved walking loop that leads guests through a hardwood forest and past most of the exhibits. The center’s large enclosures allow animals to interact with their environment and display more natural behavior patterns. A separate section that isn’t on the loop is where guests go to see the elk.
The center also has a 5,000-gallon water display for the river otters, which “are always cute; people like to watch their antics,” Brown said.
Staff wildlife biologists and technicians are available to lead guided group tours, with advance arrangement. Groups can also reserve a pavilion or a picnic shelter for meals.
Depending on the time of year, the center offers various events, including fall hayrides; Halloween night tours; a celebration of West Virginia Day, June 20; and Groundhog Day, which features the center’s very own groundhog, Fridge Creek Freddie.
Just 10 miles south of Valdosta, Georgia, Wild Adventures is three attractions in one: a zoo, a theme park and a concert venue.
The park is home to hundreds of exotic animals, and “our animal exhibits are very consciously spread out around the park,” said Patrick Pearson, director of sales and marketing.
The layout makes it easy to explore on foot and discover animals throughout the visit, for instance, the park’s, eldest Asian elephant in the world, 76-year-old female named Shirley.
The Alapaha Trail “is a true south Georgia swamp experience,” Pearson said. A boardwalk leads guests over a blackwater swamp to black bear, wild boar and exotic bird exhibits.
One of the park’s newer areas is Discovery Outpost, which opened in 2018; its alligator exhibit features more than 100 alligators. Guests can walk on a rope bridge over the gators and buy biscuits to feed them.
“It’s like a frenzy; it’s fun to do,” Pearson said. In the adjacent gator nursery, guests can hold baby alligators.
The park offers interactive and educational animal shows.
“If a group wanted to, we could arrange for a special visit with an animal and do a talk,” Pearson said.
Groups can also eat meals at the park, and on concert days, general admission tickets include admission to the live show.