From traditional zoos and animal sanctuaries to drive-through wildlife parks, America’s Heartland is full of distinctive wildlife adventures for groups. Here are five spectacular options that offer a guided and personalized experiences that enable group travelers to learn about wild animals, their natural environments and how humans can help conserve these wonderful creatures.
Henry Vilas Zoo
Opened in 1911 with a donation from the Vilas family, the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, is one of a handful of free zoos across the Midwest. It sits on 28 acres and is home to 100 animal species, including 30 endangered or vulnerable ones. The zoo’s Tropical Rainforest Aviary is a free-flight aviary that gives visitors a chance to experience the beauty of birds, tropical plants and fish. Playful otters and capybaras also have a home there.
Other exhibits include North American Prairie, Arctic Passage and Wisconsin Heritage, as well as a primate house, big cats and a herpetarium for cold-blooded creatures such as reptiles, amphibians and fish. Group visitors can sign up for behind-the-scenes tours offered seasonally from March through November. The Arctic Passage tour takes visitors through the zoo’s historic bear tunnel and offers a view from behind the polar bear exhibit. Then it takes visitors to the pump room to learn about the zoo’s extensive water-filtration system. The Shell Yeah tour teaches groups about turtles and tortoises. They can meet one of the zoo’s ambassador turtles and go inside the tortoise enclosure for a personal encounter with these large reptiles.
African Adventure takes visitors to the giraffe and rhino barns and gives them a chance to get up close and personal with both species. For larger groups, the zoo can arrange 30-minute presentations featuring live animals and information about zoo careers, animal classification, adaptations, predator-prey relationships, natural history and behavior.
Como Park Zoo and Conservatory
St. Paul, Minnesota
Como Park Zoo got its start in 1897, when the City of St. Paul fenced in a pasture in Como Park to hold three deer that had been gifted to it. By 1900, visitors to the zoo could see deer, elk, foxes and two Cebu cattle. The zoo has continued to grow and expand over the years to encompass a bear grotto, a seal island, a large-cat exhibit, an aquatic-animal building, a primate facility and an African hoofstock facility. Today, marque features include the Land and Water Bird Exhibit, Polar Bear Odyssey, Gorilla Forest (with the largest all-mesh gorilla enclosure in North America) and the Giraffe Feeding Station.
The Como Park Conservatory opened in 1915. Through the years, the facility has added a sunken garden, fern room, and an orchid house and pollinator exhibit. Orway Gardens opened in 2013, creating year-round viewing of Como’s acclaimed bonsai collection and the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Gardens. The conservatory hosts a Japanese lantern lighting festival every year on the third Sunday of August to celebrate Japanese arts, music, martial arts, food, dance and traditions.
Younger visitors will enjoy the Mission Safari Maze, a bilingual, multi-layered adventure maze that shows how even the most insignificant wildlife, such as mosquitos, play an important role in human survival.
The facility offers many classes, tours and experiences for adults, including up-close encounters with many plants and animals.
The Wilds is a wildlife conservation center that is home to rhinos, giraffes, cheetahs, and other rare and endangered species. It is affiliated with the Columbus Zoo but is about two hours away on 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip-mined land in southeastern Ohio.
The center’s layout allows visitors to see many species of animals interacting with each other as they would in the wild.
Visitors can take tours of the property in a customized open-air vehicle with trained safari guides who will share facts about the rare and endangered species that roam, feed and play across the 10,000-acre property. Tours are about two hours. Sunset tours are also available.
Wildlife safaris go off road in a customized four-wheel drive truck that takes guests closer to the animals. Secrets of the Zoo tours take place every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and are led by a star of the hit show of the same name on National Geographic. Visitors who want to experience the beauty of The Wilds via horseback can take a 45-minute ride on land adjacent to the wildlife area
Thrill seekers will want to take the zipline tour over the wildlife. The course features 10 ziplines, a rappelling area and a series of observation platforms, where visitors can view the safari animals below.
Lee G. Simmons Wildlife Safari Park
Driving through Lee G. Simmons Wildlife Safari Park, visitors can get up close to all kinds of animals, from bison, wolves and elk to cheetahs, tigers and eagles. Groups of 50 or more receive a group discount, and hop-on guides are available to narrate the one-hour ride through the park.
Passing through Bison Plains, visitors will see some of North America’s largest mammals. They can get out at Wolf Canyon to observe the gray wolves and American black bears from an overlook. The safari park is also home to the Hands-On Corral, where visitors can see barnyard favorites. About 70 American Elk roam the 50-acre Lee and Helene Sapp Family Elk Meadows, and white-tailed deer graze across the 10-acre Deer Woods.
Available by advanced booking, backstage experiences include a visit to the park’s state-of-the-art Cheetah Conservation Breeding Facility or the Tiger Conservation Breeding Center. Guests learn how the park cares for its cheetahs and tigers and why conservation is so important. Keeper talks are held daily at 2 p.m., and for those who want to explore further, the two-mile trails at Wolf Woods or Frog Lake offer the perfect opportunities.
Black Pine Animal Sanctuary
Black Pine Animal Sanctuary started as a roadside zoo in the 1980s. The couple who owned it took in wild and exotic animals that had been surrendered for various reasons. When the owners divorced in 2001, a nonprofit community group took over running the sanctuary. They expanded it in 2006, when the Noble County 4-H Club leased its current location to the group. The sanctuary now houses more than 60 species of animals, reptiles and birds.
The facility was accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries in 2019, meaning that it doesn’t buy, sell, breed or trade the animals that call the sanctuary home.
The sanctuary has six tigers (four of which were seized by the Department of Justice from the “Tiger King” zoo), a cougar, bears, wolf dogs and a serval, a savannah cat native to Africa. Its reptiles include a Burmese python, an alligator, iguanas, snakes, geckos and a blue tongue skink. The facility also has a variety of tropical birds and some domestic animals, such as donkeys, mules and a potbelly pig.
Group visitors can take a 90-minute guided tour of the grounds with a knowledgeable guide who will share individual stories and the history of the animals, information about their species and insight into the operations of a true animal sanctuary.