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Creature Contact at Southern Animal Encounters

Looking for an animal adventure? Sites across the South offer groups the opportunity to get close to a menagerie of creatures, from alligators and turtles to big cats, wild ponies and lemurs.

Here are just a few places where your group can enjoy interacting with creatures great and small.

Wild Ponies

Chincoteague Island, Virginia

Horse lovers from across the country flock to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, for a view of its famous wild ponies, especially during the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim and Auction, set this year for July 29-30.

During the weeklong event, which includes a parade, fireworks and other activities, the region’s two herds of wild ponies are rounded up by saltwater cowboys, gathered onto the Chincoteague beaches and then paraded to a corral for a routine vet checkup. Some of the ponies are then auctioned to buyers who hope to domesticate them, and the rest are returned to the wild.

“The ponies swim from nearby Assateague Island to Chincoteague, and there are maybe 40,000 people here in town watching,” said Joanne Moore, marketing and event coordinator for the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. “People watch from land; they watch from boats and kayaks. It’s pretty amazing. People will also line up to watch the ponies on the parade route as they go by.”

The region’s roughly 150 wild ponies can also be seen in their native habitat at other times of the year. One good spot to see the so-called Southern herd is via the main road to Assateague Island National Seashore.

“You can walk, bike or drive your vehicle over there, and there is a pull-off over near their area,” Moore said. “From the Woodland Trail, you can also hike out to an observation platform, and you can often view them from there.”

To view the Northern herd, work with a local boat captain to charter a tour to their preferred grazing lands, which are not accessible by road.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is an accredited wildlife sanctuary dedicated to helping animals in need.

The refuge’s key focus is providing a safe home to abandoned, abused and neglected big cats like tigers, lions, leopards and cougars. But an array of other animals, including bears, a coatimundi and a rhesus macaque, also call Turpentine Creek home.

The center is well equipped to handle large groups, and staff there can arrange guided three-hour tours that include immersive and educational opportunities for visitors.

“While individuals will always be protected from our animal residents by a habitat perimeter fence and public safety rail, in most instances groups are able to view our resident cats as close as five feet away,” said Ike Wever, Turpentine Creek’s promotions and events coordinator.

Groups can visit the refuge’s majestic cats and other animals on guided, half-mile walking tours led by Turpentine Creek staff. Guided trolley tours are also available.

Overnight accommodations are available on-site in the form of RV and tent spaces as well as fully stocked safari lodges, and behind-the-scenes tour options are available for guests who wish to learn more about the daily lives of the animals in Turpentine Creek’s care.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Sea turtles in need of a little TLC can find it at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.

Here, visitors can see rehabilitation in action as they tour the facility and enjoy both indoor and outdoor exhibits that highlight the challenges facing turtles in the area and the important role they play in the region’s coastal ecosystem.

From September through May, educator-led, guided group tours of the interactive learning center and public portions of the sea turtle hospital are available with advance reservation.

Daily individual tours are offered year-round, allowing visitors to learn about the turtle “patients” being cared for in the center’s rehabilitation pavilion and see them being fed and treated.

From the beginning of June through the end of July, guided, nighttime turtle walks for groups of up to 25 are also available by reservation. Attendees will learn about the biology and life cycle of turtles and go on the hunt for a chance to safely view a nesting mother on an area beach.

Sawgrass Recreation Park

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

There’s no better way to experience the Everglades than by airboat, a mode of transport that’s an adrenaline-fueled thrill in itself.

But the team behind the family-owned and -operated Sawgrass Recreation Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is committed to ensuring that visitors also leave their airboat adventure with an appreciation for the beauty and ecology of the Everglades, one of America’s most unusual ecosystems.

During the airboat portion of the tour, guides point out wildlife along the journey, from wading birds like blue herons and roseate spoonbills to turtles, snakes, frogs and alligators.

“We call our tour an eco-adventure,” said Tim Schwartzman, the park’s owner. “The boat itself is an adventure — half boat, half plane — but we add education to it. When we come across wildlife, we share information about what we’re seeing and basic information about the Everglades, what it is and how we’re trying to keep it around.”

The park also offers land-based exhibits at its headquarters, where visitors can touch and hold baby alligators. “It’s very safe and humane to the animals, but we find that touch has a big impact on people’s understanding of what an animal is and how they work,” Schwartzman said.

Visitors can also see the park’s 13-foot-long, 800-pound adult alligator, as well as the crocodiles, caimans, pythons and other smaller reptiles housed at its on-site exhibits.

The facility is well equipped to handle large groups, operating a fleet of more than 10 boats that can each fit 25 riders at a time. “We have a lot of school groups that come out with 100 or 200 at a time, and we’re able to handle that,” Schwartzman said.

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

Gulf Shores, Alabama

At the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, visitors can enjoy unusual add-on Animal Encounter experiences that allow for individual, hands-on visits with a lemur, a sloth, a kangaroo, an anteater and more. 

Guests on the encounters can not only learn fascinating facts about the various animals from their keepers but also enjoy a few minutes touching, holding, feeding and petting them.

A longtime top-rated destination along the Gulf Coast, the zoo was spotlighted on Animal Planet’s documentary series “The Little Zoo That Could” and is home to roughly 600 animals, including 22 crtically endangered species.

In March, the zoo will triple its size when it unveils its new inland location, featuring more than 20 acres of exhibits.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” said Kay Maghan, public relations manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “Their plan is to divide exhibits by continent, so you’ll have the African section, the Americas section, the Australian section and so on. There is already also a new restaurant at the entrance to the new zoo called the Safari Club. And they’re adding some new attractions, including a carousel.”

Visitor-favorite animals at the zoo include Chuckie, an American alligator who serves as the zoo’s oldest resident and honorary mascot, and Sylvia, one of the zoo’s two-toed sloths, who’s available for animal encounters. The facility is also home to kookaburras; marmosets; hamadryas baboons; a colony of Madagascar lemurs; three Bengal tigers named Rajah, Rani and Omar; and many more.