Get up close and personal with a host of native creatures at a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Want to see a Eurasian eagle owl take flight or watch a rescued sea turtle make its way back to the ocean? You can do both -- and lots more -- at one of many centers around the country that care for injured and orphaned wildlife. At the sites featured here, your kids will not only meet some cool critters, they'll learn how to keep them and their habitats safe and healthy. All four offer educational exhibits and special activities, such as behind-the-scenes tours, meet-the-creature demonstrations, and wildlife-release events. Offerings often change with the season, so call ahead for an up-to-date schedule.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Located on a beautiful barrier island, this state-of-the-art rehabilitation, research, and education facility is home to more than a dozen marine turtles that can't be returned to the wild, as well as a number of box turtles and terrapins. Interactive exhibits teach visitors about efforts to conserve sea turtles and their habitat and describe their remarkable journey from egg to adult. In summer, families with kids ages 3 and up can take guided walks to look for nesting turtles (early in the season) or search for hatchlings needing help (later months). georgiaseaturtlecenter.org; 912-635-4444.
The Marine Mammal Center
Nestled in the Golden Gate Recreational Area just north of San Francisco, this renowned institution offers self-guided and docent-led tours. Visitors can see recovering seals and sea lions in outdoor pools, especially during pupping season (February through September). Inside, they can watch volunteers prepare fish milkshakes in the Fish Kitchen, observe technicians in the lab, and for the brave at heart, view a necropsy through an observation window in the postmortem room. There are also interactive displays and a free, family-friendly Marine Science Sunday event each month. www.marinemammalcenter.org; 415-289-7325.
Huntersville, North Carolina
More than a thousand injured and orphaned birds of prey came through this scenic facility in the 1,300-acre Latta Plantation Nature Preserve last year. Aviaries along the 3/4-mile Raptor Trail house more than two dozen species, including great horned owls, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, and bald eagles. Throughout the year, families can check out live bird presentations, vulture feeding demonstrations, flight shows, and more. There's also a popular kids' summer program, Hawkwarts: A Camp for Muggles. carolinaraptorcenter.org; 704-875-6521.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Every year, more than 5,000 native creatures, ranging from bobcats to squirrels, are treated at this 700-acre refuge. The sanctuary also is home to some 200 "animal ambassadors": rabbits, wolves, foxes, birds of prey, and other critters that could not be returned to the wild. It offers five miles of hiking trails and year-round educational events, such as bird walks (the center is a popular stopover for migrating fowl), a youth fishing program, and summer camps. baybeachwildlife.com; 920-391-3671.
Visit animals in your area
To find a facility near you, do a web search for "wildlife rescue center" and your location (or search by species), then look for organizations that welcome visitors. Some we like:
Sea Turtle, Inc.
South Padre Island, Texas (seaturtleinc.org)
Howell Conference & Nature Center
Howell, Michigan (howellnaturecenter.org)
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
Boca Raton, Florida (gumbolimbo.org)
The Raptor Trust
Millington, New Jersey (theraptortrust.org)