California has dozens of wildlife sanctuaries and animal rescue centers that provide veterinary care and a safe harbor for creatures great and small. Some facilities rehabilitate injured and orphaned animals so they may be released back to the wild. Others provide lifelong refuge so rescued animals can live out their lives in a caring environment. Still others focus their efforts on wildlife research and education.
Pay a visit to one of the facilities listed below, and you’ll have an astounding opportunity to get up-close with wolves, monkeys, gibbons, big cats, seals, sea lions, and raptors—and you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for the creatures who share our planet.
Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito
On the coast just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito’s veterinary research hospital rescues, rehabilitates, and releases distressed marine mammals. They’ve cared for more than 24,000 sick and injured seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, and whales since 1975. On a guided or self-guided tour, take a peek at current “patients”—typically northern elephant seals and California sea lions. The Marine Mammal Center also has exhibits and docents at San Francisco’s Pier 39, where hundreds of sea lions hang out on K-Dock.
Lindsay Wildlife Experience, Walnut Creek
This East San Francisco Bay wildlife center offers medical and husbandry care to California native wildlife and gives visitors face-time with owls, hawks, reptiles, and opossums. Wander through the Exhibit Hall to meet resident “animal ambassadors” like Penelope the porcupine, or bring the whole clan for a VIPeek experience, which includes feeding or hands-on activities with desert iguanas, tiger salamanders, and other Golden State critters.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, South Lake Tahoe
This wildlife rehabilitation facility takes care of injured and orphaned bears, coyotes, eagles, hawks, and porcupines who make their home in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. Since 1978, the facility has rescued, rehabilitated, and released more than 17,000 animals. On a tour of the 27-acre campus, you’ll meet a few of the resident animal ambassadors, including Em, a bald eagle with a partially amputated wing, and Porky, a porcupine who enjoys noshing on corn on the cob.
Pacific Wildlife Care, Morro Bay
Morro Bay’s complex ecosystem includes an estuary, wetlands, ocean shoreline, and coastal hills, and that diversity attracts a variety of wildlife. When critters like pelicans, herons, gulls, owls, rabbits, opossums, and fawns get injured, sick, or orphaned, this San Luis Obispo County wildlife center takes them in. Veterinarians treat more than 3,000 animal patients each year, and although the center currently doesn’t offer tours, you can support their work by shopping their online store.
STAR Eco Station, Culver City
This Los Angeles environmental education center is also an exotic wildlife rescue center that specializes in illegally trafficked animals confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On a guided tour, you’ll see more than 200 rescued creatures, including alligators, tortoises, parrots, and pythons. Tours appeal to all ages but are especially tailored to kids—they’ll learn fun facts about exotic animals and why they shouldn’t be kept as pets. Seasonal eco-camps and school programs teach kids about conservation and ecosystems.
Gibbon Conservation Center, Santa Clarita
This research center northeast of Los Angeles promotes the conservation and care of gibbons, 20 separate species of apes that live in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. These acrobatic, tree-dwelling creatures are threatened by extinction, and the GCC works to preserve their habitat and educate the public about their plight. Guided tours are offered every Saturday and Sunday morning, or you can book a private tour any day of the week. You can even take part in the “Caregiver for a Day” program, in which you help to feed the center’s 40 gibbons.
Animal Tracks, Agua Dulce
Stacy Gunderson, a veteran Hollywood animal trainer, cares for injured or abandoned exotic animals at this rescue center east of Santa Clarita. A one-hour tour gets you up close with armadillos, ferrets, kangaroos, and foxes that were rescued from the illegal pet trade. You might get to meet Chrissy the baboon, or Tara, the capuchin monkey from Pirates of the Caribbean. If you want to spend more time with these animals, book a 90-minute private tour.
Farm Sanctuary, Acton
Rescued cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other farm animals that were once abused or neglected enjoy a quiet, restful life at this 26-acre rural oasis an hour northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Meet and greet the critters on an hourlong guided tour, then support the shelter’s work by purchasing books, clothing, or souvenirs at the Sanctuary Shop.
Shambala Preserve, Acton
Reserve your spot on a tour of this high-desert preserve east of Santa Clarita, and you’ll enjoy the furry company of 30-plus African lions, Bengal and Siberian tigers, black and spotted leopards, servals, and California mountain lions—all which were born in the United States to be sold as pets. Shambala is owned by silver-screen star Tippi Hedren, who is now in her 90s. Public tours are held only one weekend each month, but private tours can be arranged any time.
California Wolf Center, Julian
San Diego’s favorite apple-pie town is also home to a canine sanctuary dedicated to the recovery of North American and Mexican wolves. On a guided one-hour tour, you’ll view the two resident wolf packs at the center’s conservation facility and learn about the role of wolves in the ecosystem. If you’re unable to take a tour, visit the California Wolf Center’s store and visitor center in downtown Julian.
Lions, Tigers, & Bears, Alpine
Thirty miles east of downtown San Diego, a 140-acre ranch on the edge of Cleveland National Forest has been converted to an exotic animal sanctuary and educational facility. More than 60 animals including lions, tigers, bears, leopards, bobcats, and mountain lions that were once abused or neglected in captivity now live in a safe haven of rolling grasslands and majestic oaks. (Two of the resident big cats, Zoe and Kallie, were rescued from the facility featured in Netflix’s Tiger King.) Enjoy a two-hour visit as a “Member for a Day,” or reserve a spot on a “Behind the Scenes” experience so you can help the keepers feed the animals. You can even spend the night in a luxurious two-bedroom suite and listen to lions roar and tigers chuff as you fall asleep.