Animals Up Close

Animals Up Close

If your sense of wanderlust includes a desire to hear the call of the wild, here are some amazing U.S. spots to walk and talk and swim with the animals.


If you want a quick dose of wildlife in your life, central Oklahoma residents are in luck: The OKC Zoo is amazing. The new Sanctuary Asia exhibition, the Great EscApe habitat, Puddles the Fishing Cat … it’s a treat to explore, and it’s right in our backyard. But if you’re in the mood to head out of town, you’ve got plenty of other options, including a local source for a coastal excursion.

If you are interested in wildlife and adventure, then you must know about ScubaBros. This family-owned and -operated business is not only Oklahoma’s premier dive shop, they also offer dive certification classes, as well as refresher courses, to folks about to set off on an adventure. What you might not know is that ScubaBros also offers an incredible lineup of diving trips that span the globe. “ScubaBros’ travel is more than a travel service that handles arrangements; it is a group style of diving unmatched in camaraderie and safety while diving,” says owner Michael Cody.

ScubaBros puts together hotel and travel to some of the world’s greatest dive sites. Upcoming trips include Jupiter, Florida (which runs Sept. 18-22), Guadalupe – Great Whites! (Oct. 5-11) and Roatan, off of the coast of Honduras (Oct. 19-26). “We not only keep dive travelers safe, but will teach divers how to be better with each and every trip,” says Cody. Check them out at, and get ready for undersea adventure.  – MATT PAYNE







SPECIES TO SEE: Cheetah, giraffe, Mexican gray wolf, black and white rhinos, fallow deer, sandhill cranes and others from addax to wild turkeysIf a real dive trip – or safari or expedition boat – is not in your future, the next best thing may be in Texas. Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose (southwest of Fort Worth) is home to 1,100 animals representing 56 species on its 1,800 acres. Its mission is education, conservation and preservation, but entertainment is a plus … and a big one.

Most visitors come purely for the pleasure of seeing free-roaming wild animals. While there are some species, which, due to size, scarcity and diet inclination, are in secure enclosures, guests see herds of animals from many parts of the world from the convenience of covered, open-sided tour vehicles.

There’s a beautiful bed and breakfast, but for a real immersive experience, spend the night in a safari cabin. These small but comfortable accommodations are in a central fenced area, close to a watering hole where early risers are apt to see animals coming for a morning drink. Breakfast – for humans – is served in a glass-sided pavilion and finishes in time for the first tours of the day.

Fossil Rim is home to 16 threatened or endangered species, including the scimitar-horned oryx, which has been declared extinct in the wild. Through the efforts of Fossil Rim and other reputable organizations, efforts are being made to reintroduce the species to its natural habitat. A visit here is a lot of fun – and can support a world of good. – ELAINE WARNER







SPECIES TO SEE: Members of the big cat family – think lions and tigers – as well as bears, a coatimundi, a macaw and a macaque and many moreStartling fact: There are more tigers living in backyards in Texas than there are in the wild across the entire world. This is just one of the things you’ll learn on a visit to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, seven miles south of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Your animal encounters here won’t be hands-on, but taking a guided tour will introduce you to some amazing animals.

This is a true sanctuary. The animals here have been rescued from untenable, often tragic, situations and will never be able to be released into the wild. Turpentine Creek provides large habitat areas, great care and enrichment and a place where they can live out their lives in the best environment possible. You’ll leave educated – and, hopefully, ready to advocate. I did.

Turpentine Creek offers R.V. and tent sites, and accommodations including family-friendly suites, a tree house bungalow and two “glamping tents” – real beds, electricity, a fridge and microwave. My husband and I stayed in one of five Safari Lodges outside the animal enclosure area, each sitting on a large deck with a central fire pit and a roomy hot tub. These adult-only accommodations each represent a different area of Africa, and each is individually decorated by artists D. Arthur and Lisa Wilson.

I loved our visit here; while sitting in the hot tub, we could hear the gentle chuffing of the tigers. I really wanted to hear the lions caroling but, reminiscent of the popular ’50s song, the lions slept that night. – ELAINE WARNER







SPECIES TO SEE: Penguins, dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and seals, whale sharks (the largest fish in the ocean), several species of rays and the watery equivalent of the Pillsbury Doughboy: beautiful, white beluga whalesYou’ll go home with a whale of a tale after a visit to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The largest aquarium in the United States, it’s home to more than 100,000 animals in seven major galleries with a total of 10 million gallons of water. Any visit will be great – but for an extraordinary treat, add one of the animal encounters to your agenda, such as “A Journey with Gentle Giants,” which takes place in the 6.3 million-gallon Ocean Voyager tank.

SCUBA-certified guests can participate in dives, while non-certified visitors will use snorkels and floatation devices. The Aquarium provides all equipment, although guests may bring their own masks, and trained staff will be in the pool during the entire experience.

The most popular program is the exploration of the Ocean Voyager exhibit, including a backstage look at the top of the tank – and at the end, you’ll have lots to tell your friends, plus a souvenir photo and a T-shirt.

Since the number of participants in any session is limited, pre-registration is a really good idea. But if the idea of getting in the water with fish that can grow to the size of a bus doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll still have a great time watching the action from the outside the tank. – ELAINE WARNER