Animal Adventures Around Our State
Play like a kid again and make time to enjoy
special events and happenings.
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Want to take a walk on the wild side this summer? You’re in luck! North Carolina has wildlife sanctuaries, aquariums, and zoos where kids of all ages can observe and learn about native and exotic animals up close. Consider a mountains-to-sea tour and experience some of our state’s most exciting wildlife destinations. All locations offer tours and programs to educate the public about animal conservation and preservation efforts.
North Carolina Zoo
4401 Zoo Parkway, Asheboro
The world’s largest natural-habitat zoo is located just 75 miles west of Raleigh, making it the perfect destination for a day trip. Make sure you schedule a full day, though, because there is so much to see and do. The 500-acre zoo is home to more than 1,600 animals, representing 225 species. Take the Zoofari Tour and experience white rhinos, elephants, and gazelles in the Watani Grasslands. See exotic and native birds in the Aviary’s spectacular “Birds in Flight” show. Don’t miss the new Hellbender Habitat, highlighting one of the largest salamanders in the world, nicknamed the Allegheny Alligator. From lions and zebras native to Africa’s grasslands to North America’s black bears, polar bears, and cougars, there’s something for everyone!
676 East Hughes Mill Road, Burlington
The Conservators Center is home to more than 80 animals, including a smiling arctic fox and more than 21 rare, threatened, and endangered species, many rescued from difficult living conditions. Each of the critter residents appear to possess a quirky personality that is guaranteed to make visitors smile and inspire everyone to learn more about our planet’s diverse wildlife. The Wild Overnights group tour allows tent camping right outside the park—and includes s’mores by the campfire! Twilight Tours invite visitors to experience animals at a time of day when the creatures are most active and vocal. You can even witness the thunderous moment when all 16 lions roar simultaneously—an act the staff nicknamed “oofing.” Be ready to get reconnected with wildlife!
The Duke Lemur Center
3705 Erwin Road, Durham
The Lemur Center at Duke University is home to the world’s largest and most diverse collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. With several tour options available, visitors can observe the 17 rare species up-close in different settings: outdoor, indoor, and even in a separate nocturnal building. The Walking with Lemurs Tour allows guests to wander in the forest while lemurs roam freely. And if you want to take some lemur love home, you can even own a masterpiece by prosimian primates. Turns out lemurs love to paint, and you can watch the budding Picasso’s (okay, perhaps their work is more like Pollock) put fingers to canvas, and take the creation home with you.
North Carolina Aquarium
at Fort Fisher
900 Loggerhead Road, Kure Beach
Where can you meet a rare albino alligator, bald eagle, loggerhead sea turtles, and dinosaurs all in one day? The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher! Enter a world of underwater wonder where sharks, eels, and jellyfish swim just inches in front of your nose. Touch horseshoe crabs, stingrays, and sea stars. Come to see the sharks, but don’t leave without mingling with hundreds of exotic butterflies in the Butterfly Bungalow. More adventurous visitors may want to register for tours that include feeding sharks and learning how to care for the animals as an aquarist apprentice. You may even come face-to-face with life-sized dinosaurs, but watch out for the spitting Dilophosaurus!
Tiger World Endangered
4400 Cook Road, Rockwell
This nonprofit animal conservation and educational center is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and preservation of exotic animals. In addition to tigers from Asia, you’ll find exotic animals from Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Michael, the Timbavati white tiger may steal the show, but you’ll find a colorful assortment of critters ranging from an Indian blue peacock to a red kangaroo from down under. Guided tours are available to allow you to explore the conservation center with a licensed animal handler—just make note that Tiger World maintains a very natural environment, with rock and grass pathways, so come prepared for a wilderness hike.
Grandfather Mountain Wildlife Habitats
2050 Blowing Rock Highway, Linville
You probably know about the mile-high swinging bridge and the breathtaking mountain views, but did you know Grandfather Mountain is also home to seven environmental habitats where visitors can observe bald eagles, black bears, and elk? The animal enclosures were built around existing native habitats, offering a unique opportunity to observe them in their natural homes. Enjoy watching river otters dive, splash, and sunbathe. Experience cougars, deer, and countless species of birds as they move throughout the area, only feet away from visitors. Learn how managed habitats play an important role in connecting humans with other species.
Carolina Tiger Rescue
1940 Hanks Chapel Road, Pittsboro
If you’re looking for wildlife closer to home, neighboring Chatham County has just the place—but tigers aren’t the only big cats you’ll encounter at the Carolina Tiger Rescue. There are 10 additional rescued species that call the sanctuary home. Lions and cougars and cheetahs! Oh my! Come learn about kinkajous, amazing arboreal animals that look like primates, but are actually related to raccoons. The adult-only Twilight Tours thrill the over-18 crowd, while the Tiger Tales Tour is perfect for the younger set. All tours give visitors the opportunity to see the residents up-close and to learn more about the sanctuary’s mission of respect, rescue, education, and advocacy for all wildlife.