Top Non-Zoo Animal Encounters of South Florida

For some children, the best way for them to foster a love of wildlife is to expose them in intimate ways to live animals.  Children have a natural fascination and are eager learners when it comes to understanding various species.  Zoos are a wonderful overview of a variety of animals but sometimes smaller or more indigineous exhibits can really spark their interest.  

Kids will love observing, or interacting with, wild animals in their natural habitats.  Many of these animal encounters allow them to pet or touch the animals and get up close as well. Zoological parks, great as they might be, are often too sanitized, and, commercialized, to offer true wildlife lovers a worthwhile experience.  In South Florida there are plenty of really neat nature centers, farms and wildlife rescues that can offer you and your family a unique, local experience with South Florida wildlife!  Despite being home to some of the most urban spaces in the country, the south Florida region as a whole offers unrivaled opportunities to wildlife enthusiasts. 

Let us take a closer look at the choices available to wildlife buffs in the four counties of this region. 

Broward County

1) Sawgrass Recreation Park: The Everglades, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is indisputably the crown jewel of the south Florida region. For residents of Broward county, there is no better way to explore the beautiful subtropical wilderness of this national park than through an airboat tour at Sawgrass. It is especially a surreal feeling to enjoy their customized night time rides, aptly called gator rides. The tour not only lets you observe alligators in the wild, but also provides you an opportunity to cradle baby gators. In addition, you will get to observe several other species, both native and foreign to the region, including friendly turtles and iguanas. The endangered Florida Panther is especially a hit with visitors. 

2) Deerfield Island Park: Officially designated as an urban wilderness area, the Deerfield Island Park is only reached through a boat. The mangrove swamp at the island serves as a refuge for a variety of species including manatees, gopher tortoises, armadillos, and foxes. 

3) Butterfly World: Located in Coconut Creek, the Butterfly World is a true treasure for wildlife enthusiasts. Butterfly World is a unique conservation project that houses as many as 80 butterfly species from South and Central America, and Southeast and Far East Asia. You would also get to observe native species in a special aviary called the North American Butterflies. While butterflies are clearly the star of the show, visitors will also be delighted by several types of colorful birds at this venue. 

4) Billie Swamp Safari: Another popular way to discover the wildlife haven that is the Everglades. The Safari tours are conducted everyday through the hammocks and wetlands, bringing visitors up and close to animals such as deer, water buffalo, wild hogs, alligators, and birds of prey like hawks and eagles. There are also entertaining wildlife and reptile shows conducted here.  **This attraction is technically NOT in Broward but can be accessed via 595**

5) Flamingo Gardens: Spread over 60 acres, Flamingo gardens serves as a refuge for injured and non-releasable wildlife. The gardens is the largest sanctuary of wildlife native to Florida including alligators, bears, bobcats, eagles, otters, panthers, and, of course, flamingos. 

6) Everglades Holiday Park: Yet another window to the majestic Everglades. You can take airboat rides, and watch alligators sunning lazily in glassy waters. 

7) Anne Kolb Nature Center & West Lake Park: You can rent a kayak or a canoe to reach one of the biggest urban nature facilities in the state of Florida. West Lake Park features boardwalks that snake through mangrove forests, providing you a peek into the regions threatened and endangered species. 

8) MODS (Museum of Discovery & Science) Located in the heart of Fort Lauderdale, this wonderful multi-story science center is filled with interesting interactive displays.  The critters are on the first floor with aquariums, otters, a touch tank, and creepy crawlies.

9) Long Key Natural Area & Nature Center This Davie treasure is in the western part of Broward county. The exhibit hall features an actual archaeological dig pit; hands on exhibits of native vegetation and birds as well as live animals including snakes, scorpions, frogs and alligators.

Miami Dade County

1) Miami Equestrian Center: For people with a passion for horseback riding, there is no better destination than the Miami Equestrian Center. The Center houses an impressive number of highly trained and happy horses, and offers classes to all levels of riders. 

2) Tropical Fish Miami: This unique facility has well over 125 different ponds that house fishes belonging to a range of species. Tropical Fish Miami not only allows you to enjoy these tropical and freshwater fishes in the ponds, but also sells certain varieties for you to take home. 

3) Miccosukee Indian Village: This multi-purpose resort conducts thrilling airboat rides through the majestic Everglades. The visitors can enjoy several wildlife species in the wetlands, with alligators being the most prominent and impressive. 

4) Everglades Safari Park: A perfect way to witness the wildlife of Everglades in all their glory. Aside from the sinewy alligators, you will spot wild hogs, deer, turtles, bald eagles, and raccoons on this riveting jungle trail. 

5) Seaquarium: Spread over 38 acres, the Seaquarium is a veritable Miami institution where you can watch breathetaking dolphin shows, feed crocodiles, and get up and close with sharks and other marine wildlife. 

6) Monkey Jungle If you are wild about monkeys, you can't pass up on this South Florida attraction.  See over 29 different species in a fun, interactive environment. 

7) The Little Farm is located in Goulds, Miami-Dade county.  This quaint animal attraction features your typical petting zoo animals like goats, ducks, ponies, etc.  Join them on one of their Family Fun Days with a packed picnic and make a day of it!

Palm Beach County

1) Loxahatchee River Environmental Center: Established just over 6 years ago, the Loxahatchee River Center has taken no time to become a crowd favorite among residents and visitors alike. And for good reasons. The Center houses an impressive number of exhibits, as well as aquatic tanks that showcase wildlife of both freshwater swamps and marine ecology surrounding the area. 

2) Panther Ridge Conservation Center: Big cats have a big fan following. For residents of Palm Beach county, who want their share of big cat experience, there is no looking beyond the Panther Ridge Conservation Center. As a privately owned not-for-profit concern, the Center is home to endangered big cats including leopards, cougars, jaguars, and cheetahs. 

3) Busch Wildlife Sanctuary: Probably one of the best destinations in the County for people who truly authentic wildlife experience. The Busch Wildlife Sanctuary houses a hospital to take care of injured and sick animals, and also has an intriguing nature trail that will bring you face to face with a number of wildlife species. 

4) Loggerhead Marine Life Center: A wonderful destination for people who are passionate about the fragile marine ecology of the region. The Loggerhead Marine Life Center is committed to preservation of sea turtles, and offers many educational opportunities to its visitors. In addition, you can participate in fish feeding activities, enjoy some stunning nature trails, and even hire the venue to celebrate birthdays. 

5) Green Cay Wetlands: Located in Boynton Beach, the Green Cay Wetlands offer some spectacular boardwalks that brings visitors face to face with some native Florida fauna. Back at the center, there are live animals exhibits among other features, raising awareness about the threats faced by native Florida species. 

6) Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge: Operated by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife, this Wildlife Refuge features an extensive boardwalk that takes visitors through the wetlands. Back at the center, the Wildlife Refuge also has interesting butterfly garden that houses native species. The exhibits in the halls about the FL environment and ecosystem are very engaging!  We love the airboat tour exhibit and listening to the animals at night.

7) Gumbo Limbo Nature Center: Located in south east Boca Raton, the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center offers boardwalks to visitors through coastal mangrove forests that are home to a number of endangered species. In addition, they also rescue injured sea turtles, and release stranded hatchlings during the nesting season. 

8) Okeeheelee Nature Center: Spread over 90 acres, the Okeeheelee Nature Center offers some of the best wildlife encounter opportunities in the region. The Center features natures trails that will make you come face to face with several birds of prey and fascinating reptiles. 

9) Daggerwing Nature Center: Another nature center in Boca Raton that features beautiful trails and houses animals including snapping turtles, alligators, and a bewildering variety of creepy crawlies. 

10) McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary: Another prominent wildlife sanctuary in the Broward County, McCarthy's is home to hundreds of native Florida species that are injured or otherwise infirm. 


1) Bahia Honda State Park: A perfect spot for people who are into observing marine life up close and personal. You can spot reef fish, barracudas, rays, and, if you are lucky, even nurse shark.

2) Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Another gem for wildlife enthusiasts, you can expect to see Key Largo Woodrat, Burmese Python, as well as several varieties of feral and free range cats. 

3) Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park: The botanical park serves as an important habitat for the threatened Key Largo Cotton Mouse, and the Key Largo Woodrat. 

4) Dry Tortugas National Park: Accessible only by seaplane or a boat ride, this Park is a bird watcher's delight. There are as many as 299 species of birds found here, with sooty tern, brown pelican, brown noddy being some of the most prominent sightings. 

5) National Key Deer Refuge: The refuge houses an old quarry, called the Blue Hole, which is the biggest freshwater body within the Keys. Sporting an observation platform as well as a walking trail, tourists and locals alike may appreciate the alligators, the key deer, turtles, birds and other wildlife which can be seen. 

6) Sheriff's Animal Farm:  Located at the police headquarters in Key West, this unique location is home to rescued exotics animals like an albino python, peacocks, many tropical birds, a Llama, Patagonian Cavies and African Spurred Tortoises. Call ahead to make sure they are taking visitors.

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