Long gone are the days of Jungleland, Gay's Lion Farm, and Lion Country Safari in Southern California, but that doesn't mean that you can't have a wild encounter anymore -- and not just at the L.A. Zoo.
These days, the focus is less on tricks and pageantry and more on the humane rescue of exotic breeds -- big cats, tropical birds, and the like -- that have outgrown their roles as pets, movie stars, or roadside attractions. Wild animal sanctuaries now largely exist because they have to, because there's nowhere else for exotics born in captivity to go.
But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy them. There are many places in Southern California where you can take a walk on the wild side by visiting animals from around the world -- and where your money goes to a good cause.
Shambala Roar Foundation
Actress Tippi Hedren's Shambala Preserve in Soledad Canyon, just 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is probably the closest thing to the lion farms of yesteryear. It didn't begin as a preserve per se, as Tippi and her producer husband were raising lion cubs to star in their upcoming feature film about a pride of lions in Africa. Back then, anyone could just buy a lion cub, but most who did so soon regretted it, especially when the lion started showing its teeth. It was then that the lion would end up on Tippi's doorstep. Visit Shambala Preserve to see where the resulting movie Roar was filmed. Since Shambala still fields a steady stream of unsolicited calls offering them the latest big cat that's been picked up by Animal Control or the Humane Society, there are still plenty of lions (and tigers) there. The cost of your tour ticket (or overnight safari stay) is donated to the non-profit Roar Foundation, which keeps the preserve running.
Lions, Tigers and Bears Rescue
Lions, Tigers and Bears Rescue in east San Diego County is a no-kill, no-breed sanctuary where some pretty big beasts that were born in captivity can live out the rest of their lives without abuse or neglect. Angelenos may recall that this sanctuary became the forever home of Meatball, the Glendale Bear, who just couldn't resist coming down from Angeles National Forest to root through Glendale residents' garbage cans and backyards. So, poor Meatball was relocated here, where he could mingle with other bears and have plenty of hillsides to roam (and even slip away unseen for a little wintertime hibernation). To get the most out of your visit, pay the extra money to get even closer to an animal for feeding time -- which basically means you offer it a hunk of raw meat skewered by a giant barbecue fork. For even more access, become a member to make unlimited visits and receive access to exclusive membership events and behind-the-scenes tours.
Living in Southern California means we humans must coexist with native wildlife -- be they squirrels, raccoons, skunks, snakes, lizards, or even deer, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and bears. Wildlife Waystation tries to teach people about those animals roaming in their backyards, how not to unintentionally harm them, or put themselves at risk. But this private sanctuary -- which you can visit as a volunteer -- also has some unusual non-native animals. Where else can you encounter a kinkajou, capuchin monkey, spotted hyena, coati, and serval cat? (Not to mention, learn what they actually are.) More familiar exotics in their collection include Henry the chinchilla, Fang the ferret, Al the albino hedgehog, Mocha the llama, and Rickey the peacock. The Waystation also provides sanctuary to over 40 chimpanzees, most of which have been rescued from laboratory animal testing. If volunteering isn't your thing, you can also book private events at the Wildlife Waystation to encounter their 400+ animals without having to do any work.
Malibu Wine Safari
It's hard to imagine that a place like Saddlerock Ranch still exists. But here in Malibu, you can partake in the ultimate animal amusement: wine tasting with wild animals. Owned by entrepreneur Ron Semler of Saddlerock and Semler Wines, Saddlerock Ranch is home to everything from alpacas to zebras -- all of which will gobble up any carrots you offer them. The animals on the ranch generally were either rescues or gifts to the Semlers, and although they don't breed the animals for profit, they don't prevent the animals from having babies, either. The star of the show -- accessible only with a VIP ticket -- is Stanley the giraffe (of Toys "R" Us fame), who'll don a tux for your wedding at the ranch. This isn't exactly a sanctuary, and not exactly a working ranch, either. Private collections of exotic animals have often been doomed in the past (see also: Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch), so it's best to go experience this boozy safari now, while you still can.
Gibbon Conservation Center
When you visit the Gibbon Conservation Center, the first thing you learn is: gibbons are not monkeys, and they're not pets. They are tree-dwelling, tropical and sub-tropical apes who have lost their habitats because of deforestation. These gibbons have come from places like India, Indonesia, China, and other parts of Asia, all the way to Santa Clarita after having been captured into the pet trade, improperly domesticated, and exploited. Left too long alone, a gibbon will get depressed and refuse to eat, so the Gibbon Conservation Center staff take rescued gibbons without a mate, introduce them to one, and encourage them to breed -- not only for the survival of the species, but for the survival of the individual. Visit the center early in the morning to hear the gibbons vocalize their characteristic "song," which is a cacophonous clatter unlike anything you've ever heard. Even when they're not singing, these limb-swingers will entertain visitors with their tremendous acrobatics, treating the cages in this desert landscape like the tree branches in a forest canopy.
Though not as exotic, you can also visit (and feed) some wild horses and burros at the corral run by the Bureau of Land Management in Ridgecrest. You can also support the conservation efforts of DonkeyLand in Riverside, where sick and injured wild donkeys and burros are healed and then released to freedom. Or, play with wolves in Lake Hughes at Shadowland Foundation, which conducts programs to educate people of all ages about wolves.