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The perfect trip for animal lovers

There are plenty of stories about animals being mistreated all over the world. And the worst thing about this sad fact is that some of this abuse and neglect is happening in zoos where thousands of people visit every day.

Some zoos often claim they have rescued the animals and are giving them a better life. However, these same zoos are often forcing the animals in their care to suffer a life of cruelty and misery in their daily lives – all in the name of entertainment.

The good news is that there are many sanctuaries in the United States specifically dedicated to rescuing animals from cruel conditions and allowing them to live out the remainder of their lives in a peaceful place, with expansive habitats, away from the hardships they once endured.

Unlike many zoos and “theme park” related animal parks, sanctuaries are all about the animals – their conservation, their protection, and their overall well-being. With a public that is becoming ever more conscious of the myriad of animal welfare issues that exist, many travelers are looking for an alternative to zoos and theme parks; they want to visit locations where they know an animal is being treated right and is living the best life possible – namely sanctuaries.

What better way to see some of these animal havens than an RV trip from one side of the United States to the other? To start this travel series, I will take you on a meandering trip across the southern states, from east to west.

Big Cat Recue – Tampa, Florida

Where to stay: Bay Bayou RV Resort

  • 20-minute drive from Big Cat Rescue
  • 4 stars on Trip Advisor
  • Swimming pool on site
  • Wi-Fi access
  • Docks for fishing and viewing
  • Pet Friendly with large and small dog parks
  • Lending library
  • All lots come with 40 channel cable with HBO and hi-definition
  • Make reservation in advance

First stop on the road trip is Tampa, Florida. Big Cat Rescue is home to over 80 tigers, cougars, lions, leopards, and other varieties of wild cats. This compassionate organization has been saving all manner of exotic cats and taking them under their wing – or rather, paw! – since 1992.

It is one of the world’s largest sanctuaries of its type, dedicated entirely to abused and abandoned exotic cats. These cats have been rescued for any number of reasons, often being abused by owners who force the cats to perform for entertainment, languishing in roadside zoos, or saved from being slaughtered and used as fur.  Big Cat Rescue prides itself on being a sanctuary where the care and well-being of their animals comes first.

Big Cat Rescue offers a variety of different tours at its sanctuary. The day tour is a 1.5-hour walking tour of the facility where you will meet some of the sanctuary’s cats and hear the tales of their earlier hardships, how they came to be at the sanctuary, and get a sense of just how good their life is now.

Other tours at the sanctuary include the feeding tour where you observe one of the keepers feeding the cats from just a few feet behind the safety of a fence, and a ‘keeper tour’ where you can make toys and treats for the cats and watch a training session take place.

The night tour allows you to walk around the enclosure after dark with no more than a flashlight (and a tour guide of course!). Here you will find hundreds of glowing eyes observing you in the darkness and possibly making a playful pounce at the fence as you pass by.

Tigers for Tomorrow – Atalla, Alabama

Where to stay: Noccalula Falls Park & Campground

  • 23-minute drive from Tigers for Tomorrow
  • 5 stars on Trip Advisor
  • Controlled entry
  • Miniature Golf and other activities
  • AARP discounts
  • Make reservation in advance

Next stop on the road trip is Tigers for Tomorrow located in Atalla, Alabama which is home to over 160 animals including mountain lions, African lions, tigers, black leopards, wolves, and bears. As you can see, contrary to its name, Tigers for Tomorrow takes in all manner of animals!

This sanctuary is located on a 140-acre mountainous preserve at the foothills of the Untamed Mountains. They were founded as a last stop forever home for predatory animals and this is why the care and safety of the sanctuary’s residents are of the utmost importance to this non-profit.

Tigers for Tomorrow also pride themselves on focusing on the positives of their animals, looking at how happy and healthy they are now as opposed to promoting the horrible stories of where they came from and the abuse they suffered previously. They offer a tour of the facility where visitors will learn the four primary instincts of the animals and how they behave in the wild.

The tour will also give you an inside view on why Tigers for Tomorrow saves these animals and how all the hard work in caring for these beautiful creatures is more than just a job for the volunteers.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge – Eureka, Arkansas

Where to stay: Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

  • Accommodations are available for guests
  • You can choose between a tent or RV space, a safari lodge, a suite, and even a treehouse!
  • Make reservation in advance

An absolute ‘must-see’ for animal lovers of all ages can be found in Arkansas: Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka, AR.  This sanctuary, founded in 1992 by the Jackson family (namely Don, Hilda, and Tanya), provides a lifetime home for abandoned, abused, and neglected big cats with an “emphasis on lions, tigers, cougars, and leopards.”

Their life’s work began when 42 big cats were dumped into their lap by a breeder and black market dealer, and to this day the Jacksons continue to provide a refuge to many animal residents once kept as “pets” by owners ill-equipped to handle them.

One of the largest facilities of its kind, Turpentine Creek Wildlife refuge puts the animals’ well-being and care at the forefront of their mission. All of the animals housed at this award-winning sanctuary are treated with the dignity and compassion they deserve.

Education and awareness are the cornerstone of Turpentine Creek’s methodology. They believe that education is the key to raising much needed awareness about the exotic pet trade as well as the many issues facing these animals in the wild.  With their various outreach programs and media appearances, Turpentine Creek stays true to its core belief system of advocating for the animals.

“Keeper Talks” are held each weekend and on holidays and among their presenters are biologists, zoologists and Turpentine Creek interns who discuss different specific topics to educate the public. You can also enjoy exploring a self-guided area on your own or join a tour lead by a Turpentine Creek guide every day of the year (except Christmas!) beginning at 10:00 a.m. each morning.

With interesting lodgings (a treehouse, people!), not to mention equipped RV spaces, you won’t miss a thing when you visit!


Endangered Ark Foundation – Hugo, Oklahoma

Where to stay: Shady Oaks RV Park

  • 10-minute drive from Endangered Ark Foundation
  • 4 stars on Trip Advisor
  • Site has a laundromat with drop off service
  • Cleaning services for your RV or camper
  • Cabins are also available
  • Make reservation in advance

A 4.5-hour drive from Arkansas is The Endangered Ark Foundation which was opened in Hugo, Oklahoma by D.R. and Isla Miller in 1993. Home to the second largest Asian elephant herd in North America, this sanctuary’s admirable mission is to ensure the future of Asian elephants and provide a forever home for retired circus elephants, as well as, educating the public on this endangered species.

Plan on getting an up close and personal education on elephants!  The tour at the Endangered Ark Foundation lasts about an hour, “during which you will experience elephants at a very intimate and up close experience while our staff delivers an interactive educational presentation. Education is a big part of our mission, and we often host students and other groups.” (EAF Team)

You’ll learn all of the essentials of elephant care such as nutrition and diet, tusk and foot care as well the bathing of the elephants. You will also get a deeper view into how the foundation is run and the important broad reaching work that it does on behalf of elephants everywhere.

Be sure to plan your visit to this sanctuary carefully as tours are available only on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 10:00 a.m. and must be booked in advance.

Black Beauty Ranch – Murchison, Texas

Where to stay: Staway Ranch RV Park

  • 10-minute drive from Black Beauty Ranch
  • 5 stars on Trip Advisor
  • Unlimited area for boondocking
  • Lake for fun and fishing
  • Close to many activities and tourist attractions
  • Make reservation in advance

Located about 2.5 hours from Hugo, Oklahoma, the Black Beauty Ranch was founded by Cleveland Amory in 1979 in Murchison, Texas. Over 1,000 animals, both domestic and exotic, call this 1,400-acre ranch home. Some of the animals on the ranch include cattle, bison, horses, antelopes, burros, apes, camels, and tigers.

Many of the animals at the sanctuary have been rescued from death at slaughterhouses and trophy hunting ranches. Some were also saved from the inherent cruelty associated with cheap-end circuses and roadside zoos, compelled to perform by owners exploiting them strictly for a profit.

There is also an equine rehabilitation center located on the ranch. The Doris Day Equine Center facilitates the rehabilitation of neglected and abused horses. Trainers work with the horses so the animals are ready for adoption into permanent, approved homes where they will be safe, loved, and live out their life.

Because the care of the animals always comes first, the ranch is only open to the public 1-2 days a month for small guided tours. This ensures that the animals are comfortable and not being stressed by the constant hustle and bustle of tours. The limited tours take you through the ranch where visitors will learn all about the animals in residence at the sanctuary.

Yellowstone Bison

Wildlife West Nature Park Edgewood, New Mexico

Where to Stay: Turquoise Trail Campground and RV Park

    • 20-minute drive to Wildlife West Nature Park
    • 4 stars on Trip Advisor
    • Pet friendly
    • Laundry facilities on site
    • Free Wi-Fi
    • Close to many activities and tourist attractions
    • Make reservation in advance

The next stop on our road trip is New Mexico! The majority of the animal residents at this rescue zoo can sadly, no longer be truly free. They were rescued from varying types of trauma or injury, most often due to human interaction, which keeps them from being reintroduced to the “wild.”

Others come from owners who kept them as pets and then could no longer “deal with them.”  These animals have become too attached to humans to be successfully released back into the wild.  Fortunately, however, all of these animals will live out their life in the safety and comfort of the Wildlife West Nature Park.

As a rescue sanctuary, the primary mission of this organization is to raise much needed awareness to the many struggles that wild animals face as well as educate the public on the importance of keeping wild animals wild and not as pets.

Although they have numerous events and the educational opportunities abound, the admission into the park is relatively cheap. Adults enter for $9.00, seniors for $7.00, students for just $5.00 and children under 5 years of age are free. Please plan your trip carefully though the park is open mid-March to the end of October from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and November through mid-March from Noon to 4 p.m.

Their summer season Chuck Wagon Suppers are definitely worth checking out and although reservations are required, the cost, once again, is not exorbitant. For dinner (there are vegetarian options!) and musical entertainment as well as a Peregrine Falcon presentation, the cost is just $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $12 for children ages 5 through 11 and children under 4 are free.

Keepers of the Wild – Valentine, Arizona

Where to stay: Sunrise RV Park

  • 30-minute drive from Keepers of the Wild
  • 4 stars on Trip Advisor
  • Showers and laundry onsite
  • Wi-Fi access
  • 75-minute drive to the Hoover Dam
  • 45-minute drive to the historic town of Oatman, an authentic, western, ghost town and mining camp
  • Make reservation in advance

In Arizona, approximately 7 hours from Edgewood, New Mexico, the Keepers of the Wild sanctuary is home to over 140 exotic and indigenous wild animals, most of which were rescued from lives of abandonment and neglect. The main goal of this sanctuary is the protection of its wildlife.

Keepers of the Wild offers a guided safari tour through the sanctuary. Here visitors will learn about all of the animal inhabitants including, wolves, reptiles, jaguars, lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, coyotes, reptiles, wallabies, and much more!

A relatively cheap way to learn about so many different animals, general admission to Keepers of the Wild costs just $20 and a guided safari tour will cost you another $10 per person. The funds raised go right back to caring for the animals.

Educational tours are also offered.  These tours were created to educate individuals on some of the hardships these animals suffer in captivity and in the wild. One of the primary objectives for this sanctuary, taught through their educational programs, is to help enforce the humane treatment of all animals.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears – Alpine, California

Where to stay: Oak Creek RV Resort

  • 17-minute drive from Lions, Tigers and Bears
  • 5 stars on Trip Advisor
  • Swimming pool on site
  • Just two miles west of Lake Jennings
  • Offers extended stays
  • Make reservation in advance

All good things must come to an end!  The final stop on this road trip brings us to Lions, Tigers, and Bears located just outside of Alpine, California, about 6 hours from Valentine, Arizona. This sanctuary provides a spacious home where exotic animals, once abused and neglected, can live in peace and tranquillity for the rest of their lives. They pride themselves in creating a safe haven for these once tortured animals.

This sanctuary is home to over 60 animals including lions, tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, bobcats, leopards, llamas, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys, and even peacocks. It’s safe to say you can find something for every type of animal lover here!

The general tour, which makes you a member of the Lions, Tigers, and Bears family for the day, will cost $33.  During the two-hour tour, you will be guided throughout the sanctuary while learning about all of the rescued species.

For $130 you can take your “member for a day” experience even further by helping the keepers feed the animals. You are given a choice between big cats or a bear and then proceed to feed the animal its lunch or dinner! Not only do you get a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you will also be helping this non-profit maintain its much needed funding for the animals’ dietary needs.

If you thought feeding one of the animal residents would be exciting, there’s more! To take a private, guided tour for two with the opportunity to feed each and every rescued big cat and bear at the sanctuary, it will cost $500.

And finally for $1,000 you can “shadow” a Lions, Tigers, and Bears keeper as they go about their daily routine!  Discover what it’s really like to look after and care for the many rescued animals that call this sanctuary their home.

Throughout this expansive road trip, you will have some truly amazing experiences, with every highlight being completely different from the zoos you’ve likely visited in the past.  And the best part about this itinerary is that all of the animals you’ll visit are treated with the utmost respect.

These sanctuaries are not only beautiful with much to see and learn, they truly care about their charges and the welfare of the animals is always at the forefront of their mission – everything they do, from daily routine to guided tours, is to ensure that these wonderful creatures can live a life of dignity and peace. This southern-based excursion across our great country is sure to put a smile on the face of any animal lover!

Stay tuned for my next article in this series where I will map out an animal lover’s dream vacation across our northern states with more must-see wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves!

About Hope St. Claire

Hope St. Claire is an avid animal advocate and mother of two. In the midst of writing her first novel, she is also planning her future as a full-time RVer and will be hitting the road for her own adventures within the year. Preparing for her new life on the road, Hope has been researching and organizing her “ideal road trips” across the U.S. along with amassing tips for animal loving nomads, all of which she is now sharing with other like-minded travelers. An unrepentant movie buff and insatiable reader, Hope also enjoys horseback riding, an eclectic assortment of music, and currently has two dogs and two cats – all rescues.

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