Exotic Wildlife Sanctuaries in Florida

Close-up of a tiger in Florida
••• Daniel Grill/Getty Images

Where do circus elephants go to retire? We recently got a glimpse when it was announced that Barnum and Bailey Circus would be retiring its elephants to a Central Florida location. This was the first time many of us heard that the circus had its own acreage in Central Florida’s Polk County, but that isn't the only large herd of elephants residing in Florida. Another elephant sanctuary opened a couple of years ago – the National Elephant Center in Fellsmere on Florida’s East Coast, just north of Vero Beach.

It is a 225-acre home to both African and Asian elephants. The short- and long-term facility provide care in support of the accredited zoo population and for the welfare of elephants. Both sound like exciting places, but neither facility is open to the public.

That poses another question. Are there any other exotic wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation facilities in Florida that are open to the public? The answer is, yes, there are several. And, as it turns out, they are worth a visit.

Those wishing to connect with nature and see exotic wildlife up close may want to consider visiting these little known “wild places” in Florida. These sanctuaries and rehabilitation facilities are home to wildlife that may or may not be native to the state. They house big cats like lions and tigers to native and exotic birds to reptiles, both big and small.

While these facilities allow visitors they do charge an admission fee that is sometimes comparable to zoos and other animal attractions.

That's because most of these sanctuaries and rehabilitation facilities are not-for-profit organizations that barely get by on public funding, private donations and visitors’ admission fees to finance their operations. So, if you’re looking to see these wild animals up-close and want to make a difference… consider visiting, donating or volunteering.

Wild Things in Dade City

If you’ve ever heard of Tampa Bay’s Mystery Monkey, this is where “Cornelius” now lives. This tour-based attraction north of Tampa provides several unique experiences, including swimming with tigers and other animal encounters. Admission depends on your tour choice of tours, but the basic Jungle Safari Ride ($14.99 for adults, $13.99 for seniors and $12.99 for children) is a guided tour of the entire facility where you will see rare big cats, zebras, monkeys, kangaroos and more. The tram will also make a stop where you’ll be able to feed buffalo.

Please note that taking pictures or videos is not allowed, but photos of your experience are available for purchase.

Wild Things
37237 Meridian Avenue
Dade City, FL
Ph: 352-567-9453

Hours: Tuesday thru Sunday 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.
Admission: Depends on tour choices. Reservations are encouraged. Senior discounts are available for those age 55 and over. Purchase an annual pass for unlimited access to the Sunken Jungle Tour and Jungle Safari Ride for one year from purchase date.

Big Cat Rescue in Tampa

If you’re expecting to see big cats at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, then you won’t be disappointed. There are lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and more at the almost 200-acre Tampa attraction.

Started in 1992, the rescue takes in abandoned, neglected, mistreated and retired big cats and has over a 100 in residence.

Big Cat Rescue
12802 Easy Street
Tampa, FL
Ph: 813-920-4130

Hours: Open six days a week, closed Thursdays. Check the tour schedule for times.
Admission: Depends on day and tour. Reservations required. Some tours limited to no children under age of 10.

Central Florida Animal Reserve in St. Cloud

Over 40 big cats are moving 57 miles and they will be hosting visitors by the fourth quarter of 2015… that is if enough money is raised to complete construction on their new home. Fundraising efforts have been successful so far with over half of the amount needed already moving construction well past the planning stages, but the lions, tigers, leopards, and cougars are asking for your monetary help so construction can be completed and they can get moved to their new home.

They also invite you to come see them once they are settled.

Central Florida Animal Reserve
500 Broussard Rd
St Cloud, FL
Hours and Admission: To Be Announced

Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota

Generations of England’s Rosaire family were animal trainers. With their long history of circus connections, running a sanctuary for big cats, bears, primates, exotic birds and tortoises seems natural. Visiting likely will be different here than at other sanctuaries. Visitors often get to watch seasonal training sessions as the Rosaire family work with the big cats and during part of January and all of February you can see actual performances.

Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary
7101 Palmer Boulevard
Sarasota, FL
Ph: 941-371-6377

Hours: Open Wednesday thru Saturday 12:30 to 4:00 p.m. Demonstrations are at 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.
Admission: $15 for adults and $7 for children. Parking is free.

Croc Encounters Reptile Park and Wildlife Center in Tampa

Crocodiles, alligators, turtles, tortoises, snakes, and amphibians all make their home at Crock Encounters in Tampa. While Saturday’s self-guided tours are the least expensive way to see the parts of the park that have been “visitor proofed,” you will get a much closer look, feeding demonstrations, photo opportunities and some hands-on experiences during the guided tours.

Croc Encounters Reptile Park and Wildlife Center
8703 Bowles Rd.
Tampa, FL
Ph: 813-217-4400
Hours: Saturdays 11 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Any day for guided tours, depending on availability.
Admission: Sneak Peek Saturday, $5 with coupon. Guided tours $45 per individual or $99 per family (up to 5). Group tours, birthday parties and private parties available. Reservations required for guided tours.