Are you looking for more educational activities to do this summer? If you or your children love animals, consider learning more about the wildlife refuge programs in our area! There are several located in and around Jacksonville that help educate the public about animals. These wildlife refuge programs take in animals who may have been abused, neglected, or found injured and can no longer survive if released into the wild. If the animal can be released after making a full recovery, the refuge will usually do so. Some of the animals they care for were intended to be pets until the owner realized the animal was not meant to be a household domestic pet or they could not properly provide the environment or afford to care for the animal.
Many of these sanctuaries rely on donations and volunteer help to continue to run the facilities. We rounded up a few in and around Jacksonville who also allow tours. Check with the organization first, as most tours require booking in advance.
Catty Shack Ranch (Jacksonville)
Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary’s mission is to provide a safe, loving and forever home to endangered big cats and to educate the public about their plight in the wild and in captivity. Their primary focus is in the rescue of exotic animals from serious situations. Their current residents include tigers, lions, pumas, leopards, lynx, foxes, and coatimundis (the last two species are “honorary cats”). They give educational school tours year round and are open on select weekends to the public. Daytime tours are every Thursday and last approximately 40-45 minutes. Their Haunted Forest event this year will begin on October 12. They need volunteers to help with outdoor projects and to help indoors with the Thrift Store.
B.E.A.K.S. (Big Talbot Island)
Founded in 1981, B.E.A.K.S. (Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary) has been dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating injured wildlife, especially Florida’s wild birds. B.E.A.K.S. also utilizes public education to help prevent the destruction of wildlife populations, allowing school children and families to come visit and learn about the native wild birds. They’ve expanded their educational and rehabilitation facilities to welcome school field trips. Visitors can see injured and orphaned birds up close and learn how to protect them and care for their environment. B.E.AK.S. also became a national leader in oil spill response for wildlife. Volunteers can help directly with the birds, maintaining the sanctuary, or in the office.
White Oak Conservation (Yulee)
White Oak is one of the world’s premiere wildlife breeding, research, and training facilities. Located along the St. Mary’s River in northeast Florida, White Oak conservation programs span 600 acres and are surrounded by 6,800 acres of pine and hardwood forest and wetlands.
Georgia Sea Turtle Center (Jekyll Island)
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center was opened in 2007. It was created and is operated by the Jekyll Island Authority as a primary conservation program dedicated to increasing awareness through sea turtle education, rehabilitation, and research programs. is an advanced hospital but open to the general public, offering an interactive Exhibit Gallery and Rehabilitation Pavilion with a many sea turtle patients regularly on view for guests. Additionally, indoor and outdoor educational programs are available year-round for guests of all ages.
GTM Research Reserve (Ponte Vedra Beach)
Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Research Reserve) is a collaboration between Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They hold interpretive exhibits, aquariums, classrooms, teaching and working laboratories, an auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Guana River Aquatic Preserve. The Education staff offer programming for all ages on the importance of the estuary.
Two Tails Ranch (Williston)
Two Tails Ranch was founded in 1984 and is the only privately owned elephant facility of its kind. The ranch was built to board both Asian and African elephants needing temporary or permanent housing, regardless of health or dispositions. They offer guided tours and along with elephants, the ranch includes other animals, such as zebras, birds, and turtles.
Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation (Gainesville)
Carson Springs is primarily a conservation and educational facility, which provides educational opportunities and activities for a wide variety of people including school groups, college students, 4H groups, and continuing education for veterinarians. They only offer guided tours by advanced appointment. Every tour stresses important facts about conservation and preservation and the balance of nature. Field trips, group tours, events, corporate outings and weddings are also available. They’re closed on Sunday. They serve as a continuing education facility for student volunteers of all ages. The following are the species residing at Carson Springs Wildlife Foundation and Conservation: African Lion, Puma, Serval, Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Situtunga or Marshbuck, Barred Owl, Scimitar Horned Oryx, Cheetah, Eurasian Lynx, Bobcat, Ring Tailed Lemur, East African Oryx, Great Horned Owl, Emu, Tiger, Caracal, Red Ruffed Lemur, Giraffe, Sulcata Tortoise, and Grey Fox.
Forest Animal Rescue (Silver Springs)
Founded in 2013, Forest Animal Rescue by Peace Animal Rescue and Ranch was relocated to Silver Springs, FL. It was inspired by a tiger named Zulu who needed a home and other exotic animals in his predicament. At the time, there were upcoming changes to the captive wildlife laws that were going to leave countless attempted exotic pets with nowhere to go. The current residents in the sanctuary are tigers, African Servals, Spider Monkeys, Capuchin Monkeys, Lemurs, American Black Bears, bats, domestic cats, tortoises, and wolf and wolf hybrid. Tours are given twice a month in the sanctuary’s Land Rover; no more than six people at a time can join due to seating room in the vehicle. They require registration and prepayment to reserve your seat. They also have a part-time and full-time residential volunteer program, plus an internship program.
Ocala Wildlife Sanctuary (Ocala)
The mission of Ocala Wildlife Sanctuary (O.W.L.S.) is to provide humane care for all birds in distress. They are open by appointment to the public for tours on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. They also offer volunteer opportunities.
Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (Citra)
Founded in 2001, Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (E.A.R.S.) exists specifically to provide a permanent home for unwanted and/or abused endangered animals. E.A.R.S. also rescues animals that are in need of help, taking in various animals such as tigers, lions, cougars, bears, and primates. They offer one-day membership tours every Wednesday and Saturday, 1:45 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. Please note all visitors must become members by completing a membership form as required by Marion County. If you are taking a day membership tour and have children under the age of 10 years old, you must schedule with a day membership tour specifically designated to accommodate children under 10 years of age. These “kids” day membership tour groups are smaller, thus easier to safely manage with limited staff. They also have a volunteer program for ages 18 and over.
St. Augustine Wild Reserve (St. Augustine)
The St. Augustine Wild Reserve was created as a rescue center for unwanted exotic animals. Their goal is to educate the public about exotic animal ownership and prevent future animal abuse. They transport various animals to schools, churches, and other outreach venues for educational presentations so that individuals may see what these animals are really like, dissuading them from obtaining such an animal as a pet. Tours are offered every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m., by appointment only. Tours are approximately two hours long, guided by an experienced wildlife professional, so advanced reservations must be made. All of the Reserve’s tigers receive a bubble bath on each of the tours. Volunteers must be over the age of 18, or be accompanied by a parent while volunteering.
There are many other animal sanctuaries not listed here that need volunteer help and donations. They may not allow tours since sanctuaries are intended to rehabilitate animals and having several unfamiliar humans around is not in the animal’s best interest. Let us know if we missed one that does offer tours.
Have you visited any of these wildlife refuge programs? Tell us about your experience!