Where the wild things are
Whether it's finned, feathered or furry, animal lovers in North Carolina can flock to enjoy a wide variety of wild animals, many of them within a few hours' drive in the Piedmont and Mountain regions.
Lazy 5 Ranch
15100 Mooresville Road, Mooresville
"Please feed the animals!" At least that's what they seem to be saying when they poke their heads in your car window to see what's for lunch. This 3.5-mile drive-through tour through gently rolling pasture lands is home to more than 750 animals from around the world, most of them roaming free for your enjoyment at this privately owned animal haven.
Drive through on your own, or call ahead to reserve a seat on the horse-drawn wagon tour, a family and group favorite. The park is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until one hour before sunset, and on Sundays from 1 p.m. until one hour before sunset.
Admission costs vary for individuals and groups, and the wagon ride is a few dollars more per person. Lazy 5 Ranch does not accept credit or debit cards. To learn more, visit the website at lazy5ranch.com.
4400 Cook Road, Rockwell
Yipes! Stripes! If your taste in animals is more exotic, consider this carnivore haven just 15 minutes off I-85 and Lowes Motor Speedway in Rockwell. This conservation and educational facility is dedicated solely to rescue, rehabilitation, and preservation for tigers, lions, grizzly bears, wolves, leopards and monkeys.
You will see the animals in natural settings and have the opportunity to observe them running, playing, swimming, eating, sleeping and interacting with their handlers.
Take a self-guided tour or schedule ahead for an educational tour led by an animal handler. Tiger World is like a natural wilderness hike with pathways of rock and grass, so consider this when bringing strollers or wheelchairs.
The park is open every day from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. except Wednesdays. For specifics on admission pricing and special tours, visit the website at tigerworld.us or call (704) 279-6363.
Western North Carolina Nature Center
75 Gashes Creek Road, Asheville
It isn't often you see elusive white-tailed deer, black bears, playful river otters, cougars and endangered red wolves up close and personal. At the WNC Nature Center, you can observe more than 60 species of animals native to the Southern Appalachians. The park features paved sidewalks and well-groomed trails of native plants with many animals in a natural habitat, all on the banks of the Swannanoa River.
In the North Carolina Farm area, the park also features a variety of domesticated animals such as Cotswold sheep, chickens, rabbits, donkeys and goats.
New this season is the armadillo exhibit, a species that is starting to make its home in western North Carolina. Also new are the improved viewing areas for the red wolves, and the addition of more, younger farm animals in the petting area.
This 40-acre educational gem is just within the city limits of beautiful Asheville, a quick exit off I-40 near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually. Bring a family picnic lunch to share. The center is open daily.
For more information and to plan your trip, visit the website at wncnaturecenter.com.
Carolina Raptor Center
6000 Sample Road, Huntersville
Don't let their size and sharp talons scare you away. These magnificent birds of prey will delight and engage kids 2–92. The staff and volunteers at Carolina Raptor Center connect humans with birds for education and conservation. It's one of the only facilities in the region that provides medical care, display and education about these interesting and sometimes endangered creatures, both native and exotic.
Along with the more than 25 species of birds, you can enjoy an interactive raptor trail and spend the day hiking or picnicking in the nature preserve. The Owl Forest: A Nature Notebook encourages you to observe seven species of owl and participate in creative hands-on education activities. The latest addition is Vulture Culture, an exhibit that examines these very intelligent scavengers.
Saturdays and Sundays feature programs where you may go behind the scenes of the raptor hospital, take a trail trivia tour, meet the keepers, and enjoy the Talons: Birds of the World flight show featuring birds in free flight in the center's 85-seat amphitheatre.
Summer visiting hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m.– 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon–5 p.m. Programming varies by season, so visit the center's website at carolinaraptorcenter.org to find out what's happening.
North Carolina Zoo
4401 Zoo Parkway, Asheboro
North Carolina's own natural habitat zoo is a must-see for animal lovers of every age. Where else in North Carolina can you see polar bears, for example, or a ring-tailed lemur?
Located within an easy drive of Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte, the North Carolina Zoo is the nation's largest walk-through-natural-habit zoo, featuring more than 1,600 animals from two continents and 52,000 plants along five miles of shaded walkways.
New this year is the completely renovated kidZone, an area where children can explore nature using a variety of hands-on activities.
Besides the variety of live animals, visitors can enjoy Art in the Park, an exhibit of animal-inspired art created by professional artists. The works emulate nature's diversity and invite viewers to consider the complex relationship between nature and humans.
Special events include the Earth Day Celebration in April, "Migratory Bird Day" in May, and the popular "Boo at the Zoo" Halloween festival in October.
Wear comfortable walking shoes, and don't forget your camera for a daylong learning adventure.
The zoo is open from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. from April throu gh October and from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. from November through March. Visit nczoo.org to plan your visit.