California Unleashed- places to see wildlife in San Diego, by Helen Earley, Family Fun Canada

San Diego is famous for its Zoo, but did you know that tucked away in San Diego’s backcountry, there are plenty of other opportunities for visitors to enjoy wildlife? The bonus: you can feel good about your visit, as many of the wildlife locations are sanctuaries or non-profits, with a focus on animal welfare and education. Tip: Some locations require bookings in advance, so check before you go.

Nurtured by Nature

Nurtured by Nature offers three-hour guided tours for guests to touch, feed, and interact with armadillos, a kangaroo, sloth and porcupines. The highlight? Swimming and playing with adorable Asian small clawed otters in a heated pool! And yes, judging by the photos on their website, they totally tickle!

Nurtered by Nature otter pool, swimming with otters in San Diego

The Otter pool at Nurtured by Nature/Photo: Nurtured by Nature

Wild Wonders

Wild Wonders Zoo has over 150 animal ambassadors including parrots, desert tortoises, an alligator, wallaby, foxes, groundhogs, bobcats, monkeys and a Siberian lynx. Wild Wonders’ goal is to foster a desire to preserve and learn about wildlife and the important role they play on the planet. Tour groups are led by their own personal guide, a professional biologist and animal trainer.

Vista Butterfly Farms

Butterfly Farms in Vista is the largest native butterfly free house in Southern California, where families can meander among several different butterfly species, including Cloudless Sulfur, Cabbage Whites, Painted Ladies, Gulf Fritillaries, Anise Swallowtails and their most popular butterfly, the Monarch.

Vista Butterfly Farms San Diego

A Monarch Butterfly at Vista Butterfly Farms in San Diego/Photo: Vista Butterfly Farm

Sky Falconry

Put a glove on & free fly a bird of prey, observe the raptor in it’s natural habitat, or accompany a handler on a thrilling interactive Hawk Walk! Sky Falconry has two locations: the picturesque mountain setting of Alpine or the sea cliffs of La Jolla.

Sky Falconry San Diego

Become a true Raptors fan at San Diego’s Sky Falconry/Photo: Sky Falconry

Alpine Children’s Nature Retreat

Want to get away from it all? The tranquil setting at The Children’s Nature Retreat in Alpine is designed “to have a profound and positive impact on children who visit, reducing stress levels while offering a sense of connection to the earth”. The 20-acre ranch-style sanctuary is home to more than 80 domesticated animals from around the world including zebra, camels, Nigerian goats, mules, miniature horses, alpacas and Scottish Galloway mini cows!

Oasis Camel Dairy

You can add this to your bucket list. File it under “wild and wacky”! The Oasis Camel Dairy in Ramona is the first camel dairy in the United States. Ride a camel, enjoy the demonstrations or go shopping for some delicious camel-milk chocolate. The dairy offers open Farm Tours once a month, plus private guided tours any day of the week (book in advance).

Oasis Camel Dairy

Petting the Camels/Photo: Oasis Camel Dairy

California Wolf Center

The California Wolf Center, located near the mountain town of Julian, is a non-profit wildlife education center dedicated to increasing public awareness and understanding of the history, biology and behavior of the gray wolf which once roamed North America in countless numbers. The center offers thrilling public tours to view several packs of gray wolves.

Lions, Tigers & Bears

Lions, Tigers & Bears, is a non-profit rescue facility that provides a safe haven for abandoned and unwanted animals. Wild residents include lions, tigers, black and grizzly bears, a mountain lion, leopard and bobcats. This no-breed, no-kill facility allows animals to live out their lives in a safe and caring environment. Tour reservations are required.

Lions Tigers and Bears - visit San diego with your family

Lions, Tigers and Bears is a sanctuary for abandoned or unwanted animals/Photo: Lions, Tigers and Bears

Wherever you decide to go in San Diego, we hope you have a wild time!

For more information on San Diego for families, visit the San Diego Tourism Authority’s website at