7 SoCal experiences that get your kids up close and personal with extraordinary animals
When I was 12, I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., with my family. Inside the insect zoo, a naturalist pulled a massive brown bug out of a tank and held it in front of the curious but wary group.
“What is it?” a girl asked.
“A hissing cockroach from Madagascar,” the naturalist replied. He then turned to me and asked, “Do you want to hold it?”
“Sure,” I said with a voice that was surprisingly calm. And before I could consider changing my mind, the cockroach was sitting on my arm, just above my elbow. “Hold still,” I was instructed. I did. My father snapped a photo.
For weeks, I carried that photo around with me to show people a snapshot of my travel adventures — and my bravery. I began to learn that when children meet animals up close and understand how to care for them safely, what they come away with is self-confidence, empathy and respect for the natural world around them (and maybe even a cool photograph that makes people cringe).
Now, as a parent myself, I’ve visited many animal habitats with my daughters over the years. We’ve tiptoed through tide pools and watched birds in Griffith Park. We’ve kayaked in Marina del Rey, looking for sea lions among the boat docks in the harbor. We’ve visited natural history museums to see butterflies and aquariums to watch the sea otters swim and play.
There are a multitude of experiences in Southern California you can embark on to get your kids up close and personal with animals. Here are seven great ones.
Let butterflies land on your shoulders at Natural History Museum in Los Angeles
The butterflies will be on view until early September. After that, the space transforms into the Spider Pavilion. Inside the museum, Bugtopia and the ongoing Nature Lab offer live animal demonstrations.
Tickets to the Butterfly Pavillion are $8, in addition to museum admission. Members are free.
Watch a hawk fly though the air and land on your arm with Hawk on Hand
“The first time a hawk lands on your glove, adults turn into kids and kids into adults,” Baz says in Debs Park in L.A., where his falconry experiences take place.
He begins this session by sharing a short history of how falconry was developed as a method for hunting. He then brings out his meticulously cared-for birds, beginning with Archie, an adorable barn owl. Next comes Jasper, a Harris’s hawk, which appears and sits on a small stand on the picnic table. Baz adds a bit of food to a lowered glove, sends Jasper to fly off to a tree. He then raises his arm and Jasper flies back, landing on the glove and gobbling up his tasty treat.
“The birds think I am a walking refrigerator,” Baz says with a big smile. During the rest of the session, participants take turns putting on the glove and watching Jasper fly and land. It’s a thrilling experience — and makes for some incredible photos.
Hawk experiences start at $350 per group of up to four people.
Search for fluffy-tailed friends at the Bunny Museum in Altadena
As you peruse the collections, your brain will be filled with all sorts of facts about the fluffy-tailed animals: Did you know that bunnies are a symbol of fertility? Or that a dance originated at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in 1911 called the Bunny Hug? There are bunny greeting cards, displays of bunny watches and so many plush bunnies. In the holiday room, you’ll find Rose Parade float bunnies, a Chamber of Hop Horrors and White House Easter eggs. Frazee and Lubanski often have live bunnies hopping around the museum — currently, you can meet Nicky, a black-and-white rabbit that was recently rescued.
Meet penguins, sea lions and sharks (oh my!) at Aquarium of the Pacific
Tip: If you choose the penguin adventure, you may meet Wally, one of the aquarium’s most popular and friendly penguins. Just try to focus on what the educator is sharing about daily life in the penguin colony — even as you’re squealing with delight inside.
Feed the world’s largest birds at Ostrichland USA in Solvang
OstrichLand also features 60 emus, the second-largest land bird species, known for having two sets of eyelids — one for blinking and one for preventing sand and dust from getting in. In the summer, there also may be opportunities to see some adorable new baby chicks. “Taking care of the birds is our No. 1 priority, “ says OstrichLand USA’s owner, Blake Fowler. Admission is $7. Kids 12 and under are $3.
Tip: After helping feed the flock, head into Solvang to Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery for some butter cookies to top off your adventure.
Learn about the rescue and rehabilitation of the exotic wildlife at Star Eco Station in Culver City
Many of the animals — illegal or abandoned at-risk exotic wildlife — found their way to the rescue center after being confiscated by employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Here, the animals are cared for, rehabilitated and released when possible or relocated to another safe location when necessary.
Star Eco Station’s motto is “Conservation Through education,” which comes to life through its school programs at LAUSD campuses and on-site camps. Before you visit, glance at the station’s animal supply wish list and see if you have any items to donate (paper towels, eco-friendly cleaners and toys for parrots, among other things).
Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for kids. Infants 2 and under are free.
Ride horses in one of Southern California’s most stunning settings
When you get to the property, you’ll have an introduction to horseback riding and meet your professional trail guide and horse. The horses, which include a few Tennessee Walkers, are gentle and well-trained. Out on the trail, you’ll have mountain and ocean views on clear days. You may see hawks, deer, coyotes or even rare Mexican Xoloitzcuintli, a breed of hairless dog.
Make sure to wear long pants and sturdy closed-toed shoes, ideally boots. Rides begin at $100 per person.
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