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Zoos: Some people view them as cruel prisons for animals, while others see them as wonderful and necessary Conservation havens. It’s a widely-contended debate and there certainly are valid arguments for both sides.

Wildlife is amazing and mesmerizing, so naturally, we find ourselves drawn to it — and that’s a great thing! It’s imperative to spend time with our natural surroundings and the beings we share our planet with to learn to respect them. And, for children, that appreciation for nature should begin as early as possible.

But, if you are of the camp that would rather not Support the continual forced captivity of animals with your zoo admission and instead, watch animals in their native habitats live their lives the way nature intended them to, there are plenty of ways to do so. Here are seven zoo alternatives that offer interesting and unique learning experiences that will get you close to animals, without the burden of a guilty conscience:

1. Farm Animal Sanctuary

There are many wonderful organizations around the country (and the world) that have set up sanctuaries for rescued farm animals, who otherwise, most likely would have ended up on someone’s plate.

These sanctuaries offer an engaging, interactive experience and most allow you to get right up close to the animals, which kids of all ages will be sure to love! Spending time with these magnificent creatures may even have you reconsidering your eating habits. Some sanctuaries also have accommodations located right on their properties so you can take the kids (or maybe just your spouse) and make it a memorable, educational time away!

2. Explore a Tidepool, Creek, or River

Water is the source of life and bodies of water teem with a myriad of interesting animal and plant species. Take a trip down to the closest tidepool, creek, or river and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife in all directions — in the water, on the land, and in the sky.

If the location permits, take a canoe, kayak, or paddle boat to the water to see what else you can spot from a new vantage point. Bring along an underwater camera to capture some stellar images of the aquatic life you discover.

3. Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Visiting a wildlife rehabilitation center is a great way to learn about the specific species that reside in your geographic area. Many centers offer tours of their facilities and are home to animals that are not able to be released back into the wild.

If you live in a coastal area, there may be a marine life rehabilitation center nearby as well. Rehabilitation centers often depend heavily on volunteers to accomplish much of the work they do, so that may be an avenue you could consider exploring if you’d like to experience for yourself the joys and rewards that volunteering can bring.

4. Bird Observatory

No matter where you live, there are sure to be birds in abundance. Check your area for nearby bird observatories, which will give you a great vantage point for admiring the beauty and splendor of our feathered friends. Don’t forget your binoculars and your camera!

5. Try Your Own Backyard

It’s remarkable what we can discover when we really open our eyes to our surroundings — especially those that we take for granted each day. Head to your backyard (or to your local park if you don’t have a backyard) and go on a bug or bird safari: take photos of the different species you observe, make a scrapbook of the images, then do some research to identify all of your finds.

6. Beach Walk

If you live near a coastline, take advantage of your location’s beaches and the unique assortment of plant and animal life that they offer. A guided beach walk will introduce you to so many wonderful, interesting things, but if you can’t find any guided walks in your area, consider heading out on your own to do some nature watching.

7. Eco-vacation

For the ultimate, up-close nature experience, consider taking an eco-vacation. There are many companies spanning all continents that offer guided experiences that will take you into nature, without disturbing it, for an experience like none other. Most reputable companies in this industry have stringent operational practices and are heavily involved in Conservation efforts. Check out See The Wild, The International Ecotourism Society, or The International Ecotourism Club if an eco-vacation sounds like your dream vacation.

Fellow Earth Monsters, we want to know: what’s your favorite way to get up close to animals and nature?

Image source: Dinkum/Wikimedia Commons