Think marine parks, circuses, and petting zoos are the only places to indulge your love of wildlife? These venues may seem like obvious and convenient options, but they’re not the most optimal for either animals or humans.

We need to ask ourselves: Is it fair to make inherently-wild animals perform unnatural behaviors – balance on balls, wear human clothes, jump out of water on command, swim with humans, and the like – for our entertainment?

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If you have children, and want to teach them about nature and animals, we commend you. But sterile environments aren’t as conducive to learning about animals as natural ones.

Fortunately, there are lots of options available that let you get close to wildlife and learn about them as they really are – without causing them harm or discomfort. Some of these activities require travel, while others can be done close to home, even in your own backyard. And most are free or low-cost.

The following ten alternative ideas are designed to get you thinking about humane ways to interact with wildlife. These are just a start. Start think outside the norm, and I bet you can generate even more ideas.

1.  Volunteer at a Wildlife Center

It’s an opportunity to get up-close with feathered, furred, and scaled creatures. Real non-profit organizations accept injured and orphaned animals, then work to release them back into the wild; or they provide sanctuary. Breeding animals, hoarding them, or profiting from them are signs that the center is not legitimate.

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2.  Set Up an Oasis

Attracting wild birds, butterflies, and other animals can be as simple as setting up a small, no-fuss feeder or bird bath. Have a back yard? Even better. Your oasis doesn’t have to cost much in order for animals to benefit.

3.  Offer Your Land as a Wildlife Release Site

Once rehabilitated, wild animals need protected areas for release. Some wildlife centers partner with private landowners who make their land available. You can be the starting point for any number of wild animals, including squirrels, song birds, owls, foxes, and turtles.

4.  Foster Wild Animals

Check your local wildlife center for programs. The center in my area works with volunteers who provide temporary care for orphaned baby mammals.

5.  Travel Near or Far

Want to see wild animals in their native land? If you’re considering ecotourism, be sure to find a reputable, sustainable-minded operator that puts the needs of  animals and communities before profit. Check the International Ecotourism Society for suggestions. Ecotourism benefits wildlife by helping fund local conservation  projects, but drawbacks exist, including increased incidents of human-wildlife interactions. The journal Nature recently points this out in their article Ecotourism Rise Hits Whales.  Bottom line: Be respectful of the animals, the ecology, and people of the communities you visit.

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6.  Visit a Wildlife Sanctuary

But make sure it’s a real sanctuary, not a for-profit operation masquerading as a non-profit. If you’re not certain, check with Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting organization. One well-known GFAS-accredited sanctuary is the Jane Goodall Institute, SA, where the show “Escape to Chimp Eden” was filmed.

7.  Become a Citizen Scientist

No degree or experience required – just a love of science, a curious mind, and desire to help animals and the environment. One example you’ve probably heard of is The Great Backyard Bird Count. Another is bioblitz, an event in which you help find as many species as possible in a set amount of time. The National Geographic Society offers its own bioblitz, with cooperation of the National Park Service.

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8.  Check out Volunteer Tourism

Combining your vacation with volunteering – referred to as voluntourism – lets you contribute while living your dream of seeing wild animals up close. Know that there’s some debate as to whether voluntourism benefits the communities served.

Tip: Treat your excursion as a commitment rather than as a vacation.

9.  Adopt a Prairie, Wetland, Beach, or Other Natural Area in Your Area

It requires work – some of it labor intensive – and time commitment, as you help restore, maintain, and clean. But these are also great places to view wildlife.

10.  Walk

When was the last time you went hiking? If you can’t get to one of our national parks, check out what your state, county, or city have to offer. Your own neighborhood may even be a treasure trove for wildlife.

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Putting the animals’ needs first can actually yield more enjoyment for humans. Try one of these alternatives or think of your own ways to humanely interact with wildlife – and reap the rewards.

Image source: Michael Gabler/Wikimedia Commons