Animals & Money: Cheap staycation wildlife options close to home

As the summer of the staycation draws to a close, you may be looking for something, anything fun to do around home that doesn't cost a lot of money. My big hobby is going places to see wild animals. And I'm certainly not alone.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2006 recreation survey says 87 million Americans now actively watch wildlife, many going on long trips. That's more than hunt (12.5 million), though lots of hunters are wildlife watchers, too. As a hobby I'm trying to map them out on a website

The most satisfying way to see animals is in the wild, which is also the toughest, requiring knowledge, patience and luck. If you're thinking of a trip with kids, you probably don't want to have to try to keep them quietly waiting for hours with a good chance of disappointment. So, the next best thing are wildlife rehabilitation facilities and sanctuaries for exotic animals. For the little kids, even farm animals are a big thrill.

These animals centers, like the Animal Ark in Reno, offer an easy, reliable way to see animals, educate your kids, have fun, and help a good cause as well. The rehab centers take in native wild animals and only keep the ones that can't make it in the wild. The exotic centers care for the big cats, bears or other wildly inappropriate species someone ignorantly tried to keep as a pet or entertainment. And if you've ever seen a news report of a cow or pig who escaped from the slaughterhouse and ran through the streets, that's who usually ends up at a farm sanctuary.

If you live in a major metro area, there is some kind of wildlife rehab or exotic sanctuary near you. Between Philadelphia and New York is the Popcorn Park Zoo, run by the Associated Humane Societies. They have four Bengal Tigers that were bought for a canned hunt, a black bear used as a car dealership gimmick and a coati someone tried to keep as a pet.

Nearly every state has some kind of wolf preserve these days. I've visited the Big Run Wolf Ranch outside Chicago, where science teacher Julie Basile and her husband have taken in wolves, a bear that was confiscated from a flea market and a skunk. They have a family day coming up on August 16. Outside New York City, there's the Lakota Wolf Preserve in New Jersey and the Wolf Conservation Center in Westchester County.

Right now is a great time to look for bats. In late summer lots of parks around the country have bat festivals, where you'll get to see bats at dusk. Decatur, Alabama, which is about two hours south of Nashville, has the biggest bat fly-out east of the Mississippi at the Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge. On summer weekends visitors crowd a viewing platform near the visitor's center at dusk. In New York City biologist Robert DeCandido, known as Birding Bob, leads tours at night to look for owls and bats in Central Park. I've gone on a couple and whether or not we see owls, we have a good time and learn something.

If there are this many neat animal sites to see in New York City, then there are some near you.
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