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The Best Wildlife Sanctuaries in California

The Best Wildlife Sanctuaries in California

California contains a ton of wildlife sanctuaries that foster sustainable living and support for the state's wildlife.

Palig Dzadourian


7 min read

November 02, 2022

Although we might not encounter them daily, animals play a crucial role in Earth's ecosystems. Amidst our busy lives, it's easy to overlook the wildlife that surrounds us, with many species feeling the impact of contemporary human activities. California boasts a remarkable diversity of species and habitats, contributing to its allure and making it a magnet for enthusiasts from all over.

Throughout the years, wildlife specialists and loving volunteers have put together animal sanctuaries to provide aid for wild animals in need. Sanctuaries are vastly different from regular zoos found in California, as they are more of a rescue facility that do not profit off of the animals they take in. Creating a safe haven where they can thrive with no threats, and where people have the opportunity to discover and learn about the beings we share a planet with. Wildlife sanctuaries are one of the best ways to give back to nature, and to help preserve what we have left of it. Here are some of the best wildlife sanctuaries in California you can visit.

Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Sanctuary

The brown bear is one of the most formidable (and cute) predators found in the wild! Discover their beautiful home in the Barry R. Kirshner Sanctuary.

Location: Oroville, CA

This wildlife sanctuary is home to a remarkable variety of endangered and exotic animals, most of which are deemed to be unreleasable. From different species of foxes, to owls and big felines, the Kirshner Wildlife Sanctuary has made it its mission to educate and enlighten the public about the importance of conserving both native and exotic wildlife. The sanctuary also provides on-site and outreach educational programs led by wildlife experts and certified animal handlers. 

Full of passion and love, the animals residing in Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Sanctuary receive the utmost attention and care to ascertain that they live out their lives in the best conditions possible.

California Wolf Center 

The California Wolf Center is the only wolf reserve in the state and allows you to learn more about these majestic and endangered wolves.

Location: Julian, San Diego County

Wolves are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, living by intricate social rules and hierarchies somewhat similar to primitive human societal behaviors - they are indubitably an intriguing bunch. Most zoos in Southern California, and in general, do not have wolves in their viewing selection, as they are quite difficult to maintain. So the best way to witness these mysterious creatures up close is by visiting a wolf sanctuary. While there are a few great wolf oriented sanctuaries within the state, the California Wolf Center is one of the best. Gray wolves used to be part of California wildlife as they are native to the land, but were sadly driven to extinction in the 1920s. 

Visitors at the California Wolf Center will have the chance to get a once in a lifetime experience with these critically endangered wolves, learn more about their peculiar behaviors and history, and sneak in some of the best wildlife photo ops you will ever take! 

Star ECO Station 

Location: Culver City, CA

Star ECO Station is an educational center that also specializes in the rescue of California wildlife from illegal trafficking. If you decide to go on one of the provided guided tours, you will see more than 200 rescued wild animals, which include alligators, parrots, tortoises, and pythons. Star ECO Station is also an amazing place to bring your kids along with you for seasonal eco-camps where they will learn all about the importance of conservation and ecosystems. 

The Marine Mammal Center 

Location: Sausalito, CA

Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge lies the Marine Mammal Center, a teaching hospital that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases marine mammals - mainly sea lions - in need. This is one the wildlife sanctuaries that has been around for quite some time, having rescued more than 21,000 distressed animals since 1975. Visitors have the option of going on guided or self-guided tours, on which you will be able to take a look at the center's current patients, and get to learn more about them. 

Shambala Preserve 

Shambala Preserve cares for a wide variety of animals, including the stunning Bengal Tiger.

Location: Acton, CA

Shambala Preserve shines as a premier high-desert retreat in California, offering a secure environment for large cats. Hosting an array of majestic creatures, including over 30 African lions, Bengal tigers, leopards, and local mountain lions, the preserve primarily cares for animals rescued from challenging situations. The sanctuary, under the stewardship of Tippi Hedren who resides on-site, was established with a dual mission: to provide these majestic animals with a lifelong sanctuary and to raise awareness about the issues surrounding captive breeding and the illicit wildlife trade.

At Shambala Preserve, guests have the opportunity to embark on safari tours, offering an intimate glimpse into the lives of the magnificent felines that call the sanctuary home, along with a chance to see the elephants residing there.

Wild Horse Sanctuary

Spread out across 5,000 acres on the foothills of Mount Lassen, the Wild Horse Sanctuary is open for tours and you can also adopt a horse!

Location: Shingletown, CA

Wild Horse Sanctuary was born in 1978 when the founders decided to rescue 80 horses living on a piece of land that was on the brink of destruction. The sanctuary has been thriving since, homing about 300 Mustangs and Burros that roam freely within the 5,000 acre property. Visitors at Wild Horse Sanctuary can go on various guided horseback riding excursions, including a three hour picnic ride or a three-day long trail ride. 

Wild Horse Sanctuary’s mission is to protect and preserve America’s wild horses as national treasures, and enlighten the public about the wonders of these graceful animals. 

Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary

Check out the group events and guided tours at Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary, dedicated to preserving abused and neglected rescues.

Location: Phelan, CA

This wildlife sanctuary welcomes rescue animals from private owners or other facilities that could not care for them adequately. Each animal has their own unique backstory that you can find on the sanctuary’s official website, explaining how they all ended up at Forever Wild Animal Sanctuary. 

While this is a hands-off sanctuary for the most part, there are certain times when they allow certain animals to be touched with guided supervision from a keeper. Forever Wild Animal Sanctuary provides optimal care and attention to each of their resident animals so they can live in comfort and peace. 

Lindsay Wildlife Experience 

Location: Walnut Creek

If you are within East San Francisco Bay, Lindsay Wildlife awaits your arrival. Providing medical and husbandry care to animals native to California, a visit to this amazing sanctuary will make you fall in love with wildlife, if you haven’t already. The exhibit hall at Lindsay Wildlife Experience is where the magic happens, as it is where you will witness all the animal ambassadors, like Atsa the eagle and Penelope the porcupine. 

This wildlife sanctuary also has a fun way to help visitors get more involved in aiding the inhabitants - by letting them symbolically adopt an animal. While the precious animal will remain sheltered at the sanctuary, the “adoption fee” donation will help provide food, shelter, and enrichment for your favorite wildlife animals. 

Free Flight 

Did you know that some species of parrots can live up to 70 years! A companion for life.

Location: Del Mar

Note: The Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary is temporarily closed to visitors. Be sure to check out their website for updates when planning your next visit to Del Mar, California.

Free Flight is a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to exotic birds, serving as both a permanent home to some and a rehabilitation center to others. This sanctuary also focuses on teaching the public about the needs of our avian friends, strengthening bonds of parrots and their owners, and re-homing abandoned or abused birds. These flighted creatures are extremely intelligent and require a lot of time and effort to be able to thrive in captivity, and Free Flight does its absolute best to educate people and raise awareness about exotic bird keeping. 

PAWS Wildlife Sanctuary

Location: San Andreas 

Ever thought of planning a trip to an elephant sanctuary in California? Well, if you have, you’re in luck - Performing Animal Welfare Society Wildlife Sanctuary is right around the corner. PAWS has been helping wild animals for over 20 years, sheltering abused or abandoned performing animals. This is where these tired animals will be able to retire and live out their days in peace and quiet. 

The elephants at PAWS Wildlife Sanctuary are among the most popular of the organization, with many different species of elephants that have retired from long years of performing. Other wild animals that live in the sanctuary include lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) - as well as primates. 

Animal Tracks 

Beyond just their fiery beauty, foxes will always be among the most intelligent animals found in the wild and at Animal Tracks in Agua Dulce.

Location: Agua Dulce

Note: Animal Tracks is temporarily closed to visitors but does offer virtual experiences. Be sure to check their website for updates.

Animal Tracks is an outstanding immersive animal sanctuary where Stacy Gunderson, a veteran Hollywood animal trainer, tends to all its  wounded and rejected exotic animals. Guided tours and special programs will bring people closer to wild animals like ferrets, kangaroos, armadillos, and foxes. Viewing the wildlife at this sanctuary is not open to the general public; it is by reservation only through purchasing a ticket online, so make sure you visit their website if you are interested. 

Visiting these amazing sanctuaries is something all animal lovers should experience at least once in their lifetime. Seeing these vulnerable creatures be given the proper care and attention they deserve is a heartwarming experience that may restore your faith in the future of the precious souls we share this planet with.

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