What happens when an orphaned sea lion pup is stranded on the shore? Or when animal actors reach the end of their careers? These wildlife sanctuaries in and around Los Angeles rescue and rehabilitate animals and sometimes reintroduce them into the wild—and welcome visitors and volunteers, too. If you’ve ever wanted to pet cute animals like a fennec fox or groom a baboon, set course for these sanctuaries tucked into canyons by the beach, mountain valleys and suburban backyards.
10 wildlife sanctuaries to visit
Walk around the leafy grounds of this suburban Sylmar sanctuary to see everything from monkeys to foxes—and school trips and birthday parties. For hands-on photo ops, request a close encounter with a porcupine, a Siberian lynx, a two-toed sloth or an impossibly adorable fennec fox. Make sure to say hi to Zeus, the starry-eyed blind owl in the gift shop.
This San Pedro rehabilitation center scoops up distressed marine mammals along the coast between Long Beach and Malibu in hopes of reintroducing them to the ocean. Though these stories can be sad—sudden blindness, a shark bite—the mood stays light thanks to a cordial crew of volunteers and a comical chorus of sea lion barks. Viewing is restricted to a sidewalk outside the fences—close enough to see the sweet faces of belly-flopping baby elephant seals.
Where do animal actors go when they retire? If they’re lucky, they get to go to this Agua Dulce backyard. Stacy Gunderson, a veteran Hollywood animal trainer, cares for injured or rejected exotic animals—like Jabba the bullfrog and Luke Skywalker, a squirrel monkey born at the Playboy Mansion—at this family-run nonprofit. The two-hour tour is as educational as it is hands on, with opportunities to pet everything from a hybrid wolf to a baboon.
This bicoastal rescue isn’t shy about its advocacy for vegan living; before you rub a pig’s belly, you’ll hear about the horrific fate from which it was spared. But the sanctuary’s saved residents are ambassadors for all livestock and reminders that animals we often think of as commodities are lovable creatures, from a turkey with a fondness for massages under her wings to an adorable donkey named Honky Tonk.
Actress Tippi Hedren channeled her love of big cats into the establishment of this safarilike reserve in 1983. The 40-plus lions, tigers and leopards that live here are mostly rejected circus animals and exotic pets. Though this summer’s Sand Fire scorched the area, the reserve remains open to guided safaris outside the feline enclosures.
Before you hit the waves in Laguna Beach, you'll come across this lovely canyon cottage. The sanctuary is dedicated to rescuing orphaned and injured sea lions across the Orange County coastline, and you'll find its 30 or so inhabitants sliding around the outdoor pools at this tidy care center.
A wildlife sanctuary doesn't need to be stocked with exotic creatures to be a fascinating destination. Case in point, this Orange County reserve, which was established as a bird sanctuary in 1929 and today has grown into a bastion of local flora and fauna that's operated by Cal State Fullerton. You'll find trails and picnic areas across the park, but the birds are the real attraction here with over 85 different species.
Though this sanctuary for birds of prey isn't typically open to the public, twice a year it opens its doors for folks to visit, learn about and meet its unreleasable ambassador raptors. The rest of the year, the center takes care of hundreds of sick hawks, falcons and owls with the hopes of rehabilitating them and releasing them back to the wild.
Venture past hilly pine forests and toward the Sonoran Desert and you'll encounter this canine sanctuary. The center is dedicated to the recovery of wolves in the wildlands they once roamed and cares for packs of Mexican and North American gray wolves. You can meet the wolf packs during weekend tours, as well as during more intimate guided trips on Fridays and Mondays.
Since 1976, this hillside sanctuary has provided a home to abused, abandoned and injured animals, namely exotic cats alongside wolves, coyotes, camels, primates and birds of prey. Unlike other sanctuaries, though, the Wildlife Waystation doesn't have regular public visiting hours. You can visit the sanctuary by either hosting (or attending) an exclusive safari party or becoming part of its volunteer program.