When a brown shark thrashes wildly after baitfish in front of your face, try not to shriek through your air helmet. It’s a typical lunch break for him, but an otherworldly encounter for any human in southwest Missouri. The Out to Sea Shark Dive experience at Wonders of Wildlife puts you and dive mates nose to nose with barracuda and sharks from the safety of an underwater cage (no scuba certification required).
File it under adventures that even the most exhilarating IMAX film can’t quite replicate. Same goes for touring a big-cat sanctuary with a biologist, hearing a grey wolf’s haunting howl or meeting the famous St. Louis cows that evaded the butcher’s clutches. Animal worlds have a way of inspiring awe and transforming how we view our vibrant planet. And you don’t have to travel across the oceans, or swim beneath them, for up-close encounters with some of the most exotic species.
1 Wonders of Wildlife Springfield, Missouri Nearly 10 years in the making, this vast shrine to wildlife feels like a magnum opus for Bass Pro Shops visionary and founder Johnny Morris. In all, 35,000 live animals and thousands of taxidermic pieces fill elaborate exhibits. One museum hall includes the Boone and Crockett Club’s National Collection of Heads and Horns, first displayed at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. In the aquarium, pet stingrays in a pool, gaze at a sunken ship mast that’s home to reef creatures or book a plunge into the shark tank.
With 1.5 million gallons of tank space, the Aquarium Adventure includes Shark Alley, Swamp at Night and Shipwreck Reef. Photo courtesy of Wonders of Wildlife.
2 Field Station: Dinosaurs Derby, Kansas Dinosaurs that once roamed the Midwest are back—in life-size, animatronic, roar-out-loud form. Check out 40 of them at this impressive destination, which opened last year on 14 acres outside Wichita. The scene includes the Paleo Playground, dino mini golf, a four-story adventure course built inside a geodesic dome and live shows. Learn the scientific method as you figure out T. Rex’s preferred snacks (hint: the list includes other dinos, mostly herbivores), and get crafty with hands-on “dinosorigami.”
Field Station: Dinosaurs
3 Wildlife Safari Park Ashland, Nebraska You can leave the passport at home for this trek into Nebraska’s version of the savanna. Drive yourself on a 4-mile route through Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park, halfway between Lincoln and Omaha. Early in the day is the best time to see bull elk roaming right outside your car or hear grey wolves howling from Wolf Canyon. A short hike overlooks that habitat, which is home to black bears, too. Book ahead for a visit to the cheetah breeding facility or a new tiger conservation tour opening this year.
4 The Gentle Barn Dittmer, Missouri In 2017, an industrious band of bovines dubbed the St. Louis Six gained celeb status when they escaped from a slaughterhouse and made a dash through the city. Meet the sextet at this sanctuary for neglected, abused, old or ill farm animals. (It’s the third Gentle Barn location and the first in the Midwest.) Entry fees and donations further the nonprofit’s mission to bring children and adults from traumatic backgrounds into contact with creatures also in need of healing and TLC.
5 Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge Eureka Springs, Arkansas Lions and tigers and … ligers? Oh yes. The largest known cat hybrid comes from breeding a male lion and female tiger, which happens only in captivity. You can see them (plus cougars, leopards and bears) on the walking tour with a staff biologist at this big-cat sanctuary in the Ozarks. The nonprofit gives a permanent home to mistreated exotic animals in need of rescue. Visit for an afternoon or book a night in one of the safari lodges or new canvas glamping tents.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Turpentine Creek.
Social studies Follow these zoos for daily doses of cute animals.