Aug. 15, 2012 at 10:00 AM ET
For most people, seeing wild animals from the comforting vantage of the other side of the cage is exactly how they like it. But for some of us, that lion's chin just cries out to be scratched. That panda is asking for a hug and that dolphin clearly wants to play. For those of us for whom the other side of the cage is too far away, there are many places around the world that offer interactive experiences with a variety of animals. From feeding giraffes and kangaroos to cuddling pandas and wombats or swimming with dolphins and manatees, here's our selection of the best places to get up close and personal with exotic animals.
Feed a giraffe
Both Busch Gardens locations -- Tampa, Fla., and Williamsburg, Va. -- offer great opportunities to get up close and personal with animals. In Tampa, it's all about the African plains; you can jump on a safari Jeep and feed a giraffe, or try your hand at zookeeping as you shadow a keeper for a day. In Williamsburg, visitors can participate in an Animals Up Close Tour for a chance to hold a lemur, alligator or African hedgehog.
Swim with dolphins
Swimming with dolphins is on many people's bucket lists, and with the plethora of dolphin experience operators in the Bahamas, there's no better place to do it. Easy to get to whether you're staying at an all-inclusive resort or visiting by cruise ship, Bahamas dolphin encounters typically take about an hour to an hour and a half, with about 30 minutes in the water with the playful creatures, almost all of which have been bred in captivity. Expect to be kissed by a dolphin and shake a fin. In some cases you'll get a dolphin-fueled foot push swim wherein a dolphin pushes you forward by pressing on your feet. Some operators also offer sea lion encounters. Dolphin Encounters, based in Nassau, is one popular tour operator.
Pet a bobcat cub
Once you've had an up-close experience with a "wild" animal, it's hard to ignore the plight of their truly wild cousins. That's the premise behind the West Coast Game Park Safari in Oregon, where visitors can interact with several exotic creatures. Park owners hope that once someone has had the chance to tickle a baby cougar's belly they'll feel compelled to go home and support conservation efforts. Opportunities to pet a cougar cub, baby bobcat and black bear youngster are usually on offer.
A bit off the beaten path, Caversham Wildlife Park is located in Perth, Western Australia. More than 2,000 animals live in the park, including koalas, wallabies, kangaroos and wombats. Visitors can walk through the kangaroo enclosure and spend as much time feeding the 'roos as they want -- complimentary food pellets are provided. Another up-close experience on offer is Meet the Wombat, where you can pose for photos with a full-grown wombat sitting in your lap.
Walk with a cheetah
Heading to South Africa for some time in the bush? Why not also take the time to get up close and personal with a cheetah -- the world's fastest land animal. At Cheetah Outreach, located about 30 miles away from Cape Town, visitors can choose from one of four cheetah-centric activities including adult or cub encounters. Adults are available throughout the year, while cubs are generally available from September to March. Cub walks, cheetah runs and fox encounters also are offered.
Wash an elephant
There are few animals on this planet more magnificent than the elephant, and getting up close and personal with one of these giants is a real treat. If you're going to be in the Bangalore area of India and want the chance to meet an elephant, stop by the Dubare Elephant Camp for a three-hour tour that includes grooming and feeding.
Cuddle a panda
If you're going to be in the Sichuan part of China, a visit to the Chengdu Panda Center is a must. This breeding center is home to more than 100 giant pandas, all of which can be viewed in open-air enclosures. If you're lucky you'll catch a glimpse of the youngsters at play as they tumble and roll over each other. A highlight of the tour is the nursery, where visitors can watch itty-bitty pandas sleeping in incubators. And for roughly the equivalent of $150, you can pay to hold and hug a young panda.
Float with manatees
While everyone has heard of swimming with dolphins, there's another sea mammal that's just as interesting to swim with. Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle water giants found in the Crystal and Homosassa rivers of Florida. Because there are strict rules about harassing manatees in the wild, swimming and snorkeling with these endangered animals should only be done under the supervision of tour operators. Tours typically last two to four hours with at least an hour spent in the water. Sunshine River Tours is one reputable operator.
Help an orphaned lion cub
If you've got several days to dedicate to your up close and personal animal experience, you might want to consider volunteering some of your vacation time. For the most exotic experiences, volunteer opportunities in Africa offer the chance to work hands-on with many of the Big Five, including lions. For instance, at Lion Park in South Africa, you can help hand-rear orphaned lion cubs. If you've just got a day, you can still pet a lion cub, feed a giraffe or walk with a cheetah here.
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