A rustic Spanish-style farm in the heart of San Juan Capistrano that's been standing since 1890 promises more creatures than just the area's famous swallows. The picturesque estate is part of Zoomars—an all-ages petting zoo that's USDA-approved for cleanliness and the place where more than 100 animals call home. The residents range from the familiar to the exotic: goats, sheep, and potbelly pigs mingle alongside exotic emus, zebus, and zedonks that greet visitors for pets and feeding. One of the zoo's most popular areas is the guinea-pig patch, where some of the farm's fuzziest and friendliest creatures reside. Zoomars also features family-friendly attractions ranging from a miniature train and pony rides to the rustic Miner's Gulch, where panning the water reveals rare treasures such as gemstones and T-shirts from the Led Zeppelin '75 tour.
Owner Carolyn Franks started down the path to animal care in college when she created her own line of dog toys. She soon moved from New Jersey to California where her passion snowballed: developing a full line of pet products, hosting an animal show for kids, running a chain of exotic bird stores, and even traveling to Brazil to learn about animal conservation. In 2005, she used her knowledge to take over the Jones Farm petting zoo, expanding its pens and transforming its brand into Zoomars.
Franks is joined by a well-trained staff of zookeepers and wranglers who share her vision in entertaining kids—and teaching them how to interact with the animals—as they are in caring for and shepherding mammals and birds.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center offers its visitors the chance to add a sea lion to their family trees. Through symbolic adoptions, the non-profit organization funds its mission to locate, rehabilitate, and release injured marine mammals—including seals, sea lions, and dolphins—back home in the wild. After admitting one of these animal patients, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center's animal-care director and a veterinary medical director can administer antibiotics, nurse mammals back to health or go through treatment plans for various diseases and illnesses. Aside from adoptions, the center educates the public about these efforts through programs such as field trips and day camps for kids.
At The Living Desert, a dedicated conservation team tends to plants and animals populating more than 1,800 acres of desert—1,000 of which remain in their natural, undisturbed state. In addition to protecting the Colorado Desert's native population of birds, wolves, reptiles, and minotaurs, The Living Desert houses bighorn sheep, cheetahs, striped hyenas, leopards, and parrots from arid regions throughout the globe. Through annual contributions, members of the nonprofit organization help preserve the Colorado Desert and bolster the population of endangered desert species. Members also gain unlimited access to the park, discounts in the gift shop, and invitations to special events, such as the annual member-cheetah race.
In the quiet, northern end of San Diego County lies the lush, green gem of Wild Wonders, Inc., a multipurpose facility that celebrates California's natural beauty and maintains artificial habitats for more than 150 exotic animals. The staff calls their charges "animal ambassadors," conditioning and training each of them to serve in close, educational encounters with wildlife enthusiasts of all ages. Although the facility is closed to the general public, through their Zoo Camp program educators give kids a chance try their hand at zoo keeping, including rare opportunities to help feed, clean, and care for the animal ambassadors during intimate interactions.
The onsite staff obtained the park's residents—many of which were deemed non-releasable native wildlife—from other educational facilities as well as more dangerous reaches, such as lands riddled by the illegal pet trade. Resident wonders include big-eared foxes, armored armadillos, giant centipedes, and talkative african gray parrots.
San Diego Botanic Garden envelops visitors in 37 acres of lush gardens and diverse terrain, offering nature-centric events and docent-led tours through the urban oasis. Explore the seemingly endless expanse of 28 themed gardens and venture into the world of verdure with the Australian Garden, rich in low-water plants and Vegemite, or the Mediterranean Garden, filled with fragrant water-smart plants such as lavender, rosemary, and Tang. Attend an insightful event, such as the Asian Arts in the Garden experience, or satisfy pressing cocoa queries at the Chocolate Festival. Peruse the premises with a gaggle of garden groupies, take a self-guided tour, or attend the free docent-led garden tour at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays.
Since the age of 7, Dr. Robert Stonebreaker shared a special affinity with all birds. Wanting to bring people closer to his feathered friends, he lent his passion to Free Flight in 1989, helping evolve the avian boarding-and-breeding center into a sanctuary where visitors could interact with the exotic creatures. Amid open air and emerald palm fronds, guests can let a yellow, orange, and green sun conure perch on their arm or pet a timneh grey while trading info on which local bird store carries the best sunflower seed. The tropical oasis also teems with koi lagoons, where schools of shimmering carp swim under the flaps of eclectus parrots and fluffy white cockatoos soaring through the aviary.
Dr. Stonebraker tragically passed away in 2010, but the team at Free Flight has upheld his tireless work by fostering human-avian relations and furthering visitors' understanding of parrots. Free Flights also encourages involvement through donation, membership, volunteer opportunities, and most notably, education programs.