Do you dream of scratching a rhino’s back? Does the thought of hangin’ with a hippo make you happy? If petting a shark or having a boa constrictor wrap itself around your arm is your idea of fun—or something that is sure to make your kids squeal in delight—you are in luck. If your wild ones are into wildlife, San Antonio offers a wide range of opportunities to get up close and personal with everything from a slithering reptile to a towering giraffe. You can even get all wet and swim with a few.
Behind-the-scenes programs and animal interactions are unique ways to get to spend time with animals, going far beyond a zoo display. They also often raise funds for animal conservation or research, making them a win-win for everyone, especially since making that connection with an animal helps people care more about the animals. For our animal lover, it’s also made him want to learn more, and do more, to help animals who are in endangered.
We’re big on experiences—we like to gift memories vs. things. That’s led us to feeding rhinos, swimming with dolphins, and yes, petting a shark. We’ve done big and small animal interactions and definitely have our favorites. And yes: while we book these interactions with him in mind, we’ve had a blast doing them, too.
If you want to get wild, you do need to keep a few things in mind. Each animal interaction program has its own rules, so be sure to read carefully when buying/booking. Pretty much all of them are nonrefundable, scheduling is weather-permitting, and a few do warn that the experience may be canceled/rescheduled depending on how the animal is that day. We all know how that is: you’ve had plans on the books for weeks, but the morning of said plans, your child/children are not having it. Think about that, but instead of an attitude-filled toddler, insert attitude-filled 3,000-pound rhino. That’s not the experience anyone wants.
No matter what you choose to do: Trust the trainers/the animal staff. They are professionals who are there to make sure that both you and the animals are safe. A few tips:
- These are wild animals. No matter how cute or docile they may seem, they are not pets. They are trained by their handlers to help move them as needed, provide medical care, etc., but they’re wild. The trainers/staff know them best. Listen to them and make sure your children listen.
- There are age restrictions, height restrictions, and restrictions on what you can bring into the interaction areas with you. Those restrictions are in place to protect both you and the animals. Respect them and don’t try to bring a child who is too young/too small to an interaction.
- Across the board, the encounters tend to be an additional charge, so you need an admission ticket AND you have to book the encounter. Some places allow you to book the day of, or even onsite, but to ensure availability, you probably want to book in advance.
- To make the most of your interaction, turn the entire experience into a learning opportunity. Check out books about the animal, look at videos online and prepare for the visit. Challenge your kids to ask the handlers a question to learn more about the animals or the handlers’ jobs in general. They spend long hours caring for and nurturing those animals. They have fun stories and insights to share.
- Dress appropriately. That may mean closed-toed shoes, appropriate swim attire for water interactions, etc. Don’t ask for an exception. The rules are there for your protection, but for the staff, it’s also about protecting the animals in their care.
- Bring hand sanitizer or wipes. No matter how cool it is to pet a hippo’s snout, you’ll want to get that slime off of you.
- Have fun! Petting a rhino, swimming with a dolphin, and feeding a hippo is incredibly cool. Soak it in and make memories!
Here’s where to meet animals around San Antonio, with some inside scoop on each. Note: none of these experiences detailed were provided/sponsored in any way.
If reptiles are your thing, the Snake Farm is a must. But there are many more animals there to enjoy and more than just the goats and pigs to meet. It’s been a favorite for my son since he was much younger and he’s met snakes and baby gators there as part of the animal interactions they host throughout the day. You can also see them feed the animals. The Snake Farm has added private animal encounters to their line-up, including alligators and a baby fennec fox.
This drive-thru animal encounter puts you in a trailer and takes you on a guided tour of 137 acres with more than 600 animals. The cool thing about the tour is that because it’s guided, you’re not doing the driving, freeing you up to stop, feed the animals and maybe even kiss a camel. There are animals you can pet and interact with and they do offer private tours that allow you to spend more time with the animals.
Another drive-thru animal experience, Natural Bridge has a petting barn and don’t be surprised if some the animals decide to get to know you a bit by sticking their heads inside your car. They don’t always remember the size of their antlers/horns and zebras have no fear, so your drive through might include getting your feed bag stolen (and eaten, bag and all), getting drool on your car window, or waiting while a stubborn ostrich stands in front of your car looking for food. There aren’t any private tours available, but you won’t be disappointed with the number of animals you’ll get to see.
From feeding lorikeets to having butterflies land on you, the zoo offers a range of interaction activities as part of your regular visit. You can also feed giraffes two to three times a day. Behind-the-scenes tours include interacting with the resident rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, and tortoises. In the fall, they also offered okapi interactions, so keep an eye out for those to perhaps return.
My son’s favorite animal is the rhinoceros, so that was a must. I completely admit: dad and I geeked out about it, too, and can now tell you that their ears are furry and they do have hair on that dirt-covered hide. I’ll also never get between them and a meal because while they’re not violent, they’re huge and like their food. Ditto on the hippos: one look in that gaping mouth was enough to make me happy there was a huge gate between us.
Anything and everything under the sea can be seen at SeaWorld, and there’s everything from feeding sea lions to swimming with beluga whales to enjoy and explore. We’ve fed dolphins, gone on a private tour to meet the sharks and enjoyed the stingray encounter in Aquatica, truly one of the coolest things we’ve done as a family. Penguin interactions, swimming with belugas, and tours with the orcas are also available. We’ve also met owls, a bald eagle and other animal ambassadors on random park visits.
My husband and son also did the dolphin swim. Mom to mom: Of all of the experiences we’ve been on, the dolphin swim was the one that left us disappointed. It was crowded, the experience was rushed, you can’t really take your own pictures (because they sell photo packages) and even spectators (not getting in or touching the dolphins, just standing back where the participants are) have to have a ticket, so I paid for a ticket in order to take pictures, then couldn’t get any shots (and the photo package was disappointing). Every other SeaWorld experience left us knowing more about the animals, feeling connected with them and in awe. Koko, the dolphin he fed when he was four? He looks for her/asks about her every time we’re in the park. My son raves about when he got to feed the dolphins, not when he swam with one. It makes it hard for me to recommend the experience to others, yet I’ve heard that it can be wonderful.
With all of the options to get wild in and around town, get out, get in touch with your wild side and give your littles an experience they’ll never forget.