Wildlife tours in Sarasota County bring you up close to native critters

Feed Your Wild Side in Sarasota County

Explore and encounter some local flora and fauna at these popular Sarasota County attractions

Where can you pet a string ray, feed flamingos, see rescued tigers and raptors, and play among 100-year-old banyan trees? In Sarasota County, of course. The area is home to several attractions that showcase the area’s wild side and offer all kinds of memory-making experiences and Instagram-worthy photo ops.

Flora and Fauna

Start off with a peaceful stroll through the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. The nearly 15-acre site on Sarasota Bay near downtown Sarasota blooms with all kinds of interesting plant life. Delicate-looking orchids, bromeliads, and epiphytes fill the tropical conservatory; cool finds include the aptly named shingle and “Hot Lips” plants and carnivorous pitcher plants capable of trapping bugs, birds, and even rats.

An outdoor path winds past a lush fern garden, a pond filled with hungry koi (buy some food at the entrance), and towering bamboo before reaching those century-old banyan trees and the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden built among them. Opened in 2013, it features a waterfall, epiphyte canyon, rope bridges, and all kinds of spots where kids can imagine, explore, and learn more about the natural world.

Continue on the path to find a succulent garden, an expansive lawn popular for weddings, a boardwalk set among the mangroves along the bay, and colorful bromeliad and butterfly gardens. Don’t be surprised to find yourself reaching for your camera at every turn and leaving with a desire to see just how green your own thumbs could be.

There’s plenty of gorgeous greenery at Sarasota Jungle Gardens as well. Shady brick pathways lead visitors among the more than 3,000 varieties of plants and shrubs at the site, including bougainvillea, Ponderosa lemon trees, hibiscuses, and a “cathedral” of palm trees.

The gardens were established in 1939, and the site boasts a retro appeal that hearkens back to the days of the Florida roadside attraction. And it still offers visitors plenty of only-in-the-Sunshine-State types of experiences. Over 200 animals can be found here, including lemurs, tortoises, snakes, and skunks. Daily shows spotlight avian and reptile residents and often include audience petting and photo opportunities.

Don’t miss the chance to let a flamingo eat out of your hand (and get yourself a cool Facebook profile picture). The leggy creatures will walk right up to you and gently poke their beaks into your palm. You can also learn more about the site’s tropical birds and even pose with one perched on your arm.

Sea Life Encounters

For more animal encounters, head to Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. This working aquarium is home to more than 100 species of marine life and offers visitors information on the creatures that live in local waters and the research being done by Mote scientists.

Want to learn more about sharks? Head to the aquarium’s Shark Zone and its 135,000-gallon shark habitat. Narrated training sessions take place there on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings and provide insight on the care and training of the oft-feared fish.

Two touch tanks allow visitors to (gently) get hands-on with sting rays, sea cucumbers, and other sea life, while the clever “Oh Baby!” exhibit looks at marine mating in a fun and family-friendly way. Star aquarium residents include manatees Hugh and Buffett and injured sea turtles Hang Tough and Bellatrix, and a special exhibit of orphaned river otters opens in February 2016.

To add to your experience, consider a behind-the-scenes program like the Shark Encounter or Breakfast at Mote. Or hop aboard an on-site Sarasota Bay Explorers boat tour to bring what you’ve learned out onto the water.

Birds and Big Cats

Just across the way from Mote is Save Our Seabirds , a rescue and rehabilitation facility for sick and injured birds that’s open to the public. The three-acre City Island site is home to more than 150 birds unable to return to the wild, including pelicans, hawks, owls, vultures, and herons.

The birds’ injuries range from missing feet to broken wings. As they stroll the wooden walkways traversing the shady site, visitors hear plenty of chirps and squawks while learning more about how Save Our Seabirds treated the birds—like using PVC pipes to create prosthetic legs—and what they can do to help and protect other feathered friends. And if you stop by after visiting Mote, show your same-day aquarium ticket to receive half-off admission.

For a truly wild time, visit the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota. Founded by eighth-generation animal trainer Kay Rosaire, the site just east of Interstate 75 serves as home to all kinds of rescued exotic animals, including Siberian, Bengal, and white tigers, African lions, bears, and lemurs.

Visitors can check out the animals in their indoor and outdoor living spaces, which include exercise areas complete with toys and swimming pools. (They do live in Florida, after all). Educational training demonstrations conducted by Rosaire and her son, Clayton, offer insight on the animals’ behaviors, what it takes to care for them, and the need to appreciate and protect the mighty creatures and their habitats.

Fish and Fowl in Venice

If you’re in the Venice area, get back to nature at Snook Haven Park. There you can grab a waterfront table at Snook Haven Restaurant to watch all of the action on the Myakka River. Rent a canoe or kayak to ply the waterway yourself, or take a relaxing and informative one-hour jaunt with Logan River Tours. You’ll likely spot alligators, turtles, and all kinds of birds while learning about the well-preserved vegetation lining this relatively undeveloped stretch of the river.

See what’s biting at the Venice Fishing Pier, which stretches 700 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. If casting a line isn’t your thing, you can just admire the view and look for dolphins and manatees swimming through the water below.

Or grab your camera and binoculars for a stop at the Venice Area Audubon Rookery. Tucked behind a county government building, the island in the middle of an alligator-inhabited lake is a nightly roosting spot year-round for many area birds and a seasonal nesting location (December through May) for herons, egrets, ibises, and anhingas. Visit around sunset to watch the birds fly in for the night and the bats emerge from the bat houses on the site. The impressive wild kingdom changing of the guard just might inspire a little Tweeting on your part as well.