Sarasota Jungle Gardens - Photo Credit: Eddie Kirsch

Roaring Animal Action in Sarasota

Five approved-by-my-kids locations in the Sarasota area to see critters that roam, fly, slither, and swim.

Be it at home or on vacation, the number one thing my kids want to see are animals. My little zoologists beg for wildlife in all its forms, be it in a zoo, aquarium, or nature hike. These are the five approved-by-my-kids locations in the Sarasota area to see critters that roam, fly, slither, and swim.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens parrot

Sarasota Jungle Gardens

Sarasota Jungle Gardens is my kids’ happy place. They frequent it often, attend the summer camps, have had birthday parties there, and ensure they see the lights at its annual holiday event. I think it’s their love of reptiles that draws them to Jungle Gardens in particular, though, it could also be the size, the natural setting, or the friendly and knowledgeable staff.

Jungle Gardens isn’t puny, but visitors can definitely see its entirety in one visit. For those who can’t frequent it repeatedly, this eliminates the need to either (a) rush through the exhibits in panicked mode or (b) pacify kids with only seeing part of the attraction. To me, neither is fun.

Walking from animal to animal, the paths venture through tropical foliage and gives the impression of traversing the jungle itself. They can’t get lost, so the kids can run ahead in excitement while we grownups enjoy the lazy peace of the place. Sarasota Jungle Gardens features reptiles, birds, and mammals, including snakes, skunks, kookaburras, birds of prey, alligators, and myriad others. 200 to be exact.

The staff loves these animals and their knowledge and affection is clear. Interactions are encouraged and visitors often have the opportunity to hold an alligator, macaw, even a skunk. Dozens of flamingos roam free, searching for a friendly hand to feed them.

The bird show entertains and educates, typically with an appearance of superstar Frosty. The reptile show helps put many peoples’ fears of slithering and scaly creatures to rest. However, if skinks and spiders aren’t one’s particular cup of tea, recluse can be found at the playground or petting zoo. Sarasota Jungle Gardens boasts that 95% of their animals are rescued, so those who are opposed to zoos can meander the paths of this oasis conscience-clear.

Sea turtle at Mote Aquarium

Mote Aquarium

When in Florida, fish and sea life spotting is the goal. A visit to the beach will undoubtedly present a few crabs, fish, perhaps a dolphin or two. But for more, more, more, a visit to Mote Aquarium is just the ticket. Located on Longboat Key, Mote Marine is not the typical aquarium as its main purpose is research.

The laboratories are open for viewing so guests can witness these amazing scientists in their natural habitat – it’s as though they are as much part of the exhibits as the sharks, rays, and otters. Watch as they weigh abandoned turtle hatchlings or incubate seahorse fry. Because these experts are on site, inquisitive visitors can ask questions galore and get real answers.

Mote features two buildings across the street from each other. The first features the permanent fish, including sharks, jellyfish, lion fish, Florida native fish, octopus, and interactive Exploration Gallery, featuring Molly the Mollusk (a 27-foot long giant squid). The ray touch tank (don’t worry – the barbs have been removed), Fossil Creek, and café are also located in this building.

On the other side of Ken Thompson Parkway, the second Mote building hosts sea turtles, Super Bowl-predicting manatees, sea otters, and rotating exhibits.

Each time we are at Mote – which is often – there is something new to see, discover, learn. Maybe this time the octopus is opening a costumed Mr. Potato Head to find its treats, maybe the cuttlefish are demonstrating, maybe the papa jawfish have eggs in their mouths, maybe the nurse sharks are uncharacteristically active. It’s always something different, interesting, and brings us back time and time again.

An Alligator at Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park

A visit to Myakka River State Park places the humans and critters in the same environment – no bars, no cages, no predictability. Wandering through the numerous miles of trails, hikers have the opportunity to witness critters in their natural homes. Perhaps an armadillo will hop by. Maybe a deer grazing will have a staring contest with you. A glance at the water often results in a gator spotting. Look up and witness a pink roseate spoonbill soar past.

My kids love reptiles and insects, so their favorite Myakka pastime is searching for snakes, lizards, and spiders to catch and beg to bring home. I always say no. And then we go tracking. Deer, panthers, wild hogs, and racoons leave evidence of their presence for us to find and imagine when they were here, where they’d go, and what they’re doing now. It’s an incredible sensation to know that we are standing and climbing in the same place where these amazing Florida animals reside. Realizing we are on their turf is a humbling thought.

From atop the Canopy Walkway Tower, panoramic views lead to birding paradise. Bald eagles, hawks, osprey, and owls are common birds of prey, while seabirds such as herons, ibis, and cranes linger near the water’s edge. Any questions are happily answered by the knowledgeable rangers at the Visitor Station, as well as stories of Myakka animal antics.

Before we go, we pack our binoculars, bird identification book, insect repellant, snacks, water, trash bag (leave no trace behind!), camera, and sketch books. My little ones climb a tree, watch the animals, and draw them to remember when we return to civilization.

Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary

“What should we feed first? A bear, a liger, or a goat?” Only at Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary is this a relevant question upon entering. But a necessary one.

The attraction, located off Fruitville Road east of Highway 75, is home to a bizarre variety of animals including tigers, lions, monkeys, ocelots, tropical birds, both brown and Asian black bears, capybaras, goats, camels, zebras, and the surprisingly real liger. A creature born of a female tiger and male lion (the opposite of which would be a tigon), the liger is gigantic and beautiful and rare.

Like the other big cats, visitors have the opportunity to feed the liger (with a long pole, of course), so bring cash and a camera because this is no common occurrence. The big cats perform during the daily Big Cat Encounter Show, where staff members display their talents and elaborate on their features and history.

Little animals with closer proximity can be found in the petting zoo where chickens and goats beg for a pet and a treat. There are no dining options at Big Cat Habitat, but the adjacent Celery Fields serve as the ideal picnic spot, with spacious views and the sounds of roars drifting in the air.

South Florida Museum and Parker Manatee Aquarium

My heart holds a special place for manatees. Peaceful, adorable, and pretty weird, these sea cows fill a niche in nature unlike any other creature. In Sarasota, an open eye will present them in the wild while at the beach or on a SUP adventure. To guarantee a spotting or to see more than a head or shadowy outline, the Parker Manatee Aquarium at the South Florida Museum is the place to go.

The Parker Manatee Aquarium was also the decades-long home of Snooty, the recently-deceased oldest known manatee in the world, as well as other rescued manatees (one of which was saved in my backyard and named by yours truly).  The exhibit demonstrates the nature of these calm mammals. Any weird question that these enigmatic creatures arouse can be answered here.

To get excited before your visit or to check in on them after your departure the Aquariums’s web-camera lets you watch the manatees from home. Try it the next time you’re stressed – it’s hypnotizingly soothing, better than a lava lamp. In the adjacent South Florida Museum, view evidence of animals from days of yore. Entrance to The Bishop Planetarium is also included with ticket purchase.