For all you animal lovers out there, let’s be honest. There’s only so long you can watch your dog chase his tail or your cat consciously ignore you before you want to see something new. So if you’re looking for something a little different to do this weekend, here a few options you may not have considered. From drive-thru safaris to hands-on animal husbandry, Virginia offers a number of unique – and undoubtedly unusual – ways to spend time with animals, birds, reptiles, and everything in between.
1. Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, Eastern Shore
The Chincoteague Ponies, as they’re known despite inhabiting Assateague Island, have long been a source of intrigue, fascination and pride to Virginians. Every year, thousands of visitors from around the country come to the islands for the Pony Swim and Auction. But if you missed the event this summer, no worries - there are chances to see the ponies throughout the year. Visit Assateague Island to see them roaming in the wild, or stop into the Chincoteague Pony Center where you can meet some of these scrappy little ponies one-on-one.
2. The Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton
In a day and age where we often only have animals as pets, The Frontier Culture Museum shows what life was like on working farms in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to reproductions of various ethnic farms, the museum features farm animals, including sheep, pigs, goats and cows. Educational guides explain the uses and roles of these animals, offering a new perspective on the relationship between animals and humans.
3. Virginia Living Museum, Newport News
For a chance to see many of Virginia's indigenous species, some that you probably didn't even know about, you won't want to miss the Virginia Living Museum. Part living history museum, part aquarium, part wildlife park and part botanical gardens, the museum has something for everyone. Featuring 250 living species native to Virginia, including many endangered species like red wolves, loggerhead turtles, moon jellies and more, the museum offers everything from standard exhibits to hands-on, interactive displays.
4. Virginia Safari Park, Natural Bridge
At the Virginia Safari Park, Virginia's only drive-thru zoo, you can drive through 180-acres of free-roaming animals, many of whom will come up to your car to be fed – or simply stand in front of it and stare at you. Either way, it’s an amazing way to get up close and personal with animals you won’t see everyday – all in an environment that leaves the animals free to roam as they please. After the drive through, take the village walk to feed giraffes, interact with kangaroos, visit tigers or pet llamas, goats and pot-bellied pigs at the petting zoo. But you might just want to bring an extra towel, these animals are very loving, but very slobbery!
5. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Suffolk
This beautiful refuge features Lake Drummond (one of Virginia's two natural lakes) and offers over 200 species of birds and wildlife including deer, black bear, bobcats, river otters and more. Encompassing 112,000 acres, it is truly an escape into another world with trails through pristine forest and marshlands where you can can see birds and animals in their native habitat.
6. Sandy Head Ostrich Farm, Tazewell
Ostriches may not be what you expect to see in the Appalachian Mountains, but the Sandy Head Ostrich Farm likes to keep things interesting. Specializing in ostriches and other ratites (which I just learned refers to flightless birds…don't you love learning a new word?), the farm also features unique breeds of chickens, geese, llamas and other farm animals. With picnics and tours available, you can meet these gangly birds and their fellow farm animals while learning about sustainable farming.
7. Maymont Park, Richmond
This historic park in Richmond is a treasure trove of animal life. Featuring a Nature Center, Children's Farm and wildlife exhibits, there's enough to keep animal enthusiasts busy all day. The Nature Center offers a look at alligators, venomous snakes, fish, turtles and river otters. With 13 aquariums, you can get up close and personal with many of the animals, fish and reptiles native to the James River. Outside, the Children's Barn provides a look at native farm animals and allows you to pet and feed many of them. In the wildlife exhibits, you'll see indigenous species, including bear, deer, foxes and birds of prey.
8. Bluebird Gap Farm, Hampton
In the heart of urban Hampton, Bluebird Gap Farm has over 150 species of domestic and wild animals, including farm animals, llamas, birds of prey, alpacas, tortoises and peacocks. Picnic shelters and playgrounds, along with an antique barn showcasing farm and home antiques from the past several centuries, ensure that there is truly something for everyone.
9. Huntley Meadows, Fairfax County
Tucked away in Fairfax County's Hybla Valley, Huntley Meadows is 1,500 acres of pristine wetland, woodland and meadows. Featuring walking trails, a boardwalk trail and an observation tower, you'll have access to some of the best wildlife viewing in the D.C. Metropolitan area. With over 200 bird species identified in the park, Huntley Meadows is a haven for birdwatchers, but is also home to beavers, deer, turtles, frogs, snakes and hundreds of insect species.
10. Dolphin and Whale Watching at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, Virginia Beach
The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center is in and of itself one of the country's finest aquariums. With 800,000 gallons of aquariums, as well as wildlife exhibits, there is more than enough to explore. BUT…if you're looking for something a little different, embark on a Sea Adventure, a guided boat tour that allows you to see dolphins, whales and other marine wildlife in their natural ocean habitat. All tours leave from the Virginia Aquarium dock and offer a firsthand education in Virginia's aquatic life.
11. Wagon Wheel Ranch, Winchester
Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Wagon Wheel Ranch offers a good ol' fashioned wild west experience right here in the Shenandoah Valley. With guided horse back tours through herds of cattles, across creeks and through Civil War sites, you'll have the chance to observe native wildlife like bald eagles, foxes, deer, wild turkey and more. Sitting astride your trail horse, you'll see the the Shenandoah like you've never seen it before.
12. Fort Chiswell Animal Park, Wytheville
Featured as Virginia's most interactive zoo, this safari-inspired animal park offers guided "safari" bus tours where you'll experience up close encounters with animals from 6 continents. The park encourages visitors to pet and feed the animals, which includes camels, ostrich, buffalo, zebras and many more. After the safari bus, head to the petting zoo to visit with fallow deer, pygmy goats and llamas, along with the wallabies and monkeys in their special exhibits.
13. Be a "Farmer for a Day" at Paris Barns, Paris
We've told you about living history museums, working farms and petting zoos, but Paris Barns takes it one step further. This historic working farm farm offers tours where you can see alpacas, llamas and emus, as well as traditional farm animals like sheep and goats. But when you take part in their "Farmer for a Day" experience, you'll see what farm life is REALLY like. With chores starting at 5am, you'll spend the day with more than 90 farm animals, learning animal husbandry and sustainable farming practices while mucking stalls, feeding and grooming animals, collecting eggs and performing many other farm and gardening activities. This is the farm's most popular activity, so reservations are needed. Contact them at (571) 839-1143 to learn more!
14. And last but not least, VISIT YOUR LOCAL SPCA!
There's no easier - or better - way to spend time with animals than to volunteer at your local SPCA or animal shelter. Even if you aren't in a position to adopt or foster an animal right now, look in to volunteer opportunities, donate supplies or take part in local animal advocacy and adoption efforts. With so many animals in need of forever homes, you don't have to look far to find a way to give back to your community while making some new furry friends. Search local listings for the SPCA or humane society location nearest you.
In addition to the farms, animal parks, refuges and living history museums we’ve shown you here, Virginia is full of animal-centered opportunities. Be sure to look for wildlife refuges, animal sanctuaries and rescue centers in your area. In the meantime, let us know about some of your favorite places to go when you need an animal fix. We would especially love to hear about any unique or unusual places that we might have missed, so be sure to tell us in the comments below!