By Joe Kukura
Florida is a special place in America because its moist and warm weather conditions support some of the most unique and rare wildlife in the world. North Florida is particularly unique in the range of wildlife it supports and also unique in offering facilities where you can mingle with the wildlife in safe and controlled environments. Whether you prefer to walk with the animals indoors or outdoors, there are a number of spots in northern Florida that allow you to get up close with crawling critters or furry friends for a once-in-a-lifetime experience with these exotic creatures.
There are places in Gainesville, Florida, where you can see free-roaming alligators from an entirely safe vantage point. The La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie State Park has an elevated boardwalk that allows viewers to safely watch alligators in the wild of their natural habitat. Sometimes you’ll see dozens of them at a time! Looking down into the water, you’ll realize those dark alligator-shaped moving objects are indeed alligators swimming freely.
Here are a few safety recommendations from Visit Gainesville and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission:
- Observe and photograph alligators only from a distance. Remember, they’re an important part of Florida’s natural history as well as an integral component of aquatic ecosystems.
- Never feed alligators – it’s dangerous and illegal. When fed, alligators can overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food.
- No pets allowed on the trail, and for extra precaution it is recommended that visitors with small children remain on the boardwalk at all times—do not continue onto the open, grassy trail.
Cranes and pelicans
Bring your binoculars, because the La Chua Trail is also for the birds. Exotic marine birds, that is! Plenty of white pelicans and sandhill cranes roam and fly freely in Paynes Prairie Park, as well as cuckoos, woodpeckers and more than 270 species of our fine feathered friends. There are also large flocks of whistling tree ducks in the park, a species rarely seen in the US.
Bison and wild horses
The La Chua Trail also serves as home to a herd of free-roaming bison, as well as several bands of gorgeous and majestic wild horses. These wild horses are descendants of the very horses brought over by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, and the park environment remains in the unspoiled, natural state of that era.
On the other end of the horse spectrum, highly-trained police and military horses who’ve been put out to pasture are enjoying their twilight years at the Retirement Home for Horses at Mill Creek Farm. These horses realize what much of America realizes — there’s nowhere better to retire than Florida.
The admission fee at the Retirement Home for Horses is two carrots. We’re not kidding. The farm is open to the public on Saturday afternoons.
There’s nothing like the immersive rainforest experience of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Rainforest. Re-creating an outdoor rainforest environment indoors, this multilevel experience provides the perfect temperatures, nectar-producing plants and all-around ecosystem for more than a thousand rare and exotic rainforest butterflies. And you can roam freely among them; one might even rest on your shoulder or finger for a moment. The multilevel structure allows the butterflies to flutter about among free-flying birds and lazily swimming turtles, just as in the rainforest. With roughly 900 new adult butterflies added to the mix each week, the Butterfly Rainforest provides an unforgettable interactive wildlife experience that takes you somewhere no zoo ever could.
In fact, much of north Florida takes you to places no zoo ever could. There’s something for every animal lover in the parks and museums of Gainesville, whether you prefer animals with two legs, four legs or a hundred legs.