1. Work with Protected Pandas in Lougantai, Zhouzhi
There are currently only about 1,000 Giant Pandas worldwide, most of them in China. Head to Xi’an, and give researchers there a hand. The volunteer program at the refuge runs in two- or four-week sessions, and offers a chance to work directly with the animals. If you’re lucky, you might even pick up a bit of Chinese.
2. Go to the Golden Retriever Festival in Invernesshire, Scotland
Hosted by the Golden Retriever Club of Scotland, this yearly festival takes place every July in Invernesshire, Scotland, the breed’s ancestral home. The day includes a dog show, dinner, dancing, and frolicking of both the human and non-human variety. With more than 222 dogs in attendance, chances are you’ll never run out of furry heads to scratch.
3. Bond With Elephants in Northern Thailand
Go to Northern Thailand to meet a herd of elephants at the Elephant Nature Park. Stay the night, or sign on as a park volunteer for up to four weeks. Not only does the park take in rescued elephants, they also participate in rainforest restoration, averaging 25 acres of planted trees per year. If that doesn’t convince you to come for a visit, maybe these guys will.
4. Spend a Weekend at The Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary
Not looking to get your hands (too) dirty? Book a stay at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Woodstock, New York. A rescue shelter for cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheep, goats, and rabbits, the sanctuary operates on the simple principle that animals are friends — not dinner. Wake up with the help of an actual rooster alarm clock, and watch the sun set over the Catskill Mountains. Bonus: knowing that the cost of your stay goes toward the care of their more than 300 rescue animals.
5. Watch The Blessing of The Animals at The Vatican
Every year the Vatican offers a blessing of the animals ceremony. This year Pope Francis (who took his name from Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals), met with everything from horses to chickens, dogs, and cows. Want to get your pet in on the action? Be sure to check the dates. This year the event was held on Jan. 17 to coincide with the feast of Saint Anthony the Great. But in the past, events have also been held on World Animal Day, Oct. 4.
6. Meet the residents of Yellowstone National Park
Sure, wild animal parks are OK. (Well, some of them — be sure to do your research before buying a ticket.) But nothing beats seeing an animal on its own turf. Not only does Yellowstone National Park have impressive geysers, it’s also home to bison, sheep, bobcats, elk, coyotes, mountain goats, moose, deer, and bears. (Oh my!) Bonus: Rangers are on hand to explain everything you might want to know about the creatures and their habitat.
7. March Over to See the Penguins of Antarctica
If your favorite movie is March of the Penguins, and you happen to have an extra few thousand dollars lying around, Antarctica might be your ultimate destination. You’ll have to book your vacation between November and March (the only time the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators operates). And most likely your voyage will begin from Argentina. But all the travel will be worth it when you visit the Dawson-Lambton Glacier, home to the Emperor penguins. The penguins there aren’t afraid of humans — so while you should keep your distance, chances are you’ll come away from your meeting with some amazing photos.
8. Go Peacock Watching at the Los Angeles Country Arboretum
Arcadia, Calif., is home to a breathtaking 127-acre botanical arboretum. But you don’t need to pay the entrance fee to see something stunning. Drive (slowly) around the surrounding neighborhoods, where the arboretum’s residents — a large flock of peafowl and peacocks — are regularly seen taking a stroll. This trip is best taken in the spring when the magnificent birds have their awkwardly adorable offspring in tow. (For more avian fun, head to nearby Pasadena and see if you can spot the wild parrots around Lake Street.)
9. Get Wild in South Africa
The idea of an African safari is enticing. But researching companies to assure the animals are well treated can be tricky. If you’re headed to South Africa and want to indulge in some big game spotting, try Humane Society-approved SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary. The non-profit animal rehab and rehabilitation center also offers a lavish bush camp for overnight visitors, assuring that you’ll be visiting the animal kingdom in style.
10. Head to a Japanese-Style Spa With Your Dog in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Leave home without your favorite furry family member? Oh please. Try a trip to the Ten Thousand Waves resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Not only do they welcome dogs, but each of the traditional Japanese-style houses comes with a complete with a dog-proof fence and a pet bed. (For more pet-friendly places to take your pooch, check out this guide.)
11. Go Whale Watching in Sydney, Australia
Not cool with Shamu? Head out to see these majestic creatures in their natural habit. Sydney, Australia, is a hotspot for whale watching from Mid-May to early December. Be sure to look for a company that like Sydney Whale Watching that has independent, eco-friendly accreditation, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you’re not hurting the environment you’re enjoying.
12. Get Covered in Bunnies in Ōkunoshima, Japan
Behold: the Easter Bunny’s vacation spot. It’s an island in Japan named Ōkunoshima (or as we’re now calling it, heaven), and it’s covered in rabbits. It’s a true safe haven for the critters — hunting is forbidden on the island, as are dogs. Sure, there’s also a hotel, camping ground, and golf course. But, uh, BUNNIES!
13. Participate in the Annual Christmas Bird Count
If you fancy yourself an amateur ornithologist, this one is for you. Head into the woods/wild spaces/parks between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 to participate in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird count. Since 1900 the information gathered from the annual census has been used to further conservation efforts. With events across the Western Hemisphere, you can stay/stray as close/far from home has you’d like.
14. Horse Around on Chincoteague Island
Much to the delight of horse-loving little girls everywhere, the public school classic Misty of Chincoteague is based on a true story. Head over to Virginia’s Chincoteague and Assateague islands to see the equine literary characters in action. If you’re looking to add to your family stable, be sure to visit in July during the annual wild pony auction — the proceeds go toward supporting the herd during the year.
15. Go Platypus Spotting in Victoria, Australia
Fact: The platypus is one of the world’s coolest creatures. (A mammal that lies eggs and has a duck-like bill — no wonder some of the first researchers who saw them thought it was a joke.) Head Down Under to witness these crazy animals in their natural habitat. Otway Eco Tours offers a “Paddle With the Platypus Tour” on the stunning Lake Elizabeth. What better way to start or end your day? (Awesome side note: The company donates to platypus disease research in Tasmania and actively participates in research into behavior, breeding, and environmental impact.)
16. Save the Orangutans in Sumatra
Ready to really commit to protecting the animals? Head to Sumatra for six months. The country’s orangutan population is nearing extinction due to deforestation. Volunteers there are working to change that grim fate, rehabilitating and reintroducing two species of orangutans into the wild. Join their efforts and help make a lasting difference. (For shorter stays in other countries, check out Animal Experience International’s extensive list of programs.)
17. Take a Staycation and Volunteer at the Humane Society
The truth is, most volunteer trips cost money. (A lot of money if you’re factoring in overseas airfare.) Want to impact the animal world in a positive way, but just don’t have the cash? Make a journey over to your local Humane Society and offer to walk dogs or play with the cats. They have a number of locations in the United States. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet your new best (four-legged) friend.