All around the world there are opportunities to get up close and personal with a range of animals. You can feed lions or tigers off of large poles, pose with giant snakes, or play ball with a seal. These 5 animal encounters are far better than anything your average zoo. Sign up for one of these and you'll have an experience you'll never forget.
1.Boskoppie Lion and Tiger Reserve Edenville Road, Kroonstad Free State, South Africa Phone: (0)82 776 6779
Boskoppie Lion and Tiger Reserve is a family run big cat reserve in South Africa. They have lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards. Boskoppie have a volunteering program where you can come help look after lion and tiger cubs and adults.
There may be a few scratches along the way, but you'll have incredible experiences like cuddling a lion cub or feeding a tiger with a milk bottle. As well as this, you'll also get a chance to meet other volunteers and make new friends.
The Chengdu Panda Base is one of the best places in the world to see China's famous giant pandas. You can see these beautiful creatures through almost every stage of their life. The Panda Base also offers a couple of unique experiences where you can volunteer around the base, and even hold a baby panda.
Unlike Boskoppie, volunteering at the Panda Base only lasts a few hours. Yes it involves cleaning and shovelling panda poop, but you'll also get the chance to feed some of the pandas.
The ultimate experience is holding a baby panda. It only lasts 2 minutes, but it's something you'll never forget. Once you're dressed up in your scrubs you have a chance to take a few snaps amongst all the snuggling. Two minutes isn't cheap, you'll end up paying about $300 for the opportunity.
For more information head to their website, or enquire when you visit the Panda Base.
Looking for something similar? Chengdu has multiple panda centres offering the opportunity to hold a baby panda. You could also consider volunteering with Save the Bears in Cambodia. You won't get to interact directly with any of their bears, but you'll help support their work looking after rescued sun and moon bears. Or why not come to Australia to hug a koala?
3. Elephant Nature Park
209/2 Sridom Chai Road
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Phone: (0) 53 818754
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, offers a range of options where you can spend time with their elephants. You can come as a volunteer, which means you stay for up to two week working at the park and interacting with the elephants. If you've only got a short amount of time there are day trips as well.
Prices start at around 2500 Baht for the day trips, and around 15000 Baht per week.
All trips must be booked in advance. You can find out more on their website.
With most of these experiences you'll have the opportunity to get up close and interact with incredible animals, at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park it's more about observing. The Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to around 320 mountain gorillas; sadly this is about half the world's population.
Watching gorillas interact is eerily similar to watching a human family. Sure we don't groom each other quite as much, but bearing witness to the family dynamics between a group of gorillas is something you won't easily forget. You might not get to touch a gorilla, but you'll have the opportunity to observe an endangered animal in its natural habitat. Of course, you could get lucky like this group of tourists who had a group of mountain gorillas turn up at their camp.
Only licensed tour operators are able to take you through the park, and you can find a list on the Uganda Wildlife Authority Website. Tour operators are unable to guarantee that you will come across gorillas, but there are plenty of great activities at the park anyway.
This last animal encounter will take you to the South Pacific, where WhaleSwim Adventures operate whale watching tours like no other. Instead of spying these giants from land or a boat, this is one of the only places in the world where you can actually go swimming with whales. You're not allowed to touch any whales, but you'll be closer than you could ever dream of.
You're only armed with a snorkel and mask, so you stay close to the water's surface. This means you don't have to have a PADI scuba diving licence to take part.
Whatever animal encounter you choose, it's important to do your research. Make sure that you book through a company that believes in appreciating the animals, not exploiting them. Many places that offer animal encounters are also involved in Animal conservation, and money raised will often go towards continuing these efforts.
Have you ever had an unforgettable animal experience?