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It's a jungle out there

Traveling Washington and Oregon looking for wildlife

The elephant exhibit in Portland is extensive. Pictured is roughly one quarter of the entire space. Photo credit: Ken Swarner

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You probably already know about the zoo in Tacoma, or you have visited the Aquarium in Seattle, but did you know you could pet a baby grizzly bear in Oregon, or touch a shark just over the border in California?  How about driving through not one but two wild animal parks, or getting a couple feet from a white Bengal tiger?  The Northwest is teeming with animal experiences, and for the animal lover, in a week or less, you could see them all.  In fact, follow this driving guide with Google Maps -- just key in each place in order and they'll map the route of 17 stops for you.  We'll start in Tacoma, head north, cross over on a ferry, take a turn south along the coast, then loop back up I-5, all to get you close to the action.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium
We have a world-class zoo and aquarium right here in our back yard.  In north Tacoma, inside the Point Defiance Park, the zoo focuses on the animals of the Pacific Rim and features an amazing indoor shark exhibit, clouded leopards, Sumatran tigers, polar bear and more.  The park is compact with peekaboos at the Puget Sound.

Cougar Mountain
This little zoo tucked in the hills of Issaquah is not well known, but it has some unique opportunities from the animal world. In addition, tuck away the knowledge that during Christmas, they have Santa with live reindeer. Year round, however, visit Cougar Mountain to see, well, cougars (duh), but also African cranes, lemurs, macaws, reindeer, Bengal tigers, wolves and wallabies.

Woodland Park Zoo
With 300 species of animals, the Woodland Park Zoo is an instant hit with the kids, especially its focus on the African savannah with giraffe, hippos and more, plus a stunning (and unique) gorilla exhibit. Children can partake in a myriad of activities -- giraffe feedings, carousel rides, and "keeper chats" that showcase zookeepers and their animals. The Zoonasium is popular as well, as the indoor play "zoo gymnasium" offers connection with animals, and their habitats with hands on learning.

Seattle Aquarium
On the water around Seattle's tourist piers, the Seattle Aquarium has many of the regular features other aquariums in the NW have, such as the touch tanks, otters and seals, but unique to the Emerald City are the seahorses and the 360-degree, 400,000-gallon underwater dome filled with local fish.  They also have classes and special exhibits.

Whale Watching
If you like to see wildlife totally in its natural environment, there may be no finer way than a whale-watching tour. Depending on the time of year, you'll see gray, humpback, and minke whales as well as orcas. Since you're out on the water, you'll also see other animals, from sea lions and seals to bald eagles and porpoises. Several companies run tours -- a Google search will find them. Most companies leave from Seattle, Anacortes, Everett or Bellingham.

Olympic Game Farm
The Olympic Game Farm is a ferry ride from your whale-watching stop (check routes at, and it may be the most unique place to see wildlife in Washington State.  In fact, it gives an entirely new meaning to "up close and personal." The game farm is most famous for its Drive Tour, which lets visitors drive a route through the farm and feed wheat bread to some of its animals, including llamas, Tibetan yaks, bison and zebras. Animals on the drive tour live in an open space, while predators such as big cats, bobcats, coyotes and bears live in enclosures. If you feed the animals, you will get some slobber on you and your car, so be prepared.  You can also learn during your visit about the Olympic Game Farm's work with Hollywood.

Oregon Coast Aquarium
Newport, Oregon is well known for its aquarium, in fact, it is one of the top tourist sites in Oregon.  Like others, they have the jellyfish, the touch tanks, seals and otters, but also a super cool walk-through tube suspended inside a tank of big sharks, manta rays and other large fish -- they swim not only to the left and right of you, but also above and below.  Another tube then takes you through another tank, this one packed with Pacific Coast fish. It's the signature experience!

An octopus stretches out its tentacles at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Photo credit: Ken Swarner

Sea Lion Caves
This will be one of the stinkiest of your stops, but you can't drive the southern Oregon Coast without stopping at the Sea Lion Caves. Here, you take an elevator ride inside the rock cliff to the bottom where you are escorted to a viewing platform. Inside a large cavern you can see California sea lions basking on the rocks as the waves from the Pacific flow in and out.  Plug your nose but bring your camera -- this is the ultimate in kitsch.

West Coast Game Park Safari
The word safari in their name makes it sound like a vehicle-based tour, but it's not.  Rather, this place is the most hands-on zoo of our tour.  During a recent visit, we held ferrets, possums and baby goats, and petted skunk, donkey, llamas, fox, a baby grizzly bear, ocolet and chervil.  We walked with turkeys, and watched camels, tigers, lions and more from afar.  It's an amazing experience, but arrive early before the crowds.

Visitors can hold a possum at the West Coast Game Park Safari in Bandon, Oregon. Photo credit: Ken Swarner

Ocean World
It actually makes sense to stop in Crescent City, California as part of this trip, because it is a faster drive back into Oregon for the next stop.  And while in the upper part of the Redwood forest, stop at Ocean World -- a private aquarium with a couple unique experiences.  Ocean World is a little bit like an aquarium store on steroids, but in that experience, you get to touch baby sharks in an open tank -- which is pretty cool.  They also have a small seal show complete with a slide and aeriel tricks that is intimate and close to the action.

Great Cats World Park
Back in Oregon, this is more sanctuary than public zoo, but what they lack a little in pretty exhibit signs and ice cream stands, they make up in close encounters with amazing wild cats.  Great Cats is also known for their work with wild animal photographers, in fact, many of the wild cat calendars and posters you see are animals from this Cave Junction, Oregon, sanctuary.  The tour is well over an hour with knowledgeable staff, and visitors get a chance to see white Bengal tigers, black leopards, jaguar, lynx, fishing cats, chervils and more.  The guides get the cats right up to the fences -- well worth the stop.

Wildlife Safari
Continuing back north, you won't be able to escape seeing the road-side signs for the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon.  They know how to promote.  But, they also back up the hype with a quality drive-thru animal experience.  With your windows rolled up tight you literally drive the course.  The most dangerous animals, namely those that eat you, are inside fenced areas, but others, like bison, walk freely.  You'll drive by ostrich, llamas, various deer from around the globe, turkeys and other wild birds, all in roughly an hour-long route.

The Oregon Zoo
There are many great zoos in the Northwest, and Portland's Oregon Zoo is certainly one of them.  Most of the regional centers specialize, and in Portland, what you can expect to see that is unique is a massive Asian Elephant exhibit with a huge indoor facility and three also large roaming areas.  Also unique to Portland are swamp monkeys, beavers, chimpanzees, black rhinos, sun bears, flying foxes and California condors, to name a few.  The structures are unique, especially the 100-foot suspension bridge over the black bears and cougars, and Eagle Canyon with bald eagles and coho salmon next to each other.

Portland Aquarium
This is not your typical large-scale operation such as Seattle, Newport or Point Defiance.  The Portland Aquarium is a private organization and is small in comparison to others.  But what they may lack in big budget operations, they win when it comes to hands-on experience.  At this Portland gem, you can feed sting rays, lorikeets and fish; you can touch many of the sea stars and other animals, and in the end, you'll leave feeling like you came face-to-face with the creatures of the deep.  Most of the exhibits are in small tanks as if you are walking through an aquarium shop, and you have to pay extra for feedings, but if you purchase your tickets online you save $3 a person, and overall, its worth every penny you spend.

Wolf Haven
Wolf Haven is exactly what it sounds like -- a refuge for wolves. While the wolves that live in the sanctuary were born in captivity, they now live in a mostly wild environment. Visitors can see them up close only on a guided tour, which lasts about 50 minutes. Just like in the wild, the wolves are not there to perform, so sometimes they may be sleeping or hiding. There are more than 180 wolves at Wolf Haven, though, so visitors usually spot several.

Wild Felid Advocacy Center
Like Wolf Haven, the Wild Felid Advocacy Center is a refuge, but instead of wolves, this place is all about cats. Run by volunteers, Wild Felid welcomes visitors for one-hour visits and a tour by a volunteer guide. Visitors can walk the five acres of the facility and see 11 different species and more than 50 wild cats, including Bengal and Siberian tigers, leopards, cougars, lynx, bobcats, and two very rare Gordons cats. To visit, you'll need to make an appointment.

Northwest Trek
Finally, back close to home -- but certainly not least -- is Northwest Trek. This park allows you to get up close and personal with wild animals, yet keeps you completely safe in a tram that takes you on a tour of the park. Northwest Trek is home to hundreds of animals that roam freely on a 435-acre habitat. Animals include bison, elk and moose, deer and bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans and beavers. The park also has predator animals, but they are kept in enclosures as they tend to throw off the ratio of wild animals if they're let loose in open spaces.

Kristin Kendle contributed to this report

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