A mother and her son walk through the underwater tunnel at Sea Life

Eight Ways to Encounter Animals in Minnesota

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A mother and her son walk through the underwater tunnel at Sea Life  / Andrew Parks
Family Fun // Things to Do // Article

Eight Ways to Encounter Animals in Minnesota

By Andrew Parks

Zoos aren’t the only ways animal lovers can see and learn about their favorite species throughout Minnesota. Check out these education and research sites for even more opportunities to encounter live animals.

Carson's Llovable Llamas, Waconia

Carson's Llovable Llamas, Waconia / Andrew Parks

Carlson’s Llovable Llamas | Waconia

Ashley and Evan Carlson offer 90-minute tours of their family’s longtime farm every day, but they’re often sold out, so it’s best to book ahead and patiently await some quality hang time with the herd. Rather than go the petting zoo route, Carlson’s educational, hands-on experience gives newbies the opportunity to brush, feed and lead their llamas the way any farmhand would.

Dogsledding at Chilly Dogs in Ely

Dogsledding at Chilly Dogs in Ely  / Dave Puente

Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips | Ely

The Hway family has been showing beginners how to mush since 2005 with the help of huskies that have raced in — and in some cases, won — such world class marathons as Alaska’s Iditarod and Minnesota’s John Beargrease. Visitors can choose between a family-friendly eight-mile run and a more rigorous two-hour, 15-mile experience that winds its way through hilly trails and woodlands. Both include cocoa and some quality time with the dogs, of course, as well as a chance to hear more about the sport and its deep roots in the Ely area.

A demonstration at the International Owl Center

A demo at the International Owl Center  / Andrew Parks

International Owl Center | Houston

While it’s still a few years away from revealing a new permanent complex, the International Owl Center is already a thought leader within the birds-of-prey world due to its annual festival in March. Over the past two decades, it’s grown from a small gathering to a destination-worthy weekend for sharing ideas, research and a genuine love of all things owls. If you missed this year’s event, you can always stop by the center’s temporary home on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday for daily programming that gives a more general overview of what makes owls such a fascinating member of the animal kingdom.

A gray wolf rests on a rock at the International Wolf Center

Axl rests on a rock at the International Wolf Center  / International Wolf Center

International Wolf Center | Ely

Thanks to an ongoing, decades-long effort to keep the state’s native population stable — hovering between 2,200 and 3,000 animals — the largest wolf population in the Lower 48 is right here in Minnesota. The International Wolf Center explores their complicated history through its interactive “Discover Wolves!” exhibit and a wide range of specialty programming with its five-member pack Grayson, Axel, Rieka, Blackstone and Caz. Saturday nights are devoted to feeding demos and several overnight experiences are offered throughout the year. The International Wolf Center also leads field trips in the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters that focus on photography, tracking and radio telemetry.

Angel, the senior ambassador at the National Eagle Center

Angel, the senior ambassador at the National Eagle Center / Kelly Smith

National Eagle Center | Wabasha

Live eagles and two floors of interactive exhibits draw around 80,000 visitors to the National Eagle Center every year. That number is expected to climb now that it’s sporting a $27 million renovation and pieces from the private collection of Preston Cook, a Wabasha resident who spent nearly six decades collecting sheet music, postcards, photography and stamps that star America’s most iconic bird. Live demos with the center’s winged ambassadors take place daily in an expanded care facility. Visitors also can join the center’s experts for a cruise along Lake Pepin and other field trips that provide opportunities to see eagles and other waterfowl in their natural habitat (but make reservations early; these experiences tend to book up well in advance).

Want even more eagle time? Check out The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, which now offers an enhanced, 45-minute tour, complete with an up-close-and-personal encounter with two of its educational birds.

Black bear at the North American Bear Center in Ely

Lucky, a young male black bear, is one of three resident bears at the North American Bear Center

North American Bear Center | Ely

Three orphaned bears — Holly, Lucky and Tasha — share 2.5 acres of natural forest and artificial dens in a viewing area at the North American Bear Center right alongside wild food, squirrels, chipmunks, ducks and birds. The center is closed during the winter (a bear’s gotta hibernate) and usually kicks its season off in late April and remains open through the end of October. As for its programming, founder Dr. Lynn Rogers is known as “the Jane Goodall of black bears” due to his lifelong devotion to the oft-misunderstood mammals, so you can certainly expect an eye-opening experience here.

A coral reef display at Sea Life in the Mall of America

A coral reef display at Sea Life  / Andrew Parks

Sea Life | Bloomington

Minnesota’s largest aquarium is one of Mall of America’s biggest draws for good reason: Its main event is an underwater tunnel that’s more than 13 feet deep and as long as a football field. Take your time as you walk through its watery passageways and watch rescued sea turtles, sand tiger sharks and a 14-foot-long green sawfish swim by. Other exhibits include a trippy jellyfish display, coral caves full of clownfish and a sandy beach populated by slipper lobsters, pufferfish and stingrays.

A green tree python at Snake Discovery

A green tree python at Snake Discovery / Andrew Parks

Snake Discovery: A Reptile Experience | Maplewood

Soon after spending some time as an interpretative naturalist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Emily Roberts started educating schools, libraries and scouts about exotic animals under the Snake Discovery banner. When its hit YouTube channel went viral during the pandemic (we’re talking more than 2.87 million subscribers!), Roberts brought her passion for cold-blooded creatures to a brick-and-mortar building about 10 minutes away from downtown St. Paul. Now Snake Discovery’s many fans can find out what it’s like having a pet alligator — a rescue named Rex — in person, as well as educate themselves about everything from legless lizards to venomous Gila monsters.

A couple ducks at Springbrook Nature Center

A couple ducks at Springbrook Nature Center / Jessica Brouillette


Bemidji’s Headwaters Science Center includes a live collection of animals used in demonstrations and other educational programming. Stop by on Saturday afternoons for a popular snake-feeding session.

Gale Woods, a working farm in Minnetrista, is open to the public every day between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. Swing by to see chickens, sheep, cattle and pigs while strolling along three miles of serene hiking trails.

Farmaste is a 30-acre forever home for cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and donkeys that were either abandoned, neglected or in need of special treatment. The Lindstrom-based nonprofit is closed in the winter but offers volunteer opportunities year-round and weekly tours once the weather warms up.

Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary is operated by the American Bear Association in Orr and boasts a raised observation deck and 360-degree views of its forested surroundings, where you might see black bears of all ages and sizes. Other habitats open for observation include several cedar swamps, marshes and beaver ponds.

Springbrook Nature Center features 127 acres of pristine forest, wetland and prairie landscapes, three miles of trails, a nature play area and a 900-foot floating boardwalk that may bring you face-to-face with a deer, fox, turtle, beaver or various birds. Also of note: a monthly bird-banding program that allows visitors to hold cardinals, robins and chickadees before they are measured, weighed and released into the wild.

Find other nature centers on exploreminnesota.com.

Andrew Parks

Andrew Parks is a senior digital strategist at Explore Minnesota. His previous work including copywriting and content design for such clients as the Michelin Guide, Apple, Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.