click to enlarge Wildlife adventures
Photo courtesy of the Endangered Wolf Center
Red wolves find a home at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri. Other wolf varieties and several kinds of fox also live at the center.

Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play – along with wolves, elk, bears, cougars, camels, water buffalo and plenty of other animals.

Seldom is heard a discouraging word if you are looking for a day trip to see some wildlife this summer. Plenty of options exist within a few hours' drive from Springfield. What can't be guaranteed are skies that are not cloudy all day.

Still, summer months are great times to enjoy our furry and feathered friends in a safe atmosphere and to learn how many groups are working to preserve them.

While zoos sometimes get a bad rap for containing wildlife in unnatural areas, many are making efforts to improve conditions and protect endangered species. In our area you can spend a whole day at the large zoos in St. Louis, Indianapolis and Brookfield outside of Chicago. Closer destinations are the smaller venues such as our own Henson Robinson Zoo near Lake Springfield, Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Scovill Zoo in Decatur and Peoria Zoo in the city's Glen Oak Park.

Other options are places with a primary goal of preserving specific species and commercial outlets that offer driving or walking tours through animal habitats. Here are some:

Endangered Wolf Center

Founded in 1971 by renowned wildlife host Marlin Perkins and wife Carol Perkins, the sanctuary is a family friendly area in Eureka, Missouri, west of St. Louis. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Tuesdays.

The center is home to Mexican, Red and Maned wolves; Swift, Fennec and Arctic foxes; and African Painted dogs. Many of the endangered species come from other accredited facilities or from the center's managed-breeding program, according to Jimmy Parsons, communications and media coordinator.

"Wolves are a critically misunderstood species," Parsons says. "They are nothing like the ones portrayed in books and movies. Instead, they play a critical role in the ecosystem." That is why he recommends visiting the center and learning about conservation efforts in person.

Visits are by reservation and include guided tours such as the most popular, 90-minute endangered species tour" Its cost is $23 for adults and $18 for children. You can schedule special tours and encounters with the animals for an extra fee, and the after-hours' evening wolf howls are popular.

For information and reservations, go to or call 636-938-5900.

Lone Elk Park

Lone Elk Park in Valley Park, Missouri, southwest of St. Louis, houses elk, bison, wild turkeys, waterfowl and deer in an area that was once part of a World War II ammunition testing and storage facility. St. Louis County took it over in 1964 and opened it to the public in 1971.

Some of the elk came from Yellowstone National Park and the St. Louis Zoo donated bison. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed from the lake with a reservation.

Visitors can drive through the 546-acre park to view the animals from 8 a.m. to sunset every day. A visitors' center, shelters and walking trails add to the experience. No bicycles, motorcycles or pets are allowed. The park is free but accepts donations. Call 314-615-4386 for details.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Another repurposed ammunition site turned animal home is the 20,283-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington at the former location of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Midewin began in 1996 as the first national tallgrass prairie in the U.S.

Spokesman Joseph Wax says the site hosts 80-90 bison, first brought in 2015 from Colorado and South Dakota after many years of cleaning up the site to rid it of toxic materials. The U.S. Forest Service oversees the prairie, which is open to the public from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A welcome center, open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (and Saturdays during warmer months) features display panels, interactive exhibits appealing to children and a bison head mounted on the wall. A spotting scope focused on an eagle's nest is popular, Wax says.

To see bison, visitors usually have to hike a two-mile roundtrip from the Iron Bridge trailhead to spotting scopes along the Route 53 trail. Wax says the trail is crushed gravel and rated easy to moderate. Dogs on leashes are allowed but motorized vehicles are not. You can bring your own bicycle or horse to access a network of other trails on the property.

"It is a really great place for kids to experience nature," Wax says. Even if they can't hike to see the bison, they should enjoy the welcome center's displays. For more information, go to

Aikman Wildlife Adventure

Located in Douglas County near Arthur and Arcola, the Aikman family took over the old Rockhome Gardens site in 2015 to open a commercial wildlife adventure filled with more than 220 animals of 90 species ranging from addax to zebras.

President James Aikman says it is the only drive-through safari adventure in Illinois. The 30-minute driving route takes visitors through fields where they can spot large animals, including the popular zebras and camels and a few rare African antelopes. A walk-through area takes about 45-60 minutes and features smaller animals such as the crowd favorites -- spotted hyenas and ring-tailed lemurs.

"We have more hands-on experiences than most other places," Aikman says. "It seems to appeal to all ages and all income levels and it is definitely a place the whole family can enjoy."

The adventure is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is open on weekends in the fall.

Aikman says the most popular tour is the "triple crown" that includes the driving area, the walking area and the site's Museum of Prehistoric Life with life-sized models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. The cost is $25 for adults and $20 for children.

A drive-through tour alone is $25 for a standard vehicle while a walk-through tour, including a petting zoo, is $10 for adults and $8 for children. Other kinds of animal encounters vary in price. For tickets and information, go to

Wildlife Prairie Park

Ten miles outside of Peoria near Hanna City you can see black bears, wolves, elk, bison, cougars, bobcats and more than 50 other species at Wildlife Prairie Park, opened in 1978. Many animals that are or were native to the area now roam the park's nearly 1,800 acres.

Marketing director Calli Dicks says it is "a park for all. We are considered a jewel of the Midwest. Not only do we have animals, but we also have adventures and recreational activities."

You can take a 1.5-mile walking trail, board a small train for a ride around the park, watch for birds and even stay overnight in a cabin, converted caboose, grain bin or campground. The park also offers mountain biking, fishing, disc golf, laser tag, kayak rentals, a sculpture walk and a café. Daily programs include chats with animal keepers. For extra fees, you can arrange private animal feedings and encounters with some of the larger animals or hayrack rides through the bison and elk pastures.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily and until 8:30 p.m. on Fridays in the summer for concerts and evening animal viewing. The only closed days are Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. General admission is $14 for anyone 13 and up, $12 for seniors, $10 for ages 3-12 and free for 2 and under. An all-day train pass is $7 per person.

For more details, go to

Mary Bohlen of Springfield writes travel stories for IT, specializing in day and weekend trips in the Midwest. She loves seeing buffalo – and bison – roam.

Mary Bohlen

Mary Bohlen is a retired journalism professor who is a regular contributor to Illinois Times. She specializes in writing about interesting places in Illinois and nearby states worthy of day or weekend trips.

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