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It doesn’t matter whether you’re a wide-eyed child or a jaded adult (ahem, us): If a vacation includes an animal encounter, chances are it will be a trip highlight. But often these interactions are carefully managed by humans eager to make a buck while placing a time restriction on your interaction. Rest assured, there are still places where animals roam freely and are accustomed enough to people to tolerate—and in some cases enjoy—human interaction. Here are 9 completely free experiences you can have with wild—and wildly cute—animals.

RELATED: Swimming with pigs in the Bahamas (VIDEO)

oatman, burros, arizona

Seriously, don’t let Oatman’s wild burros get this close | Photo by Ryan Bakerink

Hungry burros in Oatman, AZ
As famous Route 66 twists and turns its way through the Black Mountains separating Arizona from California, every motorist encounters kitschy Oatman, a one-time prospector’s town that swelled in population at the discovery of gold in 1915 and is now a Route 66 tourist attraction. The miners back then used donkeys to help them move the gold, but when the town went bust the animals were simply abandoned. Now these burros wander the streets in impressive numbers. They’re friendly, but best not to get too close (and leave feeding them to the locals).


Ummm, Swimming pigs? Take me there! | Photo by

Swimming pigs at “Pig Beach,” Bahamas
Pink sands, lavish resorts, black-coral gardens and…swimming pigs? Yes, indeed. The Bahamas, the celebrated tropical archipelago located just southwest of Miami is home to many splendors, the unlikeliest of which is a sounder of feral (but friendly) swine who freely roam the beaches of uninhabited Big Major Key and live off three freshwater springs and the generosity of curious tourists. How they learned to swim nobody knows for sure, but what is true is that the pigs are curious, adorable and happy to spend a the day among human visitors.

south dakota, custer state park, animals

The buffalo of Custer State Park. Keep those windows rolled up! | Photo by Jason Heidemann

Free-roaming buffalo at Custer State Park, SD
When Old West pioneers sang “Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,” they were referring to much of the American West where bison once proliferated. Those days are long gone of course, but a herd of more than 1,300 still roam freely at Custer State Park, a pretty nature preserve in the Black Hills region of southwest South Dakota. Unlike some parkland wildlife, the buffalo are numerous and it’s almost certain they’ll be hovering close to or even blocking the road, but be respectful of these enormous creatures and when in close proximity keep windows rolled up.

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leopard sharks, La Jolla, San Diego, California

Harmless leopard sharks at La Jolla Shores | Flickr phoot by MDRIVR858

Spine-tingling Leopard sharks in La Jolla Shores, CA
You’re already playing the foreboding music from Jaws in your head, aren’t you? Well, stop doing that because leopard sharks are harmless fish and an absolute thrill to see in their natural habitat. Every summer they congregate off the coast of La Jolla, a ritzy community incorporated within San Diego, and they’re free and easy to see. Slap on some lightweight snorkel gear or even just a pair of goggles, wade waist deep into the water at La Jolla Shores Beach and, voila, sharks all around you! True, at 4-5 feet long, they look intimidating, but we promise they’re harmless and a pure joy to see.

feral cats, Puerto Vallarta

Feral cats like these, can be found in many cities including Puerto Vallarta | Flickr photo by Chriss Haight Pagani

Frisky felines in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
As tourists roam the streets of Puerto Vallarta’s Zona Romantica in search of the perfect taco there’s a meow-zing attraction they’re likely missing and that’s a colony of feral cats that have taken up residency near the cultural center on Cuala Island. The small island is smack in the city center and a simple pedestrian bridge brings you to this colony of mostly friendly kitties (hint: bring wet food). Several felines have been poisoned by locals who consider them pests, but at the time of this writing the Cuala Island Cats remain a fixture (and are also adoptable!).

alligators, everglades, florida, anhinga trail

Alligators of the Anhinga Trail | Photo by Jason Heidemann

Ancient gators in the Everglades, Florida
‘Gators are to Floridians what deer are to people in the Midwest, so if you’ve got a hankering for a wild alligator encounter while visiting the Sunshine State, the likelihood that you’ll see one is nearly 100%. But if you want to see them in bananas-large numbers, visit the Anhinga Trail, a short walking path located near the Royal Palm Visitor Center inside Everglades National Park and about 45 miles southwest of Miami or at rest stops along Hwy 41 (Old Tamiami Trail) east of Everglades City.

Fire Island, White Tailed Deer, New York

The friendly and protected white-tailed deer of Fire Island | Flickr photo by Thom C

Wide-eyed White-tailed deer in Fire Island, NY
The most flamboyant creatures you’ll see on Fire Island, a 30-mile long sandbar off the coast of Long Island are the gay men who have turned two of its communities (the Pines and Cherry Grove) into a summertime mecca of sun, surf and plenty of sizzle. But they and other visitors to this summertime paradise share the island with an estimated herd of 300 white-tailed deer who wander through yards and up and down wooden planks (there are no sidewalks or streets on the island) in search of food. The deer are friendly and encountering one at night is magical.

elephant seals, san simeon, California

The elephant seals of Piedras Blancas | Flickr photo courtesy of John Lodder

Barking elephant seals in San Simeon, CA
They’re large, oafish and a delight to see in the wild. For visitors traveling the twisty Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a stop in San Simeon is a must for two reasons. The first of course is a visit to Hearst Castle, the hilltop palace built by the 20th century newspaper mogul, but the second is the nearby Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. A simple roadside detour, just pull over and find your place along the boardwalk from which to enjoy them. You won’t be alone (it’s a major tourist attraction) and if they’re in a mood, watching them interact is hilarious!

Beaver Island, Michigan, turkeys

Beaver Island’s rambling turkeys | Photo by Jason Heidemann

Wandering turkeys on Beaver Island, MI
The archipelago known as Beaver Island is a curious place. The island was a onetime Mormon Kingdom until its inhabitants were chased away by an angry mob from nearby Mackinaw. The Irish eventually settled on Beaver and today it’s a quiet haven for several hundred year-round residents and also the wealthy Chicagoans and Detroiters who summer there. Numerous wildlife including the island’s namesake beavers, turtles, frogs, well-mannered pets and numerous bird species inhabit the island as do the wild turkeys you’ll have no trouble spotting as they amble across the island’s few paved roads.


Tagged: Arizona, Bahamas, California, Caribbean, Mexico, Midwest

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Jason Heidemann

Jason Heidemann

Jason is a Lead Content Specialist for Expedia Group, and manages content initiatives across numerous Expedia-owned brands. His work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Time Out, the Huffington Post, Chicago Magazine, Passport and many others.

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