Just on the outskirts of Los Angeles, there’s a non-profit animal sanctuary where you can learn about and pet wild animals…for just $25. I’m talking about animals like baboons, wolves and an adorable armadillo named “Frank the Tank.”
Just look at this lil’ guy in action:
I recently went on a two-hour tour with a group of about 15 to 20 people at Animal Tracks, Inc., which is located in Agua Dulce, just northeast of Santa Clarita. Even though it’s only about an hour drive from central LA, when you’re there, it’ll feel like you’re in a completely different world, with acres of farmland and horse stables abound. The stunning, slanted rock formations of Vasquez Rocks also serves as backdrop for the area as you drive toward the sanctuary.
Animal Tracks is run by a husband-and-wife duo, Stacy and Tom Gunderson, who take in animals that aren’t able to return to their native habitats. (Tom is a Hollywood animal trainer, which explains why the dogs from Marley & Me and Beverly Hills Chihuahua live at the ranch as well.) My group guide, Christina, introduced us to each of the animals and talked about their backgrounds, explaining that they’ve taken in many of the animals whose original owners have either abandoned or given them up to the sanctuary. Quite a few of the original owners bought the wild animals on the black market, only to later realize that they didn’t know how to take care of them (duh) and had to give them up to professional animal caretakers who actually knew what they were doing. That’s where Animal Tracks steps in, to give the animals the medical care they need and a place to call home. It’s also a cautionary tale on buying wild animals on the black market, which obviously nobody should be doing but yet they still do.
The sanctuary doesn’t have elaborate enclosures like the San Diego Zoo, and is more of a ranch with basic enclosures holding the animals, where some have toys to play with and shelter. However, the experience is much more personal as you get to interact with each of the animals and learn about them. The guides teach you how to approach the animals and are very careful to give you detailed instructions on how to be respectful to them.
When I first arrived, one of the capuchin monkeys named Marley was sucking his thumb while he was nestling inside of Christina’s zipped up fleece jacket. Later when we visited Marley again, he was ecstatic to see Christina, as if he hadn’t seen her in ages, really showing how much love she gives to him.
During my tour, I got to pet Monzo, a serval (African wild cat), who cuddled with my boots, take a selfie with Chrissy the baboon, who let us all gently pet her, and watch a kangaroo and wallaby hop around. Chief, a hybrid wolf, laid down for belly rubs. I also got a chance to hold a Burmese python and feed a pig that Christina endearingly called “Sarah Jessica Porker.” I’m a sucker for a good pun. There were porcupines named “Quillamina” and “Sharpton,” which we only visited and didn’t pet, because you know, they’re not cuddly creatures.
Besides the $25 ranch tour, which normally takes place during the weekends, you can also pay for other experiences, like private tours, a monkey-feeding experience, and finger painting with Chrissy the baboon, which all range from $50 to $100 per person. The money goes to Animal Tracks for the upkeep of the sanctuary and taking care of the animals.
As for heading out to Agua Dulce, it’s a trip you could make a whole day out of, hiking the Vasquez Rocks (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also a location where movies and TV shows like Star Trek and Bonanza were once filmed), and checking out the cute, little Western shops and restaurants. Maria Bonita is a Mexican restaurant there that apparently has strong-handed pours in their margaritas, which is always a bonus in my book.
Animal Tracks, Inc. is located at 10234 Escondido Canyon Rd, Agua Dulce, (661) 268-1314.
Check their website for available tours and book them online early because they sometimes sell out.