By Heather Turk
Given its pristine location along Florida’s southwest Gulf coast, the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach area affords visitors plenty of ways to get in touch with nature. Next time you want to get up close to some native (and not-so-native) wildlife, take a walk or ride on the wild side and visit one of these area attractions.
BABCOCK RANCH ECO-TOURS
This 90-minute tour through the Babcock Ranch Preserve in Punta Gorda introduces guests to the historic Crescent B Ranch. Ride a tour buggy past alligators, migratory birds and a herd of Florida Cracker cattle, descended from the first cattle brought to the state in the 1500s. During the informative excursion, passengers will also have the chance to see a rescued red-tailed hawk and stroll on a boardwalk through a swamp to the ranch’s resident Florida panthers enclosure, where Osceola the panther often comes right up to guests to say hello! Other attractions on site include a museum and a memorial to Lulu the three-horned cow. babcockranchecotours.com
OCTAGON WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Dubbed the city’s “wildest retirement center,” visitors can get up close to dozens of rescued animals at this Punta Gorda attraction. Home to a variety of discarded and mistreated animals that were born in captivity and therefore can’t be released into the wild, guests will get within approximately five feet from such exotic animals as cougars, primates, lions and even a hyena. Several species of smaller animals call the sanctuary their forever home, too, including land tortoises, goats and macaws. Be sure to visit the tigers and bears and watch them play in their swimming pools—they love splashing around! octagonwildlife.org
PEACE RIVER WILDLIFE CENTER
Tucked into the mangroves overlooking Charlotte Harbor at Ponce de Leon Park, this Punta Gorda wildlife facility takes in more than 2,000 injured or displaced animals every year. Although its goal is to rescue and rehabilitate native Florida wildlife, it houses more than 100 non-releasable animals—most of them birds—to educate visitors on living in harmony with nature. Among the permanent residents that guests will see in spacious aviaries and habitats are eagles, hawks, crows and vultures, as well as an all-white screech owl named Luna. Visitors can also watch pelicans and other large sea birds being fed every afternoon at 2:30 p.m. peaceriverwildlifecenter.org