I know. It's hard. Animals are AWESOME. Who doesn't like to be up close to something magical? Except...animals are not THINGS, they're living, breathing beings. They deserve the same dignity and autonomy as humans.
There are several ways to respectfully learn about animals and wildlife. Here are some suggestions:
1. One is to learn about animals through truly conservation based ways. National Geographic and other organizations do a ton of non-invasive documentation about animals in the wild. This year I bought my nephew an entire set of blu-ray documentaries from NatGeo about big cats, oceans, earth, etc. They're probably a little advanced for a 3 year old, but they will be there as a portal to the animal world as he ages. Part of respecting and protecting wildlife is teaching kids that animals don't belong to us. So although it's magical and wonderful to see animals up close and personal, it's not actually our right as humans. It's exploitative even if we have curiosity and good feelings at heart. In the end, in my opinion, no magical experience is worth the suffering that zoo & performing animals face. It's a hard reality to accept. It's basically being truly selfless when it comes to animal welfare. Their well-being trumps any of our personal desires and wishes. And that's hard for most people (and why we still have zoos really).
3. Finally, the most expensive option is to observe animals in their natural habitats. This is also something that has to be well researched and weighed to make sure that any safari or cruise or whatever excursion company you work with is actually operating with animals best interest in mind. These trips aren't cheap. So they are often outside of most people's reach. It's a shame, but again, it's what is best for the animals. If it's a cut rate experience, it's probably because they are cutting corners for safety and conservation.
Here are some additional readings if you'd like to dive into more in-depth info about what I've said above:
What is Speciesism?
It takes a very big perspective shift to see animals as equals. Not everyone agrees and/or not everyone can make the total shift, but that's what I advocate for in my personal life. Thanks for considering the issues.