Volunteering with Animals
So you are considering volunteering with animals, don’t hesitate, give it a go! The experience is unlike any other. You are not only giving your time and energy to an incredibly important and valuable cause but you take so much away with you. Here are just a few things that you’re likely to leave with:
- Uncovering strengths and weaknesses
- Learning new skills
- Making lifelong friends (from all around the world)
- Experiencing another culture
- Getting out of your comfort zone and growing as a person
- Helping to make the world a better place
Convinced but not sure how to go about planning it? Here are a few tips that will help:
Check how ethical the organisation is
This is a really important one as some opportunities are set out to look like a sanctuary but are in fact a business profiting off animals.
Questions to consider include:
- How did the animals get there? Were they rescued from terrible situations or were they purchased from breeders/poachers/zoos or animal parks?
- Look for reviews from others who had also been to the project, remember reviews can be subjective and we can’t judge anything without experiencing ourselves but it is important to look out for comments on the conditions the animals are kept in, the support of administration staff and treatment of local staff members.
- Find the aims and values of the organisation. If they are not on available online shoot them an email and ask.
- How much interference do humans have in the lives of the animal? Any reputable sanctuary wanting the best for the animals will have very minimal contact with the animals themselves. There are exceptions to this rule. For example whilst I was volunteering at Free The Bears in Cambodia three bear cubs were rescued from situations where they were kept as pets and they craved the contact of humans. For this reason, we had to wean them off human contact over time. This means we were able to have short bursts of ‘play’ time with them. This is until they became too big to play with of course and were now used to being on their own. Also whilst volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand we had contact with the elephants whilst washing them. Rule of thumb is if the contact is for human entertainment purposes (and/or profiting) then the sanctuary is not acting in the best interests of the animal.
Always see if you can book directly with the organisation.
In your research, you may come across third party booking companies who arrange things for you. If you find an opportunity you like the sound of then it is best to search Google to see if the charity has their own website and in-house booking system. Why is this so important? Because third-party companies take a big cut from the charities and this is money that could be used by the organisation to put towards their rescue efforts.
Where is the sanctuary located?
Sometimes rescue sites are very secluded. It is vital to look into travel arrangements before committing. How do you get there? Many organisations offer a pickup service from the nearest airport or train station and if they have their own website this information will often be available there. Also, check visa requirements and vaccination needs for working with animals within that country. It’s also a good idea to become familiar with the country. Make sure you are comfortable travelling there. Before you go learn some language basics, they will go a long way with local staff.
You will have to work
You will always pay to volunteer. This generally covers your lodging costs as well as administration and sometimes your transport and food depending on the way the sanctuary is run. Some projects give a discount for a substantial time commitment and sometimes for commitments of six months plus there are no fees.
Be prepared for manual labor. The role of a volunteer is to conduct work that helps the sanctuary run. Which in turn creates positive change for the animals in its care. This generally means maintaining enclosures/sanctuary grounds, and preparing food. Some organisations have an educational component where you will speak to tourists and/or school children about the work of the organisation. For conservation efforts, a bulk of the work involved surveying and recording data. If you’ve worked with animals before you may have the opportunity to assist with hands on tasks. For example, I am a trained vet nurse and had the opportunity to work in the hospital of The Jaguar Rescue Centre in Costa Rica during my time there.
Volunteer lodging can differ greatly; I’ve been onboard a yacht for 10 days, camped by the beaches of Greece for four weeks in the peak of summer, stayed in a hut with, shared a concrete room with others (including lots of geckos). It is completely up to the individual what they are comfortable with. This is an assessment only you can make for yourself.
The way food is prepared also varies from project to project. Some prepare all of your food for you (and this is included in the price you pay to stay), others are communal (rostered cooking) and others you source and prepare your own food.
The sleeping arrangements can be substantially different too. In most cases, you are sharing a room with other volunteers. Couples are often accommodated for and have their own private room. In my experience, I’ve shared with anywhere between one other volunteer up to 4 others.
Beliefs, standards and ways of living in other countries
It is also vital to remain mindful of the economic status of the country you are in when volunteering with animals. In the Western world, we may have really efficient ways of completing a task and access to tools that developing nations don’t have. This is something to surrender to as part of the experience. For example, you may have to scrub that concrete pool because pressure hoses just are not a feasible expense for a charity to import. Look at the positives, you are getting a workout whilst making an animals life more comfortable – it’s a win/win!
As mentioned before, it helps to research the country where the sanctuary is located and become familiar with its customs and traditions. Every culture has its way of doing things and it’s valuable to remember there is never only one way to do something. Everyone has different beliefs and some of these may challenge your own. I found it vital to be open to learning about other perspectives and approaches. It’s important to remember that you are often in small rural villages and respecting the local culture goes a long way. For example, in Phuket, Thailand I volunteered at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. The living quarters for this project are within a muslim village. It was important to dress modestly and respect the local community. When leaving the grounds (buying your food from the local market for example). Your actions will reflect back onto the organisation you are volunteering for and local support is very valuable to any cause.