By Jeff Fleischer
At some point, every animal lover wants to live out a childhood dream of working with wild animals. What he or she might not know is there are hundreds of ways to spend vacation time doing that.
Jane Stanfield of Lakewood, Colorado, first used her time off to volunteer with wildlife in May 2006, when she helped a research team track koalas on St. Bees Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. She enjoyed it enough that she’s done six more such trips—three more in Australia and three in South Africa.
“Just the ability to get that close to the animals in the presence of such knowledgeable professionals was the chance of a lifetime,” Stanfield says. “It’s a great way to really learn about the animals you’re working with and to help them.”
Whether you’re looking for a trip in the United States or abroad, there are lots of sustainable organizations that need volunteers to help preserve, study, and rehabilitate any number of animals.
“The great thing about volunteer vacations is there’s something for everyone to match their passion,” says Katherine Noyes, senior editor for animal welfare at Charity Guide. “Whether it’s working with wild donkeys or rainforest wildlife or elephants, there are projects out there. The most important thing is to know the kind of animal or kind of work you’re most interested in and then find a volunteer opportunity that matches what you’re looking for.”
One popular option for travelers interested in working with wildlife is volunteering at an animal sanctuary. And there are sanctuaries devoted to all kinds of animals.
For example, travelers can work with lions at a park near Johannesburg, South Africa, where they help feed cubs and exercise the big cats. At an animal hospital in Ravenshoe, Australia, volunteers work with injured or abandoned fauna from kangaroos to wedge-tailed eagles. Or one can stay at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, which involves bathing, feeding, and providing healthcare for pachyderms. Closer to home, there are parks like Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue that provide a chance to work with exotic animals without long-distance travel.
Another way to help animals is to work with scientists who track migration patterns or animal behavior. Volunteers can monitor manatees off the coast of Honduras, gather information about dolphin pods near Mozambique’s Punto do Ouro, or survey breeding birds throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“Whale watching, for example, is something many people are interested in doing,” Noyes says. “Working to track their migration combines getting close to the whales with helping scientists understand their behavior.”
There are also rescue opportunities where volunteers help rehabilitate injured animals or work to save endangered species from various threats. At places like the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota and Wild Horse Sanctuary in California, one can perform tasks ranging from ranch work to population monitoring. In Central and South America, there are many chances to rescue monkeys, caimans, birds, and marine animals often targeted by poachers.
“One of our most popular trips is a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica,” says Alexia Nestora, North America director of i-to-i, which organizes volunteer projects in more than 30 countries. “Our volunteers help by rescuing sea turtle eggs. It’s a race in Costa Rica; if the volunteers get to the eggs first, then poachers don’t. It’s a very effective way of helping the turtles survive.”
Just as there is a range of animals and locations for potential volunteers, there are plenty of logistical concerns to keep in mind when planning.
Like all travel, volunteer vacations come in a range of prices. Most will require volunteers to pay for their own flight or other transport, and some involve charges for training and accommodations. “Budgeting has to be part of it, knowing what the cost will be ahead of time so you can plan for it,” Noyes says. “The cost can be anything from just gas while driving somewhere near your home up to thousands of dollars to get someplace remote like Sri Lanka.” Shots and visas might also be required, depending on the destination.
Time is another factor. Most volunteer vacations last at least a week, but some can last months and become something like an internship. For example, i-to-i offers both a weeklong volunteer program and a monthlong wildlife ranger training school in South Africa. Travelers should be aware while booking that some projects require minimum commitments. Most will also have assigned work hours, with opportunities to spend spare time seeing the country or visiting local towns and cities.
“Volunteers should also make sure they can be flexible,” Nestora says. “You have to remember that when you’re volunteering, you might need to do what the project needs. So, for example, you might not be able to feed the lions every day, but might have to spend some time helping with their care in other ways.”
Also, some projects might not be suitable for children. Some will not allow any participants under age 18, while others might require sparse accommodations or difficult work that individual travelers cannot perform.
No matter what kind of trip, it’s important to do thorough research beforehand. Understand exactly what the work entails, and make sure the organization running the project is reputable and truly concerned with animal welfare.
“It’s getting to the point that ecotourism is such a boom that there are lots of alternatives out there,” Nestora says. “Always do a background check; make sure it’s sustainable. For example, we do most of our work with nonprofits, and we always encourage people to call previous volunteers and get their feedback about the projects.”
Once travelers choose the right animal-welfare project for them, they embark on a trip that combines the chance to see new parts of the world with making a positive impact.
“I can’t imagine a more gratifying way to spend your vacation time than helping animals,” Noyes says.