How To: Responsible Wildlife Volunteering
Recently, social media has been active with reports regarding the abuse of animals in different shelters, parks, zoos and other recreational areas. Places that were initially perceived to be concerned with the safety and well-being of the animals, have unfortunately time and again proven otherwise. Take for example, the most recent shutting down of Thailand’s Tiger Temple, as an important indication that such things need to be closely examined.
The same issues of animal abuse or neglect can easily come up when we discuss animal volunteering opportunities. In line with our discourse about making volunteering abroad more responsible and ethical for people (one example being our “No Orphanage” volunteering policy), we want to make sure the same is being done for our furry friends.
We asked animal organizations to share their tips and advice for important things to look out for as we consider out next volunteer abroad opportunity with animals.
Want to make sure your next volunteer animal trip is for the best of the animals? Here’s what you need to look out for.
Study the animals that you will be working with.
I would recommend reading about the natural behaviors of the species you will be working with and what sort of groups they live in in the wild. If animals that live in social groups are being kept alone (without very good reason such as quarantine for disease) or if an animal is showing extreme unnatural behaviors, then the animals are not being looked after properly.
Find out who you will be receiving volunteer instruction from.
At our conservation center, volunteers train with an expert of 30 years in turtle conservation who received an MBE for his work. He also does outreach with the public and lets people know that they cannot light fires or use flashlights during turtle nesting season.
Who comes first – the volunteer or the animals?
Sadly, we can’t let short term volunteers work with the sloths, only interns of 3 months or more can work with them. Wildlife in our care are more important than volunteers and we will not jeopardize their care for the wants of volunteers. Most people don’t understand that sloths get very stressed by many humans in their lives, they are not always happy as their faces show, (they don’t have muscles in their faces to show how they are feeling). Therefore, the baby sloths, baby monkeys and more can’t be handled by short term volunteers for the welfare of these animals.
Read the reviews.
Research independent online reviews from previous volunteers who have already participated in the program.
Check the website for background information and staff.
Always choose an organization with either a solid scientific background or directed veterinary welfare policy, with experienced and highly reputable members of staff.
Where is your money going?
Ask for transparency with the money that you will pay to volunteer there. See how much is for the animals, to cover your stay, or just for the organization. If you get a funny feeling, listen to your heart and ask more questions.
Animals always come first.
You can make sure, that it is for the good of the animals, if the priority are really the animals and not the personal preferences of the volunteers. Obviously it is important that every volunteer feels happy with the work, but it comes down to that the animals and their wellbeing is the preference of all the work the NGO realizes.
What is the condition of the animals and their shelter?
The easiest and most surface-level way to tell if an animal volunteering opportunity is responsible is to look at the condition of the animals. Are they being fed enough? Are their medical needs being addressed? Are they really being helped, or does the organization benefit from keeping them? (For instance, are they charging tourists money for pictures with the animals or for “rides”?) Do they have adequate space and stimulation? Especially with wild animals, are the animals benefiting from being kept there? If these basic needs are not being addressed, then you most likely should move on!
Does the place resemble a petting zoo?
Stay away from organizations that encourage handling of the animals when not necessary (anything that is not veterinary, research, conservation related). In our case, handling of the neonates turtles is only done when taking their biometrics and all the hatchlings should be released within 30 minutes of their emergence to ensure that they are not wasting energy that they will need once they reach the ocean.
Do your research.
The internet is full with people reviewing their volunteer experiences and in general this is far more reliable than the official websites of volunteer organizations and centres.
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Following these top tips will make your long haul flight stress-free and you will be prepared to start your volunteer work in no time.