It’s every animal lover’s dream to spend time in their life volunteering with animals abroad. Whether it’s wild macaques in Indonesia or abandoned cats and dogs in Thailand, there’s something for everyone How do you choose the perfect placement? How do you know it’s legit? What to do if it all goes wrong? We’ve got it all covered in this comprehensive guide to volunteering with animals abroad.
The Rise of Voluntourism
The booming industry of voluntourism focuses on making a profit from budding western youths hoping to make a difference abroad. Although our experience of volunteering abroad was legitimate and safe, that’s not always the case. In fact, in some countries entrepreneurs will exploit both humans and animals to make money from volunteers. From orphanages in India to elephant ‘santuaries’ Thailand, there’s corruption everywhere.
The voluntourism industry is worth an estimated $173 billion annually. ‘Agencies’ dominate the industry by charging fees to young people hoping to fulfill their dreams of volunteering abroad. As a result, budding volunteers are actually paying out of their own pockets for the privilege of volunteering in their chosen country.
These fees aren’t to be confused with those charged by the organisation themselves, which will often ask for a small donation towards accommodation, food and utilities as you volunteer abroad. Instead, the agencies will make a profit by connecting people with the organisations . That’s not a great start for an industry founded on charity!
Volunteering with Animals
This blog post will focus on volunteering with animals abroad, as this is where our experience lies. On our recent four month-long trip around South East Asia, we never planned to volunteer. We left the UK expecting to see the sights and meet amazing people as we traveled. We did those things, but we also visited Lanta Animal Welfare, an amazing animal welfare center on the Thai island of Koh Lanta. After a day spent playing with the center’s 50+ cats and walking several of the 50+ dogs, we were sold. We went back to our hotel that night and signed up to come back for a month in September.
We paid a small fee directly to the facility, which covered the costs of two meals per day (both vegan!) and accommodation (more on that later). Upon arriving at LAW, we met people who had paid significantly more than us by organising their trips through online agencies. Another instance of companies profiting from young people hoping to volunteer with animals abroad. Be sure to contact the organisation direct to avoid any hidden fees.
It’s Hard Work
Volunteering with animals is the hardest work I have ever done. I’ve worked many jobs in my time, including 50-hour weeks in the UK’s busiest McDonald’s at age 17. I’m no stranger to hard work. However, working at the animal welfare center was gruelling physical labour. Although, it was made all worth it by the beautiful furry babies we spent every day with on our trip.
When volunteering in a country like Thailand, you are not protected by your western labour laws. Therefore, you may find yourself working long and unsociable hours, which would be deemed illegal back home in the UK or US. For example, Craig worked a night shift at LAW, starting at 7pm and ending at 7am… then he started the morning shift at 7am until 1pm. 24 hour shifts were not uncommon at LAW and I expect that’s quite typical of the industry.
Don’t Expect the Ritz
Many organisations will offer accommodation as part of the volunteering package. This is ideal if you’re traveling alone and looking to meet likeminded people. Often accommodation is shared, either dormitories or small twin rooms, meaning you may find yourself shacking up with a stranger.
The accommodation we were offered was very poor, with a shared toilet and cold shower between four people and no clean bed linen or pillows. Although not every organisation will be like this, expect the worst. At the end of the day, these places are charities and investing in luxury accommodation for volunteers is at the bottom of their list of priorities. If the accommodation isn’t for you, don’t panic. Check Booking.com or HostelWorld for cheap places in your area, then visit them in person and haggle on a good rate – the chances are you’ll get it at a better rate than the websites offer, particularly if it’s low season where you’re staying.
Take Old Clothes
Your first day of work comes along and you’re raring to go. If you’re volunteering with animals, be sure to bring clothes you never expect to wear again. You’ll be covered in poop, pee, mud and food… and that’s just your first day. We were provided with a couple of t-shirts, and we wore jersey shorts every day. Swim shorts are a good option for men, as they can be easily washed and dried for the next day. Ladies should invest in a pair of cycling shorts if you feel the heat.
Shoes wise, it depends on the job you’re doing. We recommend Tevas, sandals, which are durable, affordable and easy to wash. We were in Thailand just as rainy season hit, meaning our shoes picked up the wet dog smell pretty quickly – gross! I spent a lot of time with tourists, giving tours and working in the shop, so I often wore flip flops. However, I’d definitely recommend investing in a good pair of sandals for dog walking and cleaning . You won’t regret it.
Prepare for Poop
So. Much. Poop. LAW is not an animal shelter, therefore it doesn’t aim to keep cats and dogs for long periods of time. The center focuses on rehabilitation and adoption, working with local authorities to educate communities on how to look after cats and dogs, and how to spot if they’ve been sterilised. The center administered dozens of sterilisations a week. By sterlising all of the cats and dogs on the island, the center was able to reduce the population of stray animals significantly over the 17 years it has been on Koh Lanta.
Obviously, it’s not always that easy. When we worked at LAW, there were around 50 cats and 50 dogs in residence. This doesn’t include the dozens more than came in and out of the recovery facilities every day. I’m sure you can imagie – that’s a lot of poop. As a volunteer, you will be expected to take on the (literally) shittiest jobs, including cleaning up puppy diahorrea, emptying a never ending line of cat litter trays and deep cleaning recovery areas between patients. If the sound of 100+ animals poop makes you queasy then volunteering with animals abroad probably isn’t for you.
You’ll (Probably) Get Bitten
I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but another downside to volunteering with animals is that you’ll probably get bitten. Whether it’s a tiny nip from eager puppies or an aggressive bite from a scared dog, you’re probably going to encounter a set of sharp teeth at some point. If you’re going to a high risk rabies area, you’ll be required to get the vaccination before you start work. The rabies vaccine costs around £150 from the NHS and needs to be administered in several bouts so best to plan in advance before you leave the country instead of frantically looking for the vaccine abroad.
Dog bites (and even cat bites) hurt. Always clean the wound with water (not foaming soap) and antiseptic. Cover the wound with a bandage while working but let is air out when you’re safe at home. It sucks but it’s all part of the job.
Saying Goodbye is the Hardest Part
By far the work part of volunteering with animals abroad is leaving them behind. We took so many photos and videos on our last day to remember every single cat and dog we worked with. We even went back to the center after our last shift and spent a few hours playing with the dogs because we knew we wouldn’t see them again. But you never know, if you have a special connect with one of the animals at your organisation you could always adopt!
Are you planning to volunteer with animals abroad? Do you have experience with wildlife and domestic animals? Post your advice in the comments for others to see!