Questions to ask when volunteering with animals
The United Nations (UN) recently revealed that 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with that number estimated to rise to 68% by 2050. With more of us inhabiting towns and cities than ever before, the urge to reconnect with nature is undeniable.
While urbanization continues to skyrocket, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a Living Planet Report this week that shows wildlife populations have plummeted by 60% since 1970.
In the last 30 years, half of the Earth’s shallow coral reefs have been lost. A fifth of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in the past 50 years. Conservation projects are now more critical than ever to preserve the current biodiversity of species.
Whether you want to help rehabilitate elephants from tourist camps, collect data for marine conservation or aid research efforts for the endangered jaguar, the most important decision is choosing an ethical provider to work with.
1) How can I make a positive impact when I volunteer abroad with animals?
As volunteers, we must travel responsibly and be informed about “wildlife experiences”, and the true impact on the animals involved.
To volunteer for a meaningful cause, choose an operator that considers animal welfare, and not profit, to be paramount.
2) What does an ethical provider look like?
A non-governmental organization (NGO) or social enterprise should prioritize conservation above all else. The volunteer programs should:
- focus on sustainable long-term conservation goals
- measure their impact
- host educational programs alongside their conservation work to empower local communities to take charge of preservation efforts
- partner with local communities to protect species and their natural habitat
- build environmental awareness, while respecting local customs and practices
- collaborate with reputable and trusted organizations to ensure long-term impact.
GVI is a social enterprise and we are transparent about how program fees support our conservation and community development projects.
3) Can I trust website reviews of volunteering with animal programs?
Not necessarily. Generally speaking, an operator that delivers responsible travel will have social media platforms where volunteers can freely share their experiences. If there is only a glossy website with selected reviews, and no other online presence, you should be skeptical.
Third party review websites (such as TripAdvisor) can be helpful, but you should dig deeper than the star rating. Read the reviews to suss out if the programs are truly animal-friendly.
Besides, ratings can be deceiving. A collaborative report by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and World Animal Protection showed that 80% of visitors left positive reviews for attractions that had poor animal welfare standards.
4) How can I avoid an unsustainable provider?
It can be tricky to determine what is a ‘con-conservation’ project or a ‘pseudo-sanctuary’, but look out for:
- breeding programs that further limit resources needed to care for existing animals
- programs with unlimited access to the animals
- opportunities to feed wild animals that are able to hunt or forage for themselves
- activities with close proximity to wild animals, including touching, bathing or riding
- poor housing that does not replicate the animal’s natural habitat
- photo opportunities that use the animals as ‘props’
- animals performing unnatural or humanized stunts, such as dancing or painting
5) What level of interaction with the animal should I expect while volunteering?
You can expect to get close to the animals at times, but remember that you are there to observe and monitor, not handle. Unnecessary touching can cause behavioral problems or stress, and damage conservation or rehabilitation efforts.
In some volunteer projects, there may be minimal handling, which is required to perform health checks or to conduct surveys for conservation efforts.
For example, interns participating in the conservation of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle in Greece tag individual turtles in order to collect data. In this case, handling is essential in order to measure the impact of conservation efforts, and safeguard the animals’ future. Monitoring nesting sites also helps protect the species by preventing illegal poaching.
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