Travel

Six places to (ethically) volunteer with animals around the world

From South African penguins and Canadian bears to Australian wombats and Bolivian pumas, Robin Esrock introduces inspiring wildlife sanctuaries where volunteers make all the difference

  • Published Nov 09, 2023
  • Updated Nov 15
  • 1,378 words
  • 6 minutes
A rescued Asian elephant enjoys a snack while on its way to have a bath at Elephant Nature Park, Thailand. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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Getting up close and personal with a wild animal can be a thrilling and, sometimes, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Imagine bathing an elephant in northern Thailand, using buckets to splash mud over the giant mammal’s rough skin. Or what about feeding indigenous Australian animals like koalas and kangaroos? For wildlife lovers worldwide, these experiences can be highly sought after. And with more than 1,500 animal sanctuaries around the world, it can be challenging to choose which organization to volunteer with. But there’s a catch: not all animal sanctuaries are ethical. 

Riding on the back of an elephant, playing with a monkey on a chain and photo-ops with big cats are all big red flags. Many sanctuaries will say all the right things to entice animal-loving tourists to participate in these encounters, but in truth, many of these “sanctuaries” exploit animals for monetary gain. But don’t worry; many reputable animal rescue organizations allow you to experience a destination while giving something back safely and ethically.

CIWY has more than 25 years of experience caring for over 50 wildlife species. Currently, they have 39 species across their sanctuaries. (Photo: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)
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Jaguars, pumas and monkeys (Bolivia)

Widely recognized for its efforts to protect wildlife rescued from illegal trafficking and urban encroachment, Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) cares for dozens of species and hundreds of animals across three different sanctuaries. Most of these animals would not survive if returned to the wild, and volunteers care for them in a natural habitat designed to provide the best quality of life. Along with jaguars, pumas and various monkeys, the organization also looks after tapirs, ocelots, anteaters, sloths, tortoises, parakeets and other animals. With no experience necessary, volunteers must commit to a minimum stay of 15 nights for the stability and well-being of the animals. Some of the larger animals require volunteers to stay longer (for example, you’ll need to stay for at least a month to work with the big cats). All training takes place on-site. Along with cleaning and feeding the animals, CIWY also needs help with educational outreach and awareness programs, site construction and maintenance. Although the days are long, the weather is hot, and the work is physical, it’s not uncommon for volunteers to extend their visits from weeks to months.

Australia's Wildlife Sanctuary features 160 acres of natural bushland for more than 60 species, including free-ranging emus, kangaroos and wallabies. (Photo: Michael Williams II/Unsplash)
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Wombats, koalas and dingoes (Australia)

International volunteers are invited to assist wildlife rangers with GoEco’s Australian Wildlife Sanctuary, working directly with koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, emus, dingoes, and other indigenous wildlife in New South Wales, Australia. Located on 170 acres of natural bushland, the animal enclosures provide lifelong refuge for more than 60 species of rescued, recovering, displaced, and orphaned animals that cannot be released back into the wild. Other animals not threatened roam free in the bush, although a fence protects the entire facility from foxes and other feral predators. All in all, the sanctuary protects more than 200 species. Volunteers work directly with the rangers, spending half their time looking after the animals with various cleaning and feeding tasks. The other half is spent on maintenance tasks, such as repairing trails and enclosures and working on bush regeneration and habitat restoration. Volunteers also host educational awareness programs as the facility is open year-round to the public. For the wellbeing of the animals, volunteers aged 18 to 81 must stay for a minimum of 14 days or a maximum of four weeks, working five days a week with weekends free to explore Sydney and the surrounding region. Shared dormitory-style accommodation, all meals and training are provided.

Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary began in 1970 and has the main goal of rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife to release back into the wild. (Photo: Brandon Broderick/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Bears, foxes, lynx and wolves (Canada) 

A sprawling wildlife sanctuary located on 460 acres in Rosseau, Ontario (about a 90-minute drive from Barrie), Aspen Valley works to rescue and rehabilitate a who’s who of Canadian wildlife, with the goal of releasing the animals safely back into the wild. It is also the permanent home to almost 30 animals that cannot be safely released, including black bears, Arctic foxes, coyotes, lynx, wolves, moose, foxes and bobcats. A registered not-for-profit, the facility is supported by donors, a small support staff, and over one hundred volunteers worldwide. During spring and summer, up to 16 full-time volunteers must commit to four or eight consecutive weeks to become animal caregivers. Responsibilities include animal intake, feeding, cleaning, enclosure maintenance and other duties. Volunteers (aged 18 and up) may be assigned to specific animals and will be responsible for them seven days a week. Shared accommodation and meals are provided on-site. Fall and winter are less busy periods, primarily involved in caring for resident animals, including squirrels and raccoons. Part-time volunteer positions are also available for greeters, tour guides, maintenance, drivers, and support caregiving without handling the animals. The sanctuary, which does not buy, breed or sell wildlife, is open to the public by appointment only.

Common volunteer activities at Elephant Nature Park include bathing elephants, preparing food and walking the elephants through the forest. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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Elephants (Thailand)

Located outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is a renowned sanctuary dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and ethical treatment of elephants and other animals. With more than 100 Asian elephants in its care, the park provides a safe and natural environment for elephants rescued from various forms of exploitation and abuse, including the logging industry, the tourism industry, and illegal trade. Unlike other elephant encounters in the region, the park has a strict no-riding policy and works to promote ethical tourism practices that respect the animal’s natural behaviour. It is also home to rescued dogs, cats, birds, water buffalo and other animals. Most tourists arrive for a half-full or overnight visit, where they learn about the elephants and the park’s conservation efforts. Weekly volunteer positions are also available, inviting visitors from around the world to work directly with the resident animals. This includes six nights’ accommodation in private and shared rooms, three meals daily, and free time for cultural lessons and walks. Volunteers work with mahouts (staff who work with each elephant), preparing and feeding animals, cleaning enclosures, building and maintaining facilities, and greeting a steady stream of guests worldwide. On a social front, international volunteers gather for daily presentations and events at an on-site bar. While the shared volunteer accommodation is modest, the Thai food gets rave reviews. As for the experience of washing elephants in the nearby river, that one is priceless.

Feeding penguins, preparing food and cleaning enclosures are common volunteer activities at Algoa Bay. (Photo: Jornt Hornstra/Pexels)
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Penguin and seabirds (South Africa)

More than 80 per cent of all the African Penguins in the world are found in Algoa Bay on the east coast of South Africa. In 2000, an oil spill threatened the entire population, which led to the creation of The Penguin and Seabird Rescue Centre. Staff and volunteers care for injured, ill or malnourished penguins, along with seagulls, gannets and cormorants. Under the direction of experienced staff and marine biologists, international volunteers are invited to work five days a week, assisting with the bird hospital and rescue activities. This includes preparing food, administering medication, cleaning enclosures and pools, tube-feeding undernourished birds, washing new arrivals, and catching and handling rescues in the bay. Oh yes, you’re going to get your hands dirty! Volunteers can also participate in childhood education programs, preparing displays, and working in the visitor centre. Penguins are cared for year-round, although October to January is particularly busy with the arrival of abandoned chicks. This season coincides with spring and summer in a lovely part of the country known for its long sandy beaches.

Volunteers working for Animal Experience International will typical help with rescues, bathing and grooming, feeding, exercise, vaccination treatment and socialization. (Photo courtesy Animal Experience International)
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Dogs (Mexico, Kenya, Spain, Nepal)

Founded in 2011, Barrie-based Animal Experience International has placed hundreds of volunteers worldwide, working with vetted canine conservation projects, as well as horses in Mongolia and Spain, bats in Cuba and Australia, and dolphins in Croatia. Dog rescue programs around the world provide veterinary care, rescue and adoption for hundreds of street and abandoned dogs. Working full-time with experienced staff, AEI volunteers are typically involved in rescues, bathing and grooming, feeding, exercise, vaccination treatment and socialization. AEI proudly follows a consent-based tourism model in which all participants are on the same page with respect to the community, volunteers, staff, and animal treatment and interaction. This also ensures their volunteers have realistic expectations, with a full briefing about cultural sensitivities, safety, and ethical travel. Several colleges have also pre-approved programs as non-structured international placements for students registered in veterinary technology programs.

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