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Volunteering to Help Animals

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Many people want to help animals in some way. They want to help reduce the number of street dogs and help those on the street with medicine, food and shelter. They want to reduce the number of feral cats by getting more spay and neutered. They want to help increase the number of animals that are threatened with extinction. They want to help exotic animals abandoned by owners. They want to preserve habitats for wildlife. And on and on.

What's most important to remember about volunteering with animals is this: if you truly care about animals, then you are going to put the needs of those animals above your desire for a selfie with that animal, above your desire to pet the animal, above your desire to be able to tell your friends you got close to a lion or elephant or gorilla. If you are looking for a page that will help you connect you do any of the aforementioned with exotic animals, you can stop reading now and look elsewhere. This page isn't going to help you volunteer locally or abroad to meet any of those desires.

Ethical organizations that are working for the benefit of animals do not bring volunteers into direct contact with animals unless it is in the best interest of the animals. That means that not all candidates for volunteering are accepted (because not all candidates are appropriate), volunteers are fully evaluated to make sure they have the temperament and personality to be around animals (they are interviewed, their references are checked, etc.), they have in-depth training in working with animals or already experience or training, there are written policies about what is required of volunteers and what is inappropriate behavior, and they do work as volunteers that is actually needed and is appropriate for the animals.

Unethical organizations take anyone who applies to volunteer (they don't turn anyone away), don't interview candidates extensively (if at all), don't have written policies for working with animals or for what the grounds would be for dismissing a volunteer, have never dismissed a volunteer for inappropriate behavior, and allow most any volunteer and visitor to feed or interact with animals, just so long as they pay a fee.

Here's a good example of an ethical organization that works with animals: the Primate Rescue Center (PRC) in Kentucky (yes, the USA). The organization's volunteer application says that volunteers must
  • Adhere to all PRC policies, guidelines and given instructions.
  • Demonstrate common sense, a good work ethic, and respect for all sanctuary residents.
  • Arrive on time, be reliable, enthusiastic, alert and eager to work.
  • NEVER feed, hand out or throw anything to any primate. Attempts to do so are grounds for immediate dismissal.
  • NEVER have physical contact with any primate. Attempts to do so are grounds for immediate dismissal.
Volunteers who are unable or unwilling to meet any requirements may be dismissed from their position at any time. We reserve the right to dismiss any volunteer at any time for any reason, including but not limited to the following examples: tardiness, excessive cancellations, unpleasant attitude, poor work ethic, inappropriate interaction with the animals, inability to work with others, or disregard for PRC policies.

Clearly, the PRC puts its animals FIRST and does what is best for them.

Another organization in the USA that puts the interests and needs of animals first is the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (yes, the USA!). This is from the web page for volunteers:

Volunteers will not have any direct contact with the elephants. As an accredited Sanctuary, the elephants are never put on display. If the volunteer work project happens in viewing proximity of the elephants and the elephants choose to be seen, then so be it. However, there is no guarantee that volunteers will see elephants.

When looking for volunteering with animals, these are the type of statements you want to look for.

What may I do as a volunteer to ETHICALLY help animals?
  • Help with administrative and tasks. These can include: filing, inputting information into a database, answering the phone, answering email, replying to people that apply to volunteer, doing an initial interview and evaluation of new volunteer candidates, checking the references of new volunteers, etc.
  • Helping with marketing: brochure development, graphic design, blog writing, making Twitter lists, monitoring social media, posting messages to social media, writing press releases, writing articles for newsletters, taking photos, tagging online photos with keywords, etc.
  • Helping with public relations & education: like creating materials for visitors, researching information about the challenges faced by animals, guiding visitors through a site, talking to the press about the work of the organization, etc.
  • Building things. Like creating signs for visitors helping them to understand what they are seeing, guiding them on what they shouldn't do, etc. Building benches. Repairing fencing. Creating designated pathways and trails. Preparing enclosures.
  • Identifying in-kind donation needs & working to solicit those animals: talking to other staff and volunteers to find out these needs and then working with marketing staff to solicit for such, like for shovels, rakes, bowls, blankets, towels, etc.
You should NEVER do any of these activities unless you have received explicit permission from the organization to do so. Don't collect blankets, for instance, unless you have an email from a staff member saying, "Yes, we need blankets. Thanks for collecting them for us. Here is where you should deliver them." Don't create "welcome" signs unless you have confirmed with the organization that they need them.

There are sometimes menial tasks for volunteers at organizations that benefit animals, such as cleaning up an animal living space, however, many of these tasks are reserved for paid employees, because the organization needs to have a full time person committed to this work, rather than people who come only when they have some extra time to donate.

Volunteering at domestic animal shelters & pet rescue groups


Animal shelters for domestic animals - dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. - have volunteering activities that may bring you into direct contact with animals, however, you usually have to work up to these direct-contact-with-animal roles, by taking on administrative tasks, for instance, over several weeks to prove your reliability and temperament and commitment. In other words, contact with animals has to be earned.

In addition to the aforementioned volunteering roles, tasks with these shelters and rescue groups may include:
  • Dog walking
  • Cat petting
  • Feeding animals
  • Moving animals from one place to another for habitat cleaning
To find shelters in your own area, go to Google or Bing and type in the name of your county (and maybe your state too) and the words dog shelter without quotes. The shelter you find for your area may be run by a government agency, a local chapter of the Humane Society, a local chapter of the ASPCA, or an entirely independent nonprofit organization.

To find animal rescue groups in your area, go to Google or Bing and type in the name of your county or city and the words animal shelter without quotes.
Volunteering at wildlife rescue groups in the USA

Ethical organizations working to rescue wildlife, like an eagle that has been shot or a bear that has been hit by a car or a deer that has been orphaned, do NOT allow untrained volunteers to interact with animals (feed them, touch them, etc.). For organizations helping exotic animals, like elephants, lions or primates, volunteer activities are even more limited, because it is in the interests of wild animals - for their health, for their psychology, for their comfort - to limit their interactions as much as possible with people. 

If you want to become a wildlife rehabilitator with an ethical wildlife rescue group in the USA, expect to have to have a great deal of credentials and training before you ever get to come in contact with an animal - and you may need to get that training, such as a university degree, on your own, outside of the organization, as well as pay for for that formal training yourself. If you already have credentials as a veterinary technician or veterinarian, you are far more likely to be chosen by a wildlife rescue group to be put into a role where you will interact with animals in some way.

Remember that these organizations probably have a LOT of things they would love to have volunteers for, from answering the phone to building signs to updating their web site.

Volunteering at zoos

Zoos vary a great deal in terms of the appropriateness of the living space they provide animals and the quality of care for animals. Many people who are concerned about wildlife will not call any zoo ethical. They refuse to go to zoos or to support them in any way because of how they house, trade, care for, even sell animals. Even a well-funded zoo can incur controversy because of its practices regarding animals in its care, such as the Portland Zoo in Oregon, which is frequently criticized regarding the elephants it exhibits. Others feel that there are zoos that provide appropriate care for animals and ongoing education to the public about the dangers for wildlife in their natural habitats and the need for better conservation of natural habitats, and that such zoos are needed to help educate people about things like never adopting an exotic animal as a pet.

Before volunteering at a zoo, do lots of research about the conditions at that zoo. A search of Google or Bing, and even an email to the zoo, can answer these questions:
  • Does the zoo have elephants? How many? Where did each of these elephants come from - where were they before they came to this zoo? Were they purchased? Are they on loan to the zoo from a company that exhibits or uses elephants for entertainment, such as a circus? Have sibling elephants been forced to mate at this zoo? Have parents and children elephants been forced to mate at this zoo? Are children elephants kept with their mothers and, if so, for how long? How big is the enclosure for the elephants? 
  • If the zoo is in a climate where snow is rare, does it keep a polar bear?
  • What primates does the zoo have? How big is the enclosure for primates? Are families of primates kept together? Are any primates kept in solitary enclosures? Are primates given activities - swings, ripped up paper, hidden food, etc.?
  • Does the zoo limit who can interact with animals, or are volunteers and/or zoo visitors allowed to interact with animals, such as feeding them or petting them?
  • What criticisms or investigations or fines has the zoo incurred over the last 5-10 years?
Some of these questions should be obvious as to why they can establish the quality of a zoo's care for animals. But perhaps others aren't, so here's my explanation for some of those: A zoo that is ethical would never force animals that are siblings to mate, nor parent animals with their own children. A zoo that is ethical would not take an animal on loan from an entertainment agency and return that animal whenever that entertainment company - a circus, for instance - wants the animal back. An ethical zoo would never keep elephants unless it has a massive enclosure for them. An ethical zoo would not isolate primate family members from each other and would not leave them in bare spaces with no stimulation. An ethical zoo would not allow most any volunteer and visitor to feed or interact with animals, just so long as they pay a fee.

Volunteering at state and national parks, wetlands, etc.

State and national parks, as well as nonprofit wetlands, often engage volunteers, but none allow volunteers to interact with birds or wildlife and doing so can result in that volunteer's immediate dismissal. To find these volunteering opportunities at these state and national parks, public lands, wetland, etc., go to the web site of the state or national park in which you are interested and look at their volunteering information. Be ready to make a commitment of at least a few months and to live onsite during such a volunteering tenure.

Volunteering abroad to help wildlife (particularly in developing countries)

There are some ethical organizations working to rescue wildlife and preserve habitat in Africa, Central South America and parts of Asia, but these can be quite hard to find, and I believe they are far outnumbered by unethical organizations that, under the guise of rescuing wildlife, are money-making endeavors for private individuals.

Most organizations advertising on the Internet and claiming to help animals not only charge fees from people that want to volunteer there - and offer no real accounting of how that money is used to help animals - but also allow untrained people to pay to pet the animals, get photos with them, etc.

Have you ever seen photos of tourists petting a baby bear or cheetah cub and those tourists tell you that the animal is orphaned and being cared for at this rescue group? In fact, that animal was abducted from its family for the purpose of this organization to make money from tourists wanting a photo with such. That animal will be sold to a private collector or killed when it becomes older and more dangerous.

Here are good questions to ask of an organization abroad that is claiming that they help animals and wants you, someone from another country, to pay a fee to that organization and go to this country and help those animals. These questions will help you determine if the organization is ethical:
  • How many local people from the country where this reserve or preserve or rescue center is located does this organization employ full-time? How many of these employees have been working at the organization for at least two years?
  • What do local people that are employed by this company do as employees?
  • How many local people from this country volunteer at the organization, and what do they do as volunteers? If there are no local volunteers - why?
  • How many people NOT from the country does this organization employ part-time or full-time? Why are these jobs filled by foreign people rather than local people?
  • What education programs does this organization do for local people regarding these animals and the habitat these animals need in order to live in the wild?
  • What has been the biggest successes of this organization over the last five years? What impact has it has?
  • How many animal biologists or wildlife specialists, with Master's degrees or PhDs in an appropriate field of study, does this organization employ, and who are they?
Look at the answers to these questions carefully. Was the organization happy to answer these questions, or were they hesitant? It's not strange for such a company to employ foreign people, even to be founded by such, but if local people aren't working there, you should be suspicious. If the organization does not engage local people as volunteers and doesn't have a good reason why (local people cannot afford to work for free), you should be deeply suspicious. If the organization has no programs for local people to educate them about the animals in their care and the habitat they need to thrive, you should also be deeply suspicious about the motivations of this company, their credibility and their ethics. If the organization has no biologists or wildlife specialists with credible academic degrees - RUN AWAY. 

More questions to ask:
  • Does the organization keep elephants in an enclosure? How big is that enclosure? Where did these elephants come from? Have sibling elephants been forced to mate at this wildlife center? Have parents and children elephants been forced to mate? Are children elephants kept with their mothers and, if so, for how long?
  • Does this organization ever sell its animals? 
  • What animals are kept in solitary enclosures, alone, rather than with families?
  • Does the organization or company limit who can interact with animals, or are volunteers and/or other visitors allowed to interact with animals, such as feeding them or petting them?
Again: all ethical wildlife rescue organizations severely limit the amount of interaction their animals or birds have with humans, and severely restrict interactions between volunteers and animals or birds. At an ethical wildlife rescue organization abroad, a volunteer that would interact with wildlife would need to be a professional or Master's Degree level:
  • forest ranger / park ranger
  • veterinarian (small animal vets, large animal vets, exotic animal vets for zoos, research veterinarians, etc.)
  • habitat specialist
  • conservation officer
  • biologist
  • ecologist
  • zoologist
  • fishery specialist
Volunteering abroad to help domestic animals (particularly in developing countries)

Experienced animal shelter managers and people that have created and managed successful spay and neutering campaigns in their own countries are in very high demand as volunteers abroad. Many countries are struggling with stray dogs and cats and need help both improving the quality of their animal shelters and conducting successful, culturally appropriate campaigns encouraging people to spay and neuter their pets, get their pets vaccinated, etc. Many of these organizations also need help with domestic horses, donkeys, mules, and other domestic animals. If you have extensive experience at shelters in your own community with domestic animals, you would be welcomed abroad at many shelters to help at their shelters, with their education programs, etc.

Also see: careers (paid work) working with animals.

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2010-17 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.

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