Adventures Volunteering in "Wild" Greece
“A world of light such as I had never dreamed of and never hoped to see,” wrote Henry Miller. Greece conjured up images of sun drenched beaches, hedonism, and cerulean blue seas, but my idyllic visions soon dissipated as I arrived in Athens during the dead of winter to volunteer as a wildlife rehabilitator. Although I was in Greece, land of serendipity, my beginning was slightly less than auspicious as freezing winter rain hammered down. I initially spent more time waiting in line at Greek hospitals than exploring Greece‘s treasures. After a week‘s recuperation, I traveled by taxi up a winding road, the scent of orange and pistachio farms permeating the air, as I made my way toward my ultimate destination.
Hellenic Wildlife Hospital
Ekpaz, or Hellenic Wildlife Hospital (www.ekpazp.gr) located on the island of Aegina, a former prison house, has since been converted into a veterinary clinic, volunteer quarters, and flight and outdoor cages that overlook stunning mountain vistas and the dazzling Aegean. Volunteers, accepted year-round and even on short-notice, are asked to make a 3-month commitment and work roughly full time in exchange for a free room, partial board, mentoring, and a flexible schedule. Internships in various wildlife-related disciplines can be arranged as well. Living arrangements consist of comfortable bunk beds, a spacious living room, and communal bathrooms.
Most of the volunteers at the “center,” as we called it, came from Finland, others were European or American of various ages; wanderlust being the common denominator binding us together. The staff members, who are mainly Greek, were enormously generous, knowledgeable professionals who were slightly, refreshingly offbeat. Daily life unfolded in surprising ways while we worked hard, though never too hard, and played hard, thoroughly enjoying the Greek way of life. Toward the end of the day, at approximately 4 p.m., everyone typically cooked in shifts or went to a local taverna.
Having had no prior experience with wildlife rehabilitation, work proved not too physically strenuous with an average day consisting of cleaning cages, preparing food, washing dishes, assisting in emergency care either inside the veterinary clinic or outside at the flight cages. Chopping chicken was the most arduous, nerve racking task that I was ever asked to complete. However, many memorable animal encounters were ample reward for any ax wielding with mischievous foxes toying with eggs fed to them, feeding baby pigeons, playing with magpies, or catching crows.
Environmental Challenges in Greece
Due to its geographical location, Greece is one of the most vital areas for conservation of wildlife diversity in Europe and also one of the most endangered, largely due to illegal hunting practices and rapid habitat destruction. Ekpaz does its part to protect and conserve indigenous wildlife through rescue missions, veterinary care, scientific research and public education, all of which is funded by voluntary work, donations, and member contributions.
Most of the wildlife at the center are birds of prey, however, there are a variety of small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles from Greece and other parts of the Balkan peninsula. Wolves and bears have also been rehabilitated along with jackals, now extinct due to poisoning and loss of lowland habitat. The center also houses many abandoned and mistreated pets until it can find permanent homes for them.
Being a short ferry ride from Athens and Piraeus, volunteers can conveniently use the island as a base for further explorations around the country. After backpacking throughout Crete and Thira, Aegina’s warmth, casual atmosphere, and subtle charm drew me back…. I happily returned to the center albeit for too brief a time. The island is not overly consumed by development, has an eclectic mix of expatriates and Greeks, and scenic beauty that is hard to stay away from for too long.
For More Info
The Greek National Tourist Organization (www.gnto.gr) is a great starting off point for information about Greece.
To volunteer at the Hellenic Wildlife Hospital visit www.ekpazp.gr or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aegina Island information can be found at: www.aeginagreece.com.
Willing Workers on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org) in Greece has many independent host sites for Woofers; it can be an alternative to or complimentary to volunteering for HWC International Wildlife Rehabilitative Council (www.iwrc-online.org).
Recommended Reading for the Literary Traveler:
Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller, is classic travel literature.
Eleni, by Nicholas Gage, is a non-fiction account of the author’s life in the small village of Lia during the Greek Civil War. It’s impossible to put down.