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Guide to Volunteer Programs Abroad Caring for Animals

Article and photo by Jane Stanfield
3/2010 with resources updated 12/30/2023 by Transitions Abroad

Volunteering caring for animals abroad, including this giraffe licking the author.
The author feeding bread to Gambit the giraffe.

For many volunteers an international vacation is a chance to at least see and possibly interact with animals, both the common and extraordinary.

What Kind of Volunteering Is Available?

Everything from helping people “pet the animals” to working side by side with a rehabilitator, veterinarian, or scientist.

Why Do Volunteer Work With Animals Overseas?

The agencies, normally non-profits, may not have a large budget and need volunteers who are willing to pay to help. You will get an experience with an animal you have never seen, or in a culture or country that is very far from home. You do it for the same reasons you volunteer at home. You give something where it is needed, and you probably receive as much or more in return.

How to Prepare for Volunteer Work?

If you have never worked with animals, consider volunteering with an animal agency at home to build your skills and knowledge. Read about the country and culture to see how local people view and work with animals. Ask your agency to get contact information for former, experienced animal volunteers.

Most animal agencies that use volunteers know you have the interest, but not necessarily the experience—especially when it comes to wildlife. Unless otherwise specified, there is no special training needed. However, there are some skills that will help you work effectively as a volunteer. 

  • Comfort around animals.
  • Ability to read and comprehend animal body language.
  • Common sense.
  • Cool head, able to remain grounded and effective during emergencies.
  • Patience, able to brush off minor irritations.
  • Flexibility.

Your ability to pre-think or anticipate a possible reaction can go a long way when working with animals.

What Is A Typical Day?

There is usually some framework or schedule, but flexibility is the rule of the game. Depending on the weather, animals and supplies, expect the unexpected and you will not be disappointed. The percentage of time you work with the animals varies. Your day may be spent 10% cuddling the babies and the rest cleaning, preparing food, and dividing household chores with other volunteers.

Working Conditions

Many operations are working on a shoestring, so be warned; at times the needs of the animals take precedence over those of volunteers. When funds are low, conditions and equipment may not be up to western standards. This can cause a difficult period of transition should you arrive expecting things to flow as if you were living at home. But it is also an opportunity to see what can be accomplished with very little.

Working with animals can involve long hours without breaks and in dirty conditions. Most agencies will need assistance at least eight hours per day, but on rare occasions work can be required around the clock. Your work may be 4-6-8 hours in a continuous line or split into shifts. Some work may require night work or dawn/dusk surveys.

Be honest with yourself about how many hours you want to work on a daily and weekly basis, and exactly how close you want to get to the animals. While the work may not always be fun, you may find the excitement of being close to the animal overrides any discomfort or inconvenience.

Medical Issues

Depending on the location, you may need preventative medicine and supplies (Malaria pills and bed nets). In many locations, rabies is still a problem. Speak to your international travel clinic about both standard international shots and the need for the rabies vaccination series

Cultural Considerations

You may be volunteering in a culture that views animals very differently than you. In many cultures, animals are considered property not pets. In cultures where people are in need, money and energy spent on animals may appear nonsensical to the locals.

Can I Really Make A Difference?

Depending on the nature of your work, you may assist veterinarians, scientists, experienced wildlife rehabilitators or local volunteers who will train you on how to do things in their environment. Even if you have animal experience, always ask: “What do you need me to do to help you today?”  Once your skills are assessed, they will use you to their best advantage. If there is something specific that you would like to try, respectfully offer your assistance to the person in charge.

The Three Main Types of Volunteer Care for Animals

Three types of international animal work include; domestic animal rescue, wildlife rehabilitation, and studying wildlife with scientific teams.

1. Domestic Animal Rescue (mainly cats and dogs.)

Range Of Work
  • Pen cleaning
  • Food preparation
  • Walking or socializing animals
  • Office work
  • Facilities cleaning and maintenance

After training

  • Monitoring animals after surgery
  • Public relations/education in local community
  • Fund raising or solicitation of needed supplies or food
  • Adoption counseling

Such work is usually located in cities, suburbs, or towns. Your time can be as short as one, two or four weeks. Vet students are encouraged to stay longer. You will most likely work closely with the animals.

Special Considerations

It is not uncommon to fall in love with one of your charges. Remember, the importation of a domestic animal from overseas to your home country requires logistics including medical examination, immunizations, transportation fees and perhaps quarantine. If you think you might be vulnerable to falling for your charges, begin your research well in advance of your trip.

2. Wildlife Rehabilitation

Range Of Work
  • Pen cleaning
  • Food preparation
  • Facility maintenance
  • Working with injured or orphaned young

With credentials

  • Assists with medical treatments

Such work is generally found in remote locations or within distance of a town or city. To maximize volunteers, many agencies have a minimum commitment between 4-8 weeks or longer. There can be quite a learning curve, so expect cage-cleaning duties while you watch and learn. A longer stay may increase your satisfaction and the depth and amount of work you are offered. You will usually work closely with non-carnivores, and spend time mainly with orphans and young animals.

Special Considerations

If remote, it is common for volunteers to have little or no access to off-site evening or weekend entertainment. There may be a single trip to town per week with limited passengers. Ask the agency or speak to previous volunteers about their experiences and what to expect.

Cultural differences may be increased. Local people may not see the value/need of rehabilitating an animal that once released into the wild, may be a nuisance or menace to human habitation or crops.

Please note: As you may be close to the bush, you should expect a number of bugs, rodents, and possibly reptiles. With good basic hygiene by ALL members of the team and the use of preventative items (metal or plastic storage bins), there are ways to reduce their impact during your stay.

3. Scientific Teams

Range Of Work
  • Equipment preparation
  • Data collection
  • Computer input
  • Monitoring animals from afar
  • Collecting samples (leaves, environment, food sources, scat)
  • Radio tracking

This work is almost certain to be remote and at times out of cell phone range. The work may last one, two, or four weeks depending on the scientist. Longer internships may be possible for college students or professionals.

You may be surprised at the small amount of time you spend around the animals. Even when near them, you may collect samples and data rather than observing the animal. Once found, you may have limited access to them. For example, when capturing for radio collaring, it is common to work to return the animal to the wild quickly and with minimal interference. The scientist may do most of the work with the volunteers watching or taking notes. Understand that it is for the animal’s safety and your own that you may not be allowed to touch.

Special Considerations

You may need to buy equipment—headlamps, compass, or GPS. Scientific work requires much patience and at times, long hours including overnight shifts or dawn/dusk patrols. Data collection can be repetitive and exacting work. Your skills and talents may need to take a back seat to the work of the science team. Please remember, you are assisting with research and it is important that the data be controlled and accurate.

Cycle of Life

Volunteer work with animals has the potential to bring you in contact with the full cycle — breeding, birth, rearing, socializing young, elderly animal care, and death or euthanasia. If you have never been exposed to the entire sequence, it can be overwhelming if not mentally prepared. 

When monitoring wild animals, mating, eating, and death are everyday occurrences—so be prepared. Not every animal you encounter will make it. Some may die of natural causes others may need euthanasia. At times you might be working with predators and their prey. While you may not have to witness death, you should at least be aware that it is a possibility. If you feel that you would prefer not to witness certain aspects, please discuss this with the agency or former volunteers. No agency will be able to guarantee what you will or will not experience. If you will be upset, please consider carefully before you sign up.

Working with animals both at home and around the world can be very enriching. What you decide to do is dependent on your interest, time and the location selected. For some volunteers, just having the chance to see the animal in their natural habitat is enough. For others, only a hands-on experience will satisfy. Begin your research, dig deep, speak to former volunteers, and then get out there and spend some time with animals!

For More Info on Volunteer Animal Care and Wildlife Conservation

GVI — Offers many marine and wildlife conservation programs abroad.

Earthwatch  — Maynard, MA with offices in Japan, England and Australia, places volunteers on scientific teams around the world.

Idealist — This site allows you to input a specific animal to find volunteer opportunities.

JANE STANFIELD is the author of a book that offers a step-by-step approach to help potential volunteers find, plan, prepare, pack, go on and return from an international volunteer vacation. See Jane Stanfield’s bio for more information.

More by the Jane Stanfield
Volunteer Work with Penguins in South Africa
The Wallabies of AACE: Wildlife Volunteering in Australia
Volunteering with Earthwatch in Thailand: Archaeology at Your Fingertips
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