| 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
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?
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:
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.
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:
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:
More questions to ask:
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.
Details on volunteering abroad (volunteering internationally).
Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip.
How to Find Volunteering Opportunities, a resource for adults who want to volunteer
How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad
Ideas for Leadership
Donating Things Instead of Cash or Time (In-Kind Contributions)
Details on how to quickly fill a community service obligation from a court or school.
Helping People Address Their
Problems with Plastic
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