Editor’s Note: I recently contributed to a book about volunteer vacations and how to be responsible when choosing one. Details are at the end of this post.
I remember when I first booked my volunteer “vacation” to Thailand. My friends thought I was nuts.
“Who takes time off of work to go and work in a foreign country?” they had all asked me when I announced I was spending one week of my 12-day holiday as a volunteer at Elephant Nature Park (ENP).
I’ve never been one to take conventional vacations, so while everyone else questioned what I was doing, it made sense to me. After learning about ENP and Save Elephant Foundation, and the vital role travelers play in keeping both the foundation and the park alive, I felt it was important to go and give back.
For one week, I shoveled poo, planted grass, hacked at corn stalks with machetes, made banana balls, washed food and hauled it around – all in the name of rescued elephants. At that time, ENP was home to more than 30 elephants, and the main source of funding for the park and the foundation came from people like me on vacations, volunteering or going up to see this sanctuary for elephants rescued from tourism, trekking, illegal logging, street begging and more.
After my week at ENP, I fell so in love with the elephants, so in love with the foundation, so in love with the founder, Lek Chailert, and her mission, that I returned to Thailand to volunteer long-term for it, spreading the word about responsible elephant tourism.
Voluntourism operations, particularly those that require a fee, come under a lot of scrutiny these days for many reasons. Unfortunately, some do much more harm than good. Without naming names, though, it is hard to differentiate the “good” from the “bad,” particularly when it comes to animal tourism.
Be that as it may, as not all volunteer programs are created equal, so everyone who chooses to volunteer with an animal organization needs to be aware of what they are supporting.
With that in mind, when you look to choose a volunteer vacation, it is important to keep two main things in mind:
Do volunteers have access to or the ability to see what really goes on behind the scenes? Organizations and rescue groups with nothing to hide will be transparent. Others, while not all, will not allow volunteers into certain areas if the conditions are not good (be it due to breeding, drugging etc.). So look at the animals being cared for. Are they healthy? Are there vets on staff or on call? Are the animals still being exploited, or are they able to just be animals? Volunteers who willingly give their time and money to programs where the animals’ best interests do not come first and foremost are simply contributing to demand for programs like this and giving these places permission to continue their practices without making amends.
Where is the money going? Does the money for volunteering go back into the care of the animals and the maintenance of the program? Or is it spent frivolously or used for vanity projects? Is it possible to obtain documents showing where the money goes? As a volunteer, are you unknowingly contributing to an illegal animal trade, like the capture of animals to fill a program whose public face is that of a sanctuary?
This post is part of my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free guide to impactful adventures. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading advocates for travel that makes a difference, this how-to handbook supported by Inspired Escapes and published by Horizon Travel Press is for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure — one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. Early praise has called it “extraordinary,” “impressive,” “a breath of fresh air” and even “the most important book on travel ever written.” My contribution to ‘Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good,’ is on track to reach you when this free e-guide to mindful adventures launches on January 19. Order your copy today: http://www.inspiredescapes.com/ebook. Help us get the word out! Please use #MendNotEnd when promoting this book and/or blog post!