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Traveling the High Road: Volunteer for the Trip of a Lifetime

Work-cations combine the adventure of travel and the desire to help animals

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Scott Handy

by Ruthanne Johnson

Boarding the small boat that would transport her to the deep jungle, Alison Mulford began to feel nervous. The recent college graduate had signed up for a six-week volunteer stint at the ARCAS Wildlife Rescue Center in northern Guatemala. But Mulford didn’t speak any Spanish, and as the boat made its way across Lake Petén Itzá, the Madison, Conn., native wasn’t sure what to expect.

Her trepidation peeled away when she arrived at the spartan but “homey” volunteer house overlooking the lake: “The spirit of the place was pretty clear the moment I got there.”

Founded in 1989, ARCAS rehabilitates animals confiscated from illegal traffickers, including parrots and macaws, spider monkeys, coatimundis, jaguars, ocelots, anteaters, and reptiles. With a small staff and up to 600 patients a year, the nonprofit relies on volunteers to provide basic animal care and pay bed-and-board fees that help fund the center.

Living in dormitory-style accommodations, Mulford worked in shifts to monitor and feed the patients, clean enclosures, and even venture into the surrounding forest to gather food for her charges. And when a baby howler monkey needed one-on-one nurturing until old enough to join others of her kind, Mulford didn’t hesitate to join the center’s staff, even though that meant extending her visit to more than a year.

Like Mulford, a growing number of humane-minded vacationers are combining their passion for animals with a zest for travel. Opportunities for animal-related “work-cations” and “voluntourism” exist all over the globe—with shelters and spay/neuter programs, wildlife rehabilitation and habitat protection organizations, sanctuaries for farm animals or other species, and more.

Tips for getting the most out of voluntouring »

Mulford caught the “volunteer traveling bug” during a summer break spent caring for baboons at a South African rescue center. Her experiences there and at ARCAS have made her a fan of one-of-a-kind vacations that give back to the community and its animals. “If you go with an open mind and a can-do attitude,” she says, “you can travel anywhere and do anything.”

Passport with a Purpose
After teaching in Guatemala and Costa Rica last year, Kandice McDonald planned a few months of carefree travel through Central America with her fiancé. But the environmental science graduate from Livermore, Calif., eventually grew tired of bouncing from place to place and “just being tourists.” And she longed to see a sea turtle. A Google search brought the couple to Costa Rica’s Corcovado Foundation Sea Turtle Conservation Program, where McDonald found “a sense of purpose and belonging.”

Each night, McDonald and other volunteers scouted the beaches along Drake Bay to protect sea turtle eggs from poachers, marveling at the flecks of green bioluminescent material in the sand and ocean. “We called it ‘Avatar sand’. … It looked like stars in the sand.” She spent her off-duty hours swimming in waterfalls and hiking through the rainforest.

The highlight of her two-week stay was the night she and another patroller spotted the tracks in the sand that led them to witness one of nature’s most mysterious processes. They waited in the shadows for nearly an hour while a 3-foot-long olive ridley turtle dug a nest and began laying her eggs. “They go into a trance-like state and finish the process no matter what,” says McDonald, who helped measure and tag the turtle and later dug up her 80 eggs to deliver to the hatchery.

Helping to preserve the area’s sea turtle population was “a great way to give back to the Osa Peninsula for sharing all of its tropical wonders with me.”

Roads Less Traveled
Kathy King’s vacations—though rewarding—bear little resemblance to the weeks of adventure many travelers aspire to. For weeklong stretches, the Norfolk, Va., resident works 14-hour days, staying at $40-a-night motels in economically depressed Indian reservations and down-on-their-luck Appalachian towns.

It started in 2007, after the lifelong animal lover learned about the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association’s Rural Area Veterinary Services program. She decided that a week helping to bring free vet care to needy communities would be a meaningful way to spend her time off.

Six years and nine RAVS trips later, King has seen communities where stray animals are ubiquitous, alcoholism and unemployment are rife, and a 4-year-old dog is considered “really old.” But she’s also seen a band of wild horses on a sunset-lit ridge in Nevada. And working the clinic intake lines, she’s met hundreds of people who are sincerely grateful for the chance to provide better care for their beloved pets.

There was the North Dakota client who was worried about the growth on his elderly Labrador’s leg. When he came to pick up Sam after surgery, the man asked King how much he owed. “I told him that it was for free [and] he just about cried. … He hugged us all,” she says. “… That’s why I do this.”

Along with her sense of accomplishment, King’s souvenirs include Larry, a Chihuahua-mix adopted from one excursion, and many lifelong friends. “People are there because they really care,” she says of her fellow volunteers. “They are trying to … make these animals’ lives better.”

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