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How to Volunteer Ethically With Animals

As a sustainable development organisation committed to furthering the progress of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including #14, Life Below Water, and #15, Life On Land, we are dedicated to conservation best practices and animal welfare when selecting all our projects around the globe.

This means that we are dedicated to protecting the natural habitats of animals, contributing to animal conservation activities, and educating local and global communities about the impacts of their actions on specific habitats, unique species, and the planet as a whole.

We have been operating conservation programs for over two decades using a strict set of international standards. Using this experience, we’ve compiled a set of questions you should ask before booking onto any program that allows you to volunteer abroad with animals.

Q: If the organisation offers tours through wild areas, do they encourage you to get close to animals or touch them

A: They should not.

Reason: Firstly, it can be dangerous to get close to wild animals. Both for the human and for the animal. The wild animal could injure the person and both animal and human could contact diseases spread through the water, air or by touch. In addition, disturbing the animal can interrupt its natural behaviour. If enough visitors are allowed to do this it can put the animal under threat. For example, whales and sea turtles might be disturbed by divers coming to close to them, stopping them from eating, nesting, or mating, and forcing them to look for new living grounds. Finally, if visitors are conducting conservation research, getting too close to the anima; can skew research data as the animal will be behaving as it would if it is disturbed by a natural threat.

Q: If the organisation allows you to travel to or work in protected natural habitats, do they offer training for visitors in minimising their impact?

A: The organisation should.

Reason: Many visitors to protected areas do not realise how some of their habits might harm the beautiful environment they have come to see. Organisations that promote the protection of these areas should provide visitors with a series of guidelines before they enter the reserve. This might involve information about the impact of littering and plastic pollution, touching and removing certain plant and animal species, and keeping one’s distance from local wildlife species.

Q: Does the organisation support environmental education and other sustainable development projects like education and eco-tourism growth in the local community?

A: They should.

Reason: Long-term, sustainable conservation efforts can only be effective if the initiatives for projecting local wildlife and the environment is locally led. Any organisation that has conservation as one of its main goals should be focusing on how to engage the local community with these efforts. This does not only involve creating awareness around why it is important to preserve environments and species and how to achieve this, but should also focus on other sustainable development efforts like childhood education and adult vocational training, to support local economic growth.

Wild Animal Captivity

While we would all agree that, in an ideal world, no animal would need to be in kept captive, in our current context, captive animal facilities play an important role in conservation. They can help critically endangered species threatened by poaching, kidnapping, habitat destruction, and a lack of genetic diversity survive, assist with reintegrating rescued animals into the wild, as well as create conservation awareness by educating visitors.

However, due to the exploitative practices of many captive animal organisations, many unsuspecting international visitors support efforts that are harmful to conservation efforts and animal welfare. Sadly, the lack of safety practices at these facilities also puts many visitors at risk.

Our stance on this issue is by no means a noncontroversial topic, even within sustainable development and conservation circles. There are, however, many organisations, like our partner Fair Trade Tourism or FTT who follow the guidelines of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, that support our opinion and have created a series of guidelines any reputable captive wild animals facility should follow. All facilities we partner with are vetted using these guidelines. Below we have listed the questions you should ask before volunteering with animals at any captive wild animal facility.

Q: Does the organisation encourage any unnatural treatment of captive wild animals? For example, performing tricks like painting, or allowing you to ride, touch, feed, and bathe the animal?

A: They should not.

Reason: According to FTT, any organisation that claims to treat its animals, including wild animals, well should allow the animal access to the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare which include, 1) freedom from hunger and thirst, 2) freedom from discomfort, 3) freedom from pain, injury and disease, 4) freedom to express normal behaviour, and 5) freedom from fear and distress. Not only should they provide the necessary space, natural environment, enrichment activities, and food, but they should not pressure the animal to perform any act that is unnatural. In addition, they should provide wildlife veterinarians at least twice a year to check on the animals and have enough staff trained in animal husbandry to conduct regular health checks. If the organisation claims to support ongoing conservation efforts, they should not allow people to touch, feed, and bathe animals. This will not support the integration of animals into the wild as they should be able to feed and bathe themselves. If the animal is a domestic breed, such as a cat or dog, local care organisations are within acceptable ethical guidelines when welcoming volunteers to feed, bath, and socialise with these animals. You can check these institutions against the same five freedoms of animal welfare with the awareness that natural behaviour will involve human contact as they rely on humans for survival.

Q: Does the organisation encourage you to rear ‘orphaned’ wild baby animals?

A: They should not.

Reason: Breeding of wild animals in captivity can assist in conservation efforts, however, unscrupulous organisations have used breeding for profit. International visitors are used to rear juvenile specimens of threatened wild species, and once they are grown these specimens are often then traded illegally. A reputable organisation would never allow you to hand-rear a wild animal, as this has been proven to be harmful to the animal’s ability to socialise and look after themselves in the wild. It also means that they aren’t afraid of humans, which could put both humans and the animal’s life in danger in the future. There is almost never a reason to separate a young wild animal from their mothers and if the organisation claims that the animal is orphaned they should be able to provide legal proof of how they were rescued. If the organisation claims to breed wild animals they must be able to prove that it is for conservation purposes and have the legal documents, both national and international, to back this up. In all cases, a young wild animal should be with its mother or a surrogate of its own species. This is not the case for domesticated species like dogs and cats, and working with animal welfare institutions who offer volunteers the opportunity to rear orphaned puppies and kittens are functioning within ethical guidelines, granted that they comply with the five freedoms of animal welfare.

Q: Does the organisation allow you to interact with dangerous animals? What kind of safety policies are in place for those visiting the facilities?

A: If they do, there should be strict safety policies in place.

Reason: Every year many people are injured in captive wild animal attractions. No reputable organisation should allow you to come into close contact with species listed as Hazard Category 1 in the Association of British Travel Agents or ABTA Animal Welfare Guidelines without sufficient distance from the animal, training, and risk mitigation provided by trained professionals. These include big cats of all kinds including lions, leopards, cheetahs, and caracal; megaherbivores like elephants, rhinos, buffalo, giraffe and hippos; large primates, like great apes and large monkeys; as well as dangerous reptiles like poisonous snakes and crocodiles. They should also have a policy in place to protect visitors and educate them about these practices on arrival. They should instruct visitors to keep their distance from animals and not disturb their natural behaviour. They should also have a record of any injuries caused by animals and be insured against injuries caused by their captive wild animals.

Q: Where did the captive wild animals come from? Can the organisation present documentation that they were acquired for conservation purposes? Is there a proven history of reintroduction into the wild?

A: They should be able to.

Reason: There must be a demonstrable, legally justified reason for taking the animal out of the wild. If they have an injury, there must be a plan to reintroduce them into the wild including a set release date. They can only remain in captivity if they cannot be healed or cannot fend for themselves. This should be verified by a veterinarian and an animal behaviourist. If the animals are kept in captivity to preserve their species from poaching or habitat destruction, the organisation should be able to supply the necessary documentation from the conservation organisation they partner with. Ideally they should be able to provide proof of how they comply on both a local and international level. In addition, the organisation should be able to provide proof that their plan for reintroducing animals back into the wild actually works. There are many examples of great intentions not succeeding, reintroducing animals into the wild is incredibly challenging. When investigating an organisation be sure to ask about their history of long-term reintroduction successes. They should be able to tell you how many individuals were reintroduced, where, when, how long the animal continued to live in the wild, and whether they were successful, hunting, socialising, and breeding.

Q: Can you see legal compliance documents? Can you see their financial records?

A: You should be able to.

Reason: If an organisation claims that they are holding animals in captivity for conservation purposes they should be able to provide the legal proof that they are compliant with national and international policies that confirm they are allowed to hold the specific species for their specified purpose. It is also important to check their financial records to ensure that they are not trading wildlife illegally for profit and to check the reputation of the conservation organisation that backs them.

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