Animal rescue shelters have become an increasingly popular destination for travelers looking to “voluntour”. For students or recent graduates, particularly those who are new to backpacking, animal shelter volunteering can offer a rewarding and structured environment from which to begin exploring the globe. The allure of living in close quarters with exotic animals while simultaneously being helpful is certainly strong. However, shelter work often takes both a physical and an emotional toll — before you buy your tickets, it’s best to consider all the aspects of working with shelters.
It’s Not Cheap
If you’re searching for a way to backpack through South America on two dollars a day, shelter volunteering isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Almost all shelters require a “volunteer fee” to cover accommodation, food, and any other amenities they may offer. It’s a simple supply and demand situation — because the idea of working with animals has such a pull over travelers, the most established shelters can ask for a large payment and still have a glut of volunteers at their disposal at all times. However, as with all voyages, there are certainly methods of making the trip more affordable. In my own experience, I found that it was best to seek out smaller, independent shelters. While the accommodations are often more austere, these shelters cost much less and are in dire need of more help.
It’s Hard Work
While many shelters’ websites will often place an emphasis on the opportunities to, for example, play with puppies or help “socialize” baby ocelots, the reality is that working with animals is, to a very large extent, manual labor. Cleaning cages, hauling sacks of food and buckets of water — shelter work is always exhausting and often doesn’t even directly involve the animals themselves. Shelter work is also very, very dirty. Working in a shelter, you will come in contact with more poop than you could ever have imagined. Combined with muddy trails and cold showers, you may end up feeling like you have a permanent layer of grime coating your skin.
It Can Be Isolating
Particularly in shelters that provide food and housing, it is easy to forget that there is a whole fascinating and unexplored world outside the grounds. It’s very important to consciously make decisions that will place you in contact with the people outside of the shelter, even through simple tasks like daily chores. When I worked at Animal AWARE dog shelter in Sumpango, Guatemala, the rural location made the shelter seem very far removed from the vibrant culture of the country. However, with the help of a couple other volunteers, I had experiences that I never could have had in tourist-friendly Antigua — I saw outdoor laundry-washing basins and underground produce markets, and I had some of the best street food of my life.
It Can Seem Futile
If you make the decision to volunteer at a shelter, you are deciding to place yourself in an environment where you encounter animals who are experiencing the lowest, most tragic point of their lives. When I worked at ARCAS, a shelter in Flores that received monkeys and birds rescued from illegal trade operations, I was exposed to the sheer brutality of the exotic animal market when I saw a parakeet whose beak had been broken off. Animals in shelters frequently die, and this is a difficult thing to see, particularly coming from more affluent countries where more resources can be directed toward animal welfare.
Ultimately, I found that the rewards of working in animal shelters stemmed directly from the difficulties. The expense of certain shelters forced me to be creative with my budget and my destination. The difficult and intensive nature of the work gave me a greater sense of accomplishment. Most importantly for me, I became much more equipped to deal with minor daily tragedies that accompany the work, an acceptance that made our victories that much sweeter.