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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.

Image: Unsplash

CultureTravel

I am sitting in a crowded waiting area in the Houston airport when the sheer immensity of what I am doing truly hits. I try to do something – anything – to distract myself. I chew my nails. I stare at the smog and the airplanes out of a window covered in tiny handprints along the lower half. Finally, I take the tiny antique compass my boyfriend presented to me as a parting gift out of my backpack and flip it over and over in my hand as I mentally review my plans.

I’m going to Guatemala. Alone.

My brain immediately abandons its momentary calm to take up its current emotion of choice: wild, unbridled terror and self-doubt.

But why? What do you really expect to gain? What if you get hurt or lost or—

The flight attendant calls my row. I get up.

University is almost synonymous with travel. Almost everyone lucky enough to have funds to spare during college leaves town at some point. Whether through a school exchange, a volunteer opportunity, or even just a newfound proclivity toward North America’s vast abundance of music festivals, college students are constantly in transit. A desire for new experiences coupled with low standards for accommodations and food open student travel up to many opportunities that the average traveller might find rather unattainable. But the one type of travel that a college student might be wary of approaching is solo travel. Just the thought of solo travel is daunting to all but a few herculean souls, and I will be the first to admit that I still think of it that way, even after over two months spent in rural parts of Guatemala.

My first few days in the country are thoroughly overwhelming. Though I have some knowledge of Spanish from previous travels in Latin America, I had never realized how much I relied upon the collective knowledge of my fellow travellers. No one is here to fill in the blanks for me, or to tell me that the butchered sentence I’m constructing is incomprehensible. My destination is very specific – a shelter for stray dogs (an epidemic in Guatemala) in a small town about an hour outside of Antigua – but the directions I have are frustratingly vague. They involve steps such as looking for a specific pedestrian overpass and hiking up dirt roads while keeping an eye out for a set of green metal gates.

When I arrived at Animal AWARE, I was shown to a “casita” (literally, “small house”) where I would live for most of the next two months. The casita consisted of a tiny, narrow, drafty room with two beds, and a bathroom where I took the coldest showers of my life, often standing outside of the water and washing one limb at a time. There were 300 dogs and 80 cats at the shelter at that point, so every open space was taken up with animal enclosures. This meant that the casita itself was bordered by two dog enclosures. The dogs would wake us at quarter to six every morning without fail. Sometimes, during the night, strays from town would sneak onto the property, eliciting an eerie crescendo of howls as they ran past each enclosure. I often felt sorry for the cats trying to lead their quiet lives amid the chaos.

As the weeks went on, I began to get used to my surroundings. Slowly, I came to appreciate the true beauty of solo travel: you’re almost never really alone. Everywhere I looked, people were surprisingly happy to help. The owners of the shelter, Xenii and Martin, often came by the casita to offer me leftover food, bottles of waters, and a constant supply of books. My success in acquiring a cheap cellphone that I could use to call North America was the result of effort on the part of several staff members at AWARE. One particularly impressive 17 year-old girl (also travelling alone) showed me how the convoluted Guatemalan bus system worked. And of course, my family provided immense support along the way, responding to my sporadic communication with tips, advice, and encouragement. Eventually, I came to realize that there are no secrets to travelling alone, just guidelines. Certainly be safe – I was constantly aware that I was travelling in a very dangerous country. But also, importantly, be open – for every person who would do you harm, there are many who are willing to take you into their homes, feed you, give you a bed, and try to help you make the most of your time away from home.

Returning was surreal. I had gotten used to cold showers, abysmal plumbing, and the constant noise of 300 hungry dogs. My little brother seemed to have grown at least a foot in my absence. My bed seemed a hundred times more comfortable than usual, and I was able to finally, finally, have some of Vancouver’s excellent sushi. I was able to look at the rest of my university career with some much-needed clarity, and I finally decided on my major. But most important to me was the confidence my travels inspired – most challenges, when compared to travelling alone, don’t seem quite as impossible.