I am so happy to have gained a better understanding of what it takes to be an ethical wildlife volunteer. This has been, and still is an ongoing journey into realizing that our actions are not always ethical –not because we don’t want to be but rather because we don’t know– and that organizations may not be what they seem…
I’ve always been an animal lover and always will be. Whenever I have the chance I try to learn, educate myself, and share that knowledge with others. My passion is animals; animal behavior and conservation work. As a matter of fact, I am studying for a masters in Behavior Analysis (with a focus on Animals). I am a horseback rider (and have been from a very young age) so I’ve interacted with and cared for domestic animals a lot. Recently I took on volunteering in countries other than my own –something that I’d wanted to do for a long time.
So far I’ve volunteered a couple of times in Africa and once in Central America. In a lot of ways, these short experiences have been both life changing and eye opening for me. First I found that there is a lot more to volunteering than I previously thought. A lot of people think that a big part of being a volunteer is firstly about fun, photo ops and traveling. What I learned was that it’s primarily about being aware of what’s around you, which includes the animals, the people as well the culture of the country that you visit. Second, these experiences did set me on a path to better understand genuine and ethical volunteering.
Of course, when I started looking into volunteering, I tried to find projects that were ethically and morally right and that also contributed to conservation in one way or another. What I realize now is that understanding what ‘ethical’ means is hard and can be ambiguous. I also understand that we can’t rely just on our common sense as we don’t know what we don’t know…. Finding good projects that do good sustainable work has proven to be tough, but it is doable if you put the time and effort into it. You can never do too much research before choosing a project.
With knowledge comes realization. With realization comes a different view of the experience, not always for the better. Looking back, that first project I volunteered for in Africa was not good –the ethics of the place were questionable. It was more of a tourist attraction than a genuine conservation project.
The venue was advertised as a wildlife rehabilitation center that supposedly did rescue and release wild animals. They had lots of volunteers (actually when I went at low season time, they were 50 of us); promises of exciting work, as well as opportunities to have hands on interactions with animals, such as walking with cheetahs and spending time playing with them, walking with baboons. As I love working with animals (remember that I’m around horses on a daily basis), I considered this opportunity perfect for me at the time. It was like a dream come true, and to a large extent this is the trip that made my passion for the African wildlife blossom and I wanted to return to do more conservation work. Since then I have visited different countries of Africa through different organizations. The subsequent trips are actually the ones which made me realize the issues with the first venue. I have to admit that whilst I was on the project it was the best time of my life. Had I known then what I know now, I doubt I would have chosen to go there.
Specifically I see now that this venue showed very poor welfare of their animals. Just regarding the cheetahs that they had under their care, I talked this through with another conservationist and we listed the following issues, some of which you can see in the video above:
- Radically insufficient sized and improperly designed cheetah enclosures. Enclosures that didn’t allow seclusion and were improper for exercise –Cheetahs are high speed runners with a top speed of 60 mph and need to exercise this evolutionary trait that they depend on so that they can survive and thrive when released. As an example, husbandry guidelines for the care of cheetahs recommend an enclosure size of 1.5 hectares for a single cheetah (or a related pair), designed as a long rectangle, with seclusion spots and different areas of height. In comparison, the size of a standard American football field is approximately 0.53 acres or 0.21 hectares.
- Improper access to fresh/clean water in the enclosures –e.g., one day when 2 other volunteers and I were cleaning and refilling a waterhole, the bottom of the waterhole was crawling with maggots.
- Overcrowded enclosures: in the video, you can see an enclosure that contains more than 25 or so cheetahs –Cheetahs do not naturally hang with groups of their own species (conspecifics) unless they are related or in very special circumstances.
- Disregard for natural social group structure and interactions. It’s important to acknowledge that a cheetah is a selectively social species (males and females having different social structures), and are mostly solitary in the wild. Having them in large family-unrelated groups has been scientifically proven to drastically increase stress. This is a basic violation of proper husbandry of the species.
- Emotional stress inflicted to the animals: Obvious stress and aggression vocalizations of the animals were prevalent in various circumstances. For instance, the sounds emitted by the cheetahs (heard in the video) when being fed in an overcrowded enclosure are a mix of chattering and aggression, and some of the physiological responses during that feeding are stress responses.
- The facility used their animals for the entertainment of large numbers of tourists (volunteers and visitors both) –which puts the animals in a higher state of stress (validated through numerous peer-reviewed studies).
It’s clear to me now in hindsight that the facility was not contributing to the conservation of the species they said they protected. Although they claimed to rescue and release, there was no evidence (or records) of that actually happening. Given the amount of hands on interactions that volunteers have with the animals, it is highly improbable that these releases can even occur (and be successful).
I wasn’t able to pinpoint the issues above until fairly recently. I just didn’t have the basic knowledge, and didn’t question the organization. You expect an organization saying they are dedicated to conservation to be a conservation project. Of course looking back, I now have a different –and hopefully– more critical and ethical perception of what wildlife volunteering ought to achieve for the wildlife. Yes, for sure, had I known what I know now, I wouldn’t have volunteered there.
So how did my awakening happen? How did I come to ‘the’ realization? I’ve done some very different projects since that first African wildlife one that did expose me to different aspects of wildlife rescue and/or conservation. Some projects were centered around gathering data to describe/detail and understand a particular habitat (in the hope that this habitat was suitable for big cats). Other projects were about providing basic help in wildlife rescue facilities. In all cases, it wasn’t only the projects but also the discussions with the participants that did expand my way of thinking about wildlife. Being able to have a discussion and be challenged through those discussions with participants and volunteers who have extensive and diverse wildlife conservation work experience has been critical for me.
What we discussed, the passion and ways of thinking of the other participants and the open questioning made me question my own way of looking at things related to animal welfare, animal and human interaction, as well as volunteering in general. The combination of discussions, exposure to different and more experienced outlooks, and wildlife experiences were paving the way and I started to open my mind and look at things more critically… Then I signed up to volunteer at a wildlife rescue center in Malawi.
This is the one that really opened my eyes, where knowledge hit home, and where I got a new understanding. That Malawian project was the total opposite to the first project in terms of both animal welfare, and animal conservation work. On the conservation front, they undertake active research on carnivores –collaborating with the Carnivore Research Malawi organization– where they focus on population density, travel patterns and home range size. They study the behavior of released animals (at the time a troop of vervet monkeys). From a welfare point of view, the project was strictly hands off, with limited contact and strict procedures on everything from feeding to handling. The goal of this expert organization is to relocate and release animals into the wild –which they actually do. So, if you are a short term volunteer over there, then there are many things that you will not be able to do because the organization does not want the animals to become too humanized, tamed or habituated. And that is the right thing to do: this is for the good of the wildlife. Humanized animals are non-releasable, and the reasons are fairly simple: a humanized animal is not scared enough of humans and will end up getting trapped, hunted or killed. Worse they will actively seek us out in search for food, causing human-wildlife conflicts, where the usual outcome is the termination of the problem animal.
So now I know more, and particularly I am more aware of animal welfare –not only for the animals in groups but also for each individual animal. That ‘first’ project had no resident veterinarian. There were simply too many animals grouped together ignoring their species social structure, in too small enclosures, making it impossible to meet the basic needs of every and each animal. They didn’t have separate areas for orphans or even a quarantine area that was usable. It’s my opinion that if you can’t meet the basic needs of the individual animal that you take in, then you have to consider alternatives or not take them in at all.
In contrast, The Malawian project did all ‘the good’ things, and wasn’t half the size of the first project. And I can’t help asking still: Why is that? Why the difference? Is one a true conservation project and the other an ‘eco-tourist’ trap, luring with the promise of volunteering and hands on with animals or did it simply lose its way by becoming a business?
Anyway… I am now more thorough and more critical before deciding on a project. Whenever I am looking into going somewhere to volunteer with animals these are some of the things I now pay attention to before deciding. What does the project stand for? Who are they working with (do they have a scientist on board?, who do they partner with? Are they legally accredited? What happens to the animals and research materials (if they do research)? Which species do they have / take in? Do they breed their animals and why? If they do so and have too many cubs and babies of popular animals (especially carnivores) that is a big red flag! Do they have a resident veterinarian? How many volunteers do they accept? Big volunteer groups is a sign of an institution that is vested in a tourism and entertainment business not in welfare or conservation. How much hands on work is being allowed and how is it justified? How much work is there actually to do and is it enough for a full day i.e. it’s not made up work for the volunteers. What kind of policy do they have for the volunteers (in terms of ethics, behavior, drinking, smoking, etc)? It is OK to have fun but not at the expense of the work being done or at the expense of animal/habitat welfare.
I am so happy to have increased my understanding of what it takes to be an ethical wildlife volunteer. This has been, and still is an ongoing journey into realizing that our actions are not always ethical –not because we don’t want to be but rather because we don’t know– and that organizations may not be what they seem.
If you are like me, passionate for conservation, an animal lover (for the good of the animals and not for the satisfaction of just being around animals which is to do with the self), then maybe sharing my journey and thought process will provide some insights about the ethics of volunteering, and will help you define what you want your own wildlife ethics to be. And sometimes it is hard – you want to have a great experience yourself, and sometimes you are on your own journey, but my big overall learn is that volunteering is about putting yourself in the background and putting the needs of the wildlife (or people if you volunteer with them) first. That’s as simple as it should be.
by Marie Therese Heggen
The photo and video media used in this article are the property of the author. Thanks to Claire O’Neill who helped the editing of this article.
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◊ First published Sept 6th, 2019 | Our tips are regularly revised and improved.