Is volunteering in a wildlife rescue center or sanctuary a bad idea? Not at all! It all depends on the species you will work with and on the legitimacy of the organization itself. But first, it requires the volunteer to do his/her homework and research the organization and the species. Here are few things to keep in mind when exploring such volunteer options…

Volunteering in a wildlife rescue can be a good experience as long as it does not harm voluntarily or involuntarily the species. In a previous Wild Q&A [1]we shared about hands-on volunteering, where hands-on means that the facility/organization allows close interactions with wildlife – this would include sanctuaries, rescue centers, zoos and alike. As explained in that article, we discourage this type of volunteering for the good of the animals unless you are a trained expert (e.g., a veterinarian, scientists), or an expert-to-be with more than a few months of volunteering to spare. However if you are a trainee and considering working in facilities hosting captive animals, then investigating the legitimacy of the organization, its standards and studying the species you will work with is a must.

Let us share with you few quick pieces of advice including what to look for, how to identify the good from the bad, etc.

Legitimate sanctuaries/zoos?

Legitimate wildlife sanctuaries/zoos do exist, although they can be hard to find. America, for instance, is known for having a large and unregulated exotic pet trade, many organizations use their animals for profits and many pose as ethical organizations when they could not withstand scrutiny. But, you can learn how to identify them. A good general rule is that before embarking on any volunteering mission, you should always ask important questions to an organization you want to volunteer for.

So for helping identify the good from the bad (and a set of questions to ask), here are few links to explore for a start:

Wildlife rescue experience

We are not saying that volunteering in facilities with captive animals is a no-go. Volunteering in a wildlife rescue can be a good experience as long as it does not harm voluntarily or involuntarily the species. Some animals can be rehabilitated, and few species are tolerant of close/direct interactions (i.e. when close interactions are less harmful to them than with another species). But you have to know which species are safe (for them) to volunteer for. For instance, close volunteer interactions with big cats should be avoided at all cost. Facilities allowing close interactions with any big cat are more than questionable [1]. In short: the good experience depends on the species the organization has and what they allow their volunteer to do.

In all cases, before considering joining an organization, check which species they are rescuing and what is their short and long-term plans with them. Predators, in general, have completely different needs than say hoofed animals, or rodents, or birds… Each time, take the time to study and learn about the species, its behaviors, and its needs before getting the job. Are they pack/herd animals? Are they sedentary vs. nomadic?

We now know a lot more than a decade ago, for instance:

  • We finally understand that you can’t keep killer whales or any species of the dolphin family in tanks as they travel hundreds of miles a day by need and for a healthy lifestyle. You can’t isolate them either as most of them have strong family bonds and rely upon those.
  • A lion is a pride animal and needs its family and a stable environment with no change (popping strangers and volunteers are bad for their development and highly stressful for them).
  • A hyena is a pack animal traveling long distances with strong family bonds, and all these conditions are crucial to its health. Very recently I saw a lone hyena in a small enclosure at a Boston zoo. Not surprisingly this hyena exhibited a stereotypic behavior underlying a psychological trauma.

The point being: Before getting into a specific volunteer job, we have to do our homework. Gain knowledge about the animal you are going to encounter so that you can evaluate yourself the standards (or lack thereof) that the organization follows. Never rely solely on the knowledge of the staff. On too many occasions, we encounter staff who do not have basic or solid knowledge of the species they care for or supposedly study.

By gaining knowledge ourselves, we give a chance to others (including the organizations you are interacting with) to become ‘alert’ and to improve. In other words, we foster a process where everybody has a chance to learn and consequently we have a greater chance to do the right thing and make the right decision.

When possible, visit the organization and its facilities before joining and ask tons of questions, share and compare your finding with others (on social media, with us, etc). If they don’t want to answer, or if their answers are elusive, then you’ll have a hint. And if you can’t visit them, spend a lot of time on their site, then call them and ask those same critical questions.

Once you are in a sanctuary, check for stereotypic behaviors, stress signals, traumatic disorders that could be triggered by their captive life and welfare conditions. Note that we are also in the process of building a guide on how to identify stress disorder signs in animals in captivity [4,5].

The virtue of informed volunteering

Let us remind ourselves once more that volunteering is a true job. And as such it requires preparation. Volunteering is a great opportunity to learn, help, undo wrongs, identify shady organizations and report them. As well as volunteering gives the possibility to find those gems, those great organizations and praise them so that standards and ethics are raised everywhere else!

We view volunteering as being truly noble when it is mindful and ethical. What we find encouraging these days, is that more and more volunteers realize this and share their words of wisdom with others and publicly. Here are for instance 5 lessons [6] that a humanitarian volunteer shared recently and which applies so tightly to wildlife conservation volunteers:

  1. As a volunteer, you must have appropriate skills.
  2. As a volunteer, you have a responsibility to think of the long-term impact of your actions.
  3. You need to find out what you don’t know before you go.
  4. Volunteers can undermine local initiatives for change.
  5. It doesn’t make sense to support badly-run organizations.

Again, an informed volunteer is invaluable, because he/she raises the standards of the ethics of volunteering and doing so truly helps Conservation.

References & further reading…

Please take the time to consult The EwA Complete Guide to Choosing Nature & Nature Venues. It is a comprehensive and easy guide to facilitate your research of Wildlife/Nature conservation volunteering or citizen science opportunities. It gives you tools for getting a sense of the ethics and relevance of the venue, as well as it helps you understand your motivation, define your goal(s) and match your needs.

And if you intend to spend time in a captivity center (including zoos, sanctuaries, rescue centers), then you can refer to The EwA Zoo Evaluation Essentials.

[1] Volunteering with or for Big Wild Cats. Earthwise Aware (2016)

[2] Legitimate Sanctuaries versus Pseudo-Sanctuaries. Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

[3] Sanctuary Standards. Big Cat Rescue (2015).

[4] How can you tell if a zoo takes good care of its animals? Washington Post, Brian Palmer (2011).

[5] How To Tell Whether Your Local Zoo Is Hell For Animals. The Dodo (2015)

[6] I Volunteered At An Orphanage, And Now I Campaign Against It. By Anna McKeon from the Better Care Network (2016) – An interesting read about our impact as volunteers. And a lot of what is being said in this cautionary tale also applies to animal rescue and wildlife conservation volunteering.

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