One item that won’t fit in your backpack or your carry-on when you’re trekking through numerous countries is the pet you’re leaving back home. If you’re missing your little loved one or just looking for a way to help animals around the world, an optimal option is to volunteer at an animal shelter while traveling abroad.
While they’re certainly not as numerous as orphanages or as obvious as volunteering with large animals (like sea turtles on the Kenyan coast and rescue elephants in Thailand), volunteer opportunities at animal shelters do exist around the globe. Why not help the little ones who haven’t a voice? It’s also a fantastic way to meet new friends while traveling (especially those with a common interest), get your pet “fix” while away from home and it’s a unique way for expat and nationals to work together.
If you’re considering volunteering at an animal shelter, there are a few things you should consider and research before you go out and aid the international furry friends.
Go local first
While the Humane Shelter of the United States lists top reasons to volunteer at your local shelter, you could also stop by to ask for advice and information about shelter animals. It would help with background information, as you’d be learning from the most knowledgeable people.
If you have the time before your trip, you may want to spend some time participating in a local volunteer program before you volunteer abroad. You’ll better know what to expect and you’ll gain valuable experience that your next shelter will appreciate.
Research the shelter
Learn about what kind of shelter you’re going to. If you are in strong disagreement with kill shelters and will only volunteer at a shelter that’s no-kill (won’t euthanize an animal), then you should figure out the shelter’s views before you go.
Find out how many animals are there, what their living situation is like, how much attention they get, how many volunteers you will be working with, and what kind of training you will receive. It’s comforting knowing what to expect.
Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to contact former volunteers who can give you the low-down based on their previous experiences. Most reputable shelters will be happy to provide references from former volunteers.
Also, find out about housing arrangements as you may be able to stay on the shelter premises (likely for a small cost). Otherwise, you’ll need to find accommodation close by or plan on commuting to the shelter daily. Learn whether or not there will be other English speakers because, if not, you’ll need to keep your language pocketbook handy!
Know the laws in the country
Research animal abuse and animal rights laws in the country you’re headed toward. In some Asian countries, there are little-to-no laws against all animal cruelty and it’s culturally acceptable to eat cats and dogs. Knowing the general attitude towards animal abuse in the country you are visiting will give you a better foundation of knowledge about the shelter and the possible conditions of the animals you’ll help.
Learn basics about diseases and viruses
While some shelters will just let you show up, if you’ve planned in advance, do some research on common shelter viruses or diseases (not for your sake as humans are unable to catch many sicknesses originally found in or on animals). For the sake of the animals, take some time to research symptoms as you might be able to help diagnose dogs, cats or other animals who have potentially contagious – and maybe life-threatening – viruses or skin diseases.
Many shelters can’t afford to pay for a lot of treatment if an animal gets seriously sick, so diagnosing problems early is important.
It’s pretty obvious that you’re not going to necessarily look and smell good when hanging out with animals all day (but hey, it’s worth it!).
Bring enough old clothes that can be washed frequently or just thrown out.This is important as they’re going to be dirty, and you don’t want to potentially pass contagious illnesses to other animals because the virus is on your clothes and you didn’t wash them.
Some shelters may provide clothing past volunteers have left, or you can pick up some in the closest town or village.
Bring a lot of hand sanitizer and soap, and make sure to wash your hands well. This seems obvious, but bring more than you’ll need.
Bring equipment to the shelter
If you’ve planned in advance and have some room in your backpack, ask the person or persons in charge of the shelter if they need any sort of equipment or special items brought for the animals. Chances are they will, especially in countries where dogs and cats are treated more like livestock than members of the family.
Often thick and strong leashes and collars – particularly those for big dogs – are difficult or impossible to find in countries outside of North America, Australia and Europe. Harnesses (an alternative to using a collar when walking a dog) that come in pairs, meaning they’re attached and you can walk more than one dog at once, are helpful, and toys like ropes and soft chew toys are also great.
If you can afford it, financial contributions will likely be greatly appreciated. The funds may go towards anything from buying food for the animals to aiding with veterinary costs to helping with low-cost sterilization and vaccination programs at the shelter and the surrounding community.
Keep an open mind
Be flexible and keep an open mind. Remember the way things are done in your home country may be very different from the way they are done in the country you are visiting.
Even though you’re exploring the world, remember the worlds of the animals you help are contained to their cage or pen. You’ll be their world, even if it’s for a short time, and they’ll be grateful.
Most shelter animals need simple TLC (tender loving care), and even if it seems like playing and walking dogs and spending time with cats isn’t much and doesn’t go very far, it goes a long way in the eyes of the animals.
A simple way to find an international animal shelter is to do a quick Google search. For example, if you wanted to volunteer in, say, Argentina, easily type in “volunteer dog cat animal shelter Argentina” and your search will produce at least a few options in Argentina (and will perhaps give you leads to other shelters or ideas).
Another great resource is to check out the Web site for the World Society for the Protection of Animals as it has tips and lists of humane organizations where one can volunteer and make a difference (some e-mails/web sites are in different languages, so be prepared to translate or cross your fingers that there’s an English speaker).