Volunteer Vacations

volunteer vacations

Trisha Blanchet

Tired of spending your holidays at the beach? Why not roll up your sleeves and get grubby to help some needy animals?

When it comes to our vacations, we Americans are a headstrong bunch. Those few precious weeks roll around only once or twice a year, and we’re determined to make them count. But some vacationers have begun to change their approach to time off, forgoing lolling on the beach in favor of more active and rewarding experiences.

“What’s another trip to the Bahamas?” asks Debbie Jacobs, the president of Explorations in Travel in Guilford, Vermont. “Nowadays, people are looking to do something different with their vacation time. Many Americans realize that they have it pretty good, and they want to give something back.” Short-term volunteering for nonprofit organizations is one of the most popular choices.

For animal lovers, that means immersing themselves in creature-friendly tasks and projects that would never fit into their regular routine. From snapping photos of sea otters along the Alaskan coast to soothing rescued cows and pigs, vacationing volunteers are finding that the rewards of donating their time to help animals far outweighs the lack of room service or tour guides.

We’ve chosen eight of our favorite destinations where you can spend a few days, a week or longer giving hands-on aid to wild and domesticated animals. Few of these trips are luxurious, and most require active participation in chores, research or housekeeping duties—in some cases, all three. Definitely not, as they say, a day at the beach. But you’ll return home with more than a sunburn and a hula skirt. “People make the commitment to help, even for a short time,” Jacobs says, “and they see what a difference they can make.”

What Friends are For

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah

Dog people dig Best Friends. So do cat, bird, goat, horse and rabbit people. As the nation’s largest sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals, this 3,000-acre haven has plenty of room for them all. Luckily, it also has a loyal following of staff and volunteers to manage the logistics of caring for more than 1,800 creatures of all types.

Volunteers help with chores, from feeding the pups in Dogtown to filling water bowls in Wildcats Village and cleaning the Bunny House. “But the most important contribution a volunteer can make is giving one-on-one attention to the animals,” says volunteer coordinator Jean Morris. “It gets them used to people and makes them more adoptable.” Some helpers stay for a day or two; others for a month or more. “Last year we had more than 2,000 volunteers come from all over the country,” Morris adds, “and many of them were on vacation.”

Four “nothing fancy” cottages ($60 to $70 per night) offer on-site accommodations for visitors. In downtown Kanab, you can stay at one of several motels/hotels or rent the “Greyhound Gang’s Guesthouse” at the town’s greyhound rescue organization: (435) 644-2903; www.greyhoundgang.com. Children are welcome at Best Friends; several areas have even been set aside with docile and senior animals to accommodate volunteer families with kids. “The only requirement,” says Morris, “is that you have to be a true animal lover.”

Nearby attractions: Las Vegas (a four-hour drive), Zion National Park (30 miles) and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (one hour).

For more information: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, UT 84741; (435) 644-2001; www.bestfriends.org.

Home on the Range

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary
Hot Springs, South Dakota

Oregon rancher Dayton O. Hyde was driving through Nevada in 1987 when he first saw them: hundreds of formerly wild mustangs, languishing in small government feedlots. By 1988, he had raised enough money for a down payment on 11,000 acres in South Dakotaland, he hoped, where the unwanted horses could run free again. (Hyde later won an ASPCA Humane Award.)

Fifteen years later, Hyde's Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is home to more than 400 horses who roam the picturesque canyons and the banks of the Cheyenne River. All of them, from foals to stallions, are dependent on the ìkindness of strangers. We are entirely run by volunteers, explains Susan Watt, the sanctuary's Program Developer. Some people come for a week, and some people stay indefinitely. We train everybody, and try to accommodate their interests.

Duties at Black Hills vary according to the season, but there's always enough work to go around. The special-needs mustangs need to be fed and watered, and sometimes we need help moving the horses from one pasture to another, Watt says. Other tasks include giving tours of the site, working in the gift shop, tending flower beds, and mending fences. For reasons of safety, volunteers must be 21 or older.

The sanctuary offers visiting city-slickers a two-bedroom cabin overlooking the river ($150 per night; book early) and RV hookups.

Nearby attractions: Wind Cave National Park, paleontological digs at Mammoth Site, Springs Bath House and the Prairie Ridge Casino.

For more information: Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, P.O. Box 998, Hot Springs, SD 57747; (800) 252-6652; www.wildmustangs.com.

Northern Exposure

Sea Otters of Alaska Research Trip
Earthwatch Expeditions

One by one, the once-plentiful sea otters are disappearing from Alice Cove in Alaska—and no one knows why. “How are we going to save the otters if we don’t know anything about them?” asks Misty-Anne Marold, program manager for Earth and Marine Sciences at the Earthwatch Institute, based in Maynard, Massachusetts. “We have to learn more about where they go, what they eat and what eats them.”

Professor Randall W. Davis of Texas A&M University has set out to do just that. At Simpson Bay and Sheep Bay, two fjords in eastern Prince William Sound, Earthwatch volunteers help Davis on 10-day trips that are spent following, photographing and cataloging sea otters. As each short-term group comes and goes, the project’s database swells with information about the local otter population.

“Because these are wild animals, we don’t want to handle them any more than we have to,” Marold says. “Making observations and taking photographs out on the boats is a hands-off way of studying these wonderful creatures.” Back on land, volunteers stay in heated house-tents erected next to a log cabin, where the group cooks and eats meals together. Participants must be 16 years of age or older.

Getting to the research center’s remote location is no easy task (from Anchorage, volunteers take a puddle-jumper and then a float-plane to reach the fjords), and the work is intense and focused. Expedition members don’t need experience, but they should be flexible, open-minded and “psyched about the science and the animals.” Meals and housing are included in the $2,245 expedition cost per person.

For more information: Earthwatch Institute, 3 Clock Tower Place, Suite 100, Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754; (800) 776-0188; www.earthwatch.org.

Caribbean Canines

Animal Care Projects, Vieques Island, Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, stray dogs are called sato, and they roam the streets in large, hungry packs. Most come from the United States; when they arrive in this U.S. territory, they are rarely neutered and frequently dumped by their owners, says Debbie Jacobs of Explorations in Travel. After a visit to the island, she was so moved by the plight of these animals that she started a volunteering and visitation program to try to stem the tide of suffering.

“It’s a huge problem,” Jacobs says. “Hundreds of thousands of animals end up scavenging.” The staff of a small shelter on Vieques Island, off the coast of the “big island” of Puerto Rico, takes in as many dogs as they can handle, but the care and veterinary needs of the strays are overwhelming. Explorations in Travel organizes short- and long-term trips for volunteers who want to lend a hand.

Shelter duties include rescuing animals, cleaning kennels, feeding and socializing the dogs, working in a mobile clinic and assisting veterinarians. Most volunteers stay for about a month; some stay longer. “I’ve got one volunteer who just won’t leave,” Jacobs laughs. Volunteers pay their own airfare and a $975 “placement fee,” which includes housing in a nearby rental home.

In addition to the shelter program, Jacobs frequently seeks out people who can help her transport some of the Puerto Rican dogs to Vermont, where they are put up for adoption in a shelter near the travel agency’s offices.

For more information: Explorations in Travel, 2458 River Road, Guilford, VT 05301; (802) 257-0152; www.exploretravel.com.

Taking Time for Turtles

The Caretta Research Project, Wassaw Island, Georgia

For more than 28 years, the scientists and volunteers of the Caretta Research Project have been dedicated to reversing the fate of Caretta caretta, a threatened sub-species of the loggerhead sea turtle, which lives and breeds on remote Wassaw Island off the coast of Georgia. Three decades of research and protection have paid off. “We have seen a slight increase in the numbers of nests and individual turtles,” says Kris Carroll, program director. “But if we weren’t there, there would probably be no hatchlings at all.”

Volunteers pay $525 for one week on the island, where they assist researchers by patrolling the beach at night in search of nesting females, collecting data, propping screens over nests to protect the eggs from predators, tagging turtles, and escorting hatchlings to the water.

During their stay, team members live in rustic cabins within the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge; food is included. “We don’t sugarcoat it,” Carroll says. “We like people to know what they’re getting into. There’s no electricity, no air conditioning, and no privacy.” Still, the team must be doing something right—more than half of the participants are repeat visitors.

Ideal project members are 16 years or older, upbeat, and get along well with others. Carroll adds: “Most of our volunteers seem happy just knowing that they’re doing something to help.”

For more information: Caretta Research Project, P.O. Box 9841, Savannah, GA 31412; (912) 447-8655; WassawCRP@aol.com.

Monkey Business

International Center for Gibbon Studies
Santa Clarita, California

For animal lovers who want an up-close-and-personal experience with wild and rare primates, the International Center for Gibbon Studies delivers. In return, volunteers are expected to work hard on behalf of the nearly 40 gibbons who live at the center.

“These animals are extremely endangered,” explains Patricia Dahle, volunteer coordinator. “There are six or seven species in Asia, and they’re all in trouble.” Dahle and her colleagues breed gibbons and provide them with a secure, stimulating environment while conducting nonintrusive, observational research. In time, she hopes, when problems such as deforestation and poaching have been addressed, the center will be able to return the primates to their natural habitat.

Volunteer tasks include activities such as providing fresh food and water, cleaning the enclosures, helping with research and behavioral observations, medicating the animals when necessary, and tackling light ground maintenance and office work. No special skills are required, but you must be at least 18 to join the effort. “Most people come because they want to learn about the animals and to be close to them.” Dahle says. “We are absolutely dependent on the volunteers.”

The center requires a one-month minimum stay. There is no fee to participate, but volunteers must pay their own transportation and food costs. Housing in travel-trailers is provided on-site. Summers fill up quickly, so you’ll need to plan in advance if you’d like to visit during July or August. Although the center itself is isolated (even TV signals can’t penetrate the canyon walls surrounding its Saugus, California, location), it’s only nine miles away from Magic Mountain Amusement Park, a shopping mall and several movie theaters.

For more information: International Center for Gibbon Studies, P.O. Box 800249, Santa Clarita, CA 91380; (661) 943-4915; www.gibboncenter.org.

All the Right Moooves

Farm Sanctuary: Watkins Glen, New York, and Orland, California

Since 1986, the volunteers and staff at Farm Sanctuary have protested the treatment of animals at factory farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses. They also provide a safe haven for thousands of pigs, goats, cows, pigs, chickens and other creatures who have suffered abuse or neglect in the food animal industry.

The sanctuary’s two locations—a 175-acre farm in upstate New York and a 300-acre facility in northern California—depend heavily on volunteers for daily operations. “We clean out all the barns every day, so that’s a big part of the job,” explains Michelle Waffner, education coordinator for Farm Sanctuary’s New York site. Volunteers also tackle office work, groundskeeping chores and what might be the sanctuary’s most pleasant duty: affectionate socialization of the site’s more than 1,000 animals.

“Most people have never spent much time around cows and pigs, so the volunteers really seem to enjoy the interaction,” Waffner says. “Visitors who are vegetarian or vegan also appreciate the opportunity to be around other people who are, too; I overhear people swapping recipes and becoming friends.”

Overnight visitors at the New York sanctuary can rent one of the three cabins: the $75 per night fee (for two) includes a vegetarian breakfast. At the California site, a nearby campground offers the closest overnight accommodation. Both sanctuaries include a visitors’ center and a gift shop, and the Watkins Glen site is close to several wineries within Glen State Park.

For more information: Farm Sanctuary (East), P.O. Box 150, Watkins Glen, NY 14891; (607) 583-4512. Farm Sanctuary (West), P.O. Box 1065, Orland, CA 95963; (530) 865-4617. The website address for both is www.farmsanctuary.org.

Hawaiian Odyssey

Humpback Whales Service Trip
Sierra Club Outings, Maui

Thinking big? One of the Sierra Club’s most popular service trips gives volunteers the chance to aid conservation efforts for the planet’s largest animal in one of the planet’s most beautiful locales. No doubt about it: The primary focus of this once-in-a-lifetime trip is to help the whales. But you can consider the warm breezes, tropical nights and sandy beaches to be just rewards for your efforts.

Following the whales’ Pacific migration patterns, the Sierra Club plans three January research trips each year. Teams of volunteers perch on a Hawaiian hillside and help each other in a group effort: some don binoculars to spot the whales, others plot the animals’ coordinates, and a third group records the path and movements of the whales as they travel. “We follow one pod for a few hours, and also keep track of boat activity in the area,” says Mary Jane McKown, trip leader. This allows the Sierra Club to monitor the effects of tourism on local whale populations. “This research was instrumental in getting jet skis out of areas where the whales give birth,” McKown states.

During the first half of the trip, participants stay in oceanfront condos in Hana, where down-time activities include snorkeling, exploring coastal trails and shopping in the nearby village. Midweek, the group moves to Kihei; here the condos face an ancient fishpond and border a national marine sanctuary. Such accommodations don’t come cheap: Each volunteer pays a trip cost of $1,395, not including airfare. But while you’re clutching your binoculars beneath the palm trees and listening to whales sing ancient melodies in the waters below, you’ll probably forget the price tag for this trip to paradise—and start making plans to save up for another.

For more information: Sierra Club Outings, 85 Second Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105; (415) 977-5522; www.sierraclub.org/outings/national.

Trisha Blanchet is a freelance writer and editor living in Monroe, Connecticut.



There and Back Again

Between jobs and looking for an escape, Maryland resident Lynn Westberg hopped a plane in the spring of 2000 to visit her mother-in-law in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Upon her arrival, the avowed horse-lover was happy to learn about the nearby Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary; before long, her short visit became a month-long stint of volunteer work.

“I started out by feeding the horses, working in the gift shop and doing some maintenance,” Westberg recalls. “Then I got involved in foalings—which was incredible. I’m telling you, working at the sanctuary was the best thing I ever did.”

Westberg returned home with “renewed inner peace”—and with one of the foals. (Sales of the young animals help keep the sanctuary self-sufficient). At home in Maryland, she invites underprivileged children and other groups to ride and enjoy her horse. “I’d like to expose more people to the value of having animals like horses in their lives,” she says. “There are kids who can’t afford animals of their own who like to come for visits, and I’ve worked with some scout groups to help them get a badge in animal care.”

Like Westberg, many vacationing volunteers return home with a desire to do more in their own communities, says Jean Morris of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. “Four times a year, we run workshops to teach people how to start their own animal sanctuary,” she says. “My goal is to have people come here and see a no-kill shelter, then go home and tell their friends and family about it and spread the idea around.”

Although volunteering on behalf of animals can be fulfilling, Morris and others caution against signing up for any trip before knowing all the details and taking an honest assessment of your own abilities and desires. “You shouldn’t expect luxury,” she warns. “We want the kind of person who doesn’t mind getting dirty. You’ll get lots of doggy kisses and be covered in cat hair by the time you leave. You have to really want to be here and want to work.”

On research-oriented vacations, volunteers need an even more highly developed focus, says Misty-Anne Marold of the Earthwatch Institute. “If you want to hang out on a beach and enjoy the sunshine, research trips are not for you,” she says. “Our best volunteers are people who are engaged by learning and willing to roll with the punches, like the systems analyst who always had a secret wish to be a wildlife biologist. Before you sign up for anything, be clear on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing.”

Adds Lynn Westberg: “It’s definitely a different kind of vacation, and it might not be great for kids who get bored easily. But if you’re looking to go somewhere that’s not commercialized, and you want to make a difference somehow, this is the way to go. I don’t think anyone could volunteer at one of these places and not experience a change in themselves.”—T.B.


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