Animal sanctuaries have existed since the 19th century, and are places where animals which have been abused, neglected, or abandoned are taken to live the rest of their life. This is done to protect them and their lives, and is often due to their habitat being destroyed or because they are not fit enough to thrive on their own. Some sanctuaries also function as shelters, with the option available for visitors to adopt the animals and provide them with a forever home. In some cases, endangered species are looked after and monitored if it is unsafe for this to be done in their natural environment - in this instance, the animals are given the opportunity to behave as naturally as possible in a protective environment.
The caregivers in a sanctuary all work under the notion that both the animals and workers are of equal importance. As a volunteer part of your duties would be to prepare food, clean enclosures, and both exercise and groom the animals. Statistics show that only one in ten dogs will find a permanent home, so it is important that sanctuaries exist to provide alternative care for disregarded animals.
It goes without saying that you need to have a passion for animals and caring for them to volunteer in a sanctuary. Often described as life-changing, these experiences can be extremely rewarding, however it is worth mentioning that you may come into contact with some upsetting or distressing situations. Anyone from the age of 18 can volunteer in a sanctuary abroad, and there are even some places which will accept applications from those 16 and over. Usually, no previous experience or qualifications are necessary however this may be useful if you decide to take your passion further.
Sanctuaries all over the world place heavy importance on understanding that the wellbeing of the animals always comes first - for this reason it is imperative to ensure that the organisation you plan to volunteer for is not exploiting its residents for money. Animals have the potential to give love unconditionally, and can teach you skills you might otherwise not learn. It’s also been proven that spending time with them holds wellness benefits too, such as lowering blood pressure as well as easing stress, anxiety, and depression.
There are animal sanctuaries all over the UK where you can volunteer and make a difference, but if you wish to go further afield and work with larger or endangered animals, there are sanctuaries all over the world.
Namibia hosts a number of sanctuaries offering the opportunity to work with all members of the big five, as well as specialist experiences with big cats or baboons. You can volunteer for any amount of time from two to twelve weeks, and care for a growing number of injured or orphaned animals which are unable to be released back into the wild. It is up to the caregivers at the sanctuary to provide a positive quality of life for these animals, from basic diet preparation to enrichment activities. The option is also available to research cheetahs and leopards in the wild, as well as take part in the release scheme available to the cats lucky enough to be rehabilitated.
Or take a trip to Portugal to work with the endangered Iberian wolf. The sanctuaries have rescued these animals from zoos and from illegal captivity, so they would not be able to survive in the wild and as such there is no release programme. The created habitat is, however, kept as close to their natural environment as possible. The work can be physically demanding, often covering hectares every day maintaining the forest and preparing food for the wolves. It is worth mentioning that keeping the territory natural means human interaction with them is limited, and you are not allowed to touch the animals at all. This won’t make your trip a wasted one, as you’ll be contributing to the conservation of Portugal’s last big carnivores.