Animal lover seeking an adventure with purpose? You may want to consider a volunteer vacation. Volunteer holidays are life-altering experiences where travelers have unique opportunities to get their hands dirty and make a direct, ethical impact on animals, both domestic and wild, around the world.
Not only can you help locals with rescue and conservation efforts, but you’ll also gain experience that could potentially help advance your career; these adventures look fantastic on your resume, especially if you may one day want to pursue work in the realm of animal welfare or conservation.
While volunteer experiences aren’t free — it would be impossible to run these programs without funding — it’s more than worth the cost to participate. Generally, travelers pay a fee to cover the cost of meals, room and board, transportation while on the projects, and the time it takes to train you during your visit. With reputable companies, the fee also provides a donation to the organization to help keep the programs afloat.
Not sure what’s out there? Here are 10 of our favorite volunteer holidays around the globe:
Bathe elephants in Thailand
Where: Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Length: 1-7 days
Cost: $63+ USD/day
Perhaps one of the most magical places in existence, Elephant Nature Park is an insanely beautiful rescue center and sanctuary for elephants that have been saved from the logging and entertainment industries. As a volunteer, you’ll prepare food and supplements, feed and bathe the elephants, learn about elephant conservation, enjoy delicious local food, and possibly even partake in a traditional Thai ceremony. The center also rescues dogs, cats, and a variety of other animals that you can interact with while on the property.
Track wild dogs in South Africa
Where: Wildlife ACT in Zululand, South Africa.
Length: 2+ weeks
Cost: $1,420+ USD/trip
You can’t make a trip to Africa without seeing wildlife, can you? This program takes it one step further, making it possible to be directly involved in the conservation of the iconic animals we marvel at on nature documentaries. Volunteers help monitor species including the cheetah, rhino, lion, elephant, leopard, and African wild dog across 5 project sites on various reserves in South Africa. Daily tasks include tracking animals, collecting data on behavior, setting camera traps, and more. The program, led by non-profit Wildlife ACT, is supported by the World Wildlife Fund and was runner up for “Best for Wildlife Conservation” at the World Responsible Tourism awards in 2018.
Watch baby sea turtles hatch in Costa Rica
Where: SEE Turtles, Northern Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica
Length: 5 days
Cost: $1,495 USD/trip
Who doesn’t love sea turtles? Endangered leatherback sea turtles nest on Costa Rica’s Caribbean beaches from March to July every year, and you can help save them from extinction. SEE Turtles volunteers assist researchers with nightly beach patrols, turtle nest surveys, turtle data collection, and egg and hatchling relocation. Accommodations at the coastal research station are rustic — you won’t be taking leisurely hot showers or browsing the internet — but then again, that’s not the point!
Save the seas in Seychelles
Where: Wildlife ACT, North Island, Seychelles
Length: 4+ weeks
Cost: $2,800+ USD/trip
An island getaway with a purpose? Yes, please! Volunteer in one of the most breathtaking tropical locales on the planet, North Island in the Seychelles, and make a huge impact on our planet’s oceans while you’re there. Volunteers are involved with a variety of activities both on land and in the big blue, including sea turtle monitoring and nest relocation, snorkel surveys, invasive vegetation control, and more. After your volunteer shift is over, you’re welcome to paddle-board, kayak, and snorkel along the coast. Sign me up.
Play with homeless pets in Utah
Where: Best Friends Animal Society, Utah, US
Length: 1+ days
Cost: Cottages on the 3,000 acre property run $60-$70 per night
If you’re an animal person traveling through the US, you’ll definitely want to make it a point to visit Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest sanctuary for neglected animals. It’s nestled between some of the most iconic national parks in the country — Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion — so it’s a perfect spot to stop for a few days while you’re road tripping. Travelers come from all corners of the world to volunteer with some of the 1,600 sanctuary animals and contribute to everything from walking dogs and socializing kittens to cleaning rabbit enclosures.
Help with dolphin research in Croatia
Where: Blue World Institute, Lošinj, Croatia
Length: 12 days
Cost: $1,100-$1,295 USD/trip
Do sun-filled days on the big blue strike your fancy? Volunteer on the longest ongoing study of bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea and do your part to protect some of the planet’s most loved marine mammals. Volunteers spend the majority of their time aboard a research vessel in the Mediterranean collecting valuable data that contributes to dolphin conservation. Research varies day to day but may include photo-identification, acoustic monitoring, and toxicological analysis. You’ll also help with outreach and educational efforts. Does it get any better?
Don’t have time for an extended stay but still want to contribute to something big?
Here are a few fun and flexible alternatives:
Hike with rescue dogs in the mountains of Costa Rica
Where: Territorio de Zaguates, Heredia, Costa Rica.
Territorio de Zaguates, or Land of the Strays, is an extraordinary dog shelter tucked in the mountains of Costa Rica, just an hour from San José. Home to over 1300 adoptable dogs, the famous shelter hosts giant pack walks that are free, open to the public, and perfect for the dog-loving traveler in need of some puppy love. While the shelter is currently closed and undergoing renovations in 2019, we recommend that you start planning your 2020 visit ASAP.
Survey coral reefs (anywhere on the planet)
How: CoralWatch, any tropical location underwater
There aren’t enough scientists to monitor all of the world’s coral reefs; that’s where you come in. Volunteers survey reefs all over the world, wherever they happen to be diving, and report back to CoralWatch by entering data online. To get started, you’ll just need to download the information sheets online and request a coral health chart.
Take pics of manta rays (anywhere on the planet)
How: ProjectManta, any location underwater
Have an underwater camera? You can help marine scientists track and monitor individual manta rays just by photographing their bellies. Manta rays have unique spotting patterns on their underside and researchers can determine behavior and movement patterns just by analyzing your images. To contribute, you can upload your photos to the Project Manta Facebook page or email them directly to the university. They only ask that you provide your name, contact information, date and location of the sighting, and any observations you made while photographing.
Socialize puppies on the beach in Turks and Caicos
Where: Potcake Place, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
Like something out a dream, Potcake Place allows guests to take rescue puppies to the local beach as a way to get them more comfortable with humans. Many of the homeless “potcakes” (mixed breed dogs from the Caribbean) are wary of humans and therefore less likely to be adopted. Short interactions with kind people help them come out of their shell and trust humans for the first time. Time spent with these puppies gives them a better chance at finding a forever home, and you get to take an adorable puppy with you to the beach with you. Win-win.