Volunteer vacations devoted to animals
Americans give their spare time to help creatures great and small.
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Working in a foreign country has its challenges, says Clifford. When her organization first offered its free spaying and neutering services on the Galápagos Islands, for example, no one came to the clinic for three days. Locals feared that the foreigners were going to harm their animals. (While spay-neuter surgery is a common procedure in the US, elsewhere it can sometimes be a new concept.)Skip to next paragraph
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So Clifford did an impromptu doggy wash in the town square, using a few strays off the street. "The dogs were very confused as to what's going on because they'd never had a bubble bath in their lives," she recalls with a laugh.
It didn't take long for a crowd of curious onlookers to gather. As people watched volunteers happily grooming the bewildered mutts, their mistrust faded.
Today, five years later, Animal Balance has sterilized 96 percent of the islands' cats and dogs. Also, three animal clinics have been established, four Ecuadorian veterinarians have been trained in spay-neuter surgery, and local authorities encourage people to sterilize their pets. (Previously, officials poisoned animals to control the overpopulation problem.)
Even though volunteers donate their time, the trip isn't free. People must pay their own airfare, although Clifford says she does her best to find free or inexpensive accommodations for her unpaid helpers.
"I fully understand that they've put so much energy and made so many sacrifices coming on these projects that I'll do everything I possibly can to make sure they'll have an amazing time," she says.
For American animal enthusiasts who would rather not travel abroad, Utah's Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary is closer to home. As the largest no-kill animal refuge in the country, the sanctuary cares for about 2,000 abused and abandoned animals, ranging from dogs and cats to horses and birds.
Last year more than 6,500 people traveled to the refuge to help in its work, says Kalene Craddock, Best Friends' volunteer manager, who notes that much of the interest in volunteering there stems from National Geographic's television series "DogTown," which is filmed at the sanctuary.
Volunteers can help for a few hours or a few days, and no prior experience is required. "As long as you love animals, you're good to go," Ms. Craddock says.
Most people stay in the nearby town of Kanab, but cottages, cabins, and RV spots are available on sanctuary grounds for a reasonable nightly fee.
Offering volunteer vacations wasn't a formal idea when the sanctuary opened two decades ago. Over time, though, enough people began showing up that a full-time staff member was needed to handle all the interest.
Today, during peak times – March and April, and June through mid-September – about 100 volunteers per day help staff with grooming, feeding, and exercising the animals.
"There's always something within us that wants to give back," Craddock says of the outpouring of support. "And I think this is how people give back."