Have you ever wondered what it would be like to drop everything and take off a year to help endangered wildlife? After the loss of two close relatives in the same year, Jane Stanfield — a Colorado resident in her 40s — chose to live life to fullest while she still could.
Animal lovers dream of what Jane accomplished on her year-long volunteer journey around the globe: caring for baboon babies and rescued penguins in South Africa, tending to koalas in Australia, aiding at a hospital in Africa for lions while also caring for other injured wildlife. Jane also dedicated time tutoring orphans in Peru, excavating history at an archaeological dig in Thailand, and teaching English in Spain.
Here, she shares her experiences and advice about seeing the world with fresh eyes through volunteering.
Nature Traveler (NT): How did you go about locating volunteer opportunities?
Jane Stanfield (JS): I read an article titled “Virtuous Vacations” and found a class at Colorado Free University – Volunteer Vacations – Traveling on Purpose. At the class, I collected all the brochures and went on to read all the books in the bibliography. I also read every magazine I could on travel, including volunteer travel, such as Transitions Abroad, and followed that up with web searches.
I chose C.A.R.E. to work with baboons; i-to-i to assist in lion conservation in Africa and wallaby care in Australia; SANCCOB to rehabilitate penguins in South Africa; Earthwatch to work with koalas, echidnas, and goannas in Australia. I filled the time in between with breaks and other volunteer opportunities.
NT: Do you have a favorite organization?
JS: The baboons were at the top of my list to see and they did not disappoint. However, I am glad I did each project because each one gave me something new. With Earthwatch, I liked helping with scientific research and having access to top scientists in the field. i-to-i allowed hands-on experience with animal rehabilitation thanks to smaller volunteer groups. SANCCOB required six weeks of volunteering with penguins, so I had a chance to do the kind of work that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do unless I had an advanced degree.
NT: Any experience that will stay with you forever?
JS: While I was in South Africa, working with C.A.R.E. with the baboons, I was also looking after other primates that were kept in enclosures for eventual release. One of them was Charlie, a large male Samango (or Diana) monkey. I had to go by his pen every day and we struck up an acquaintance. I would say hi and he would give me a lovely hoot that he made by expanding the vocal sack in his chest.
On my last day, I went by his pen to say goodbye and told him how much I loved him. Never before had he done this but he put his hand between the bars and tried to touch me. I felt we shared a true bond and that made me feel very special.
NT: Any experiences that made you want to come home before finishing your year? How did you overcome this feeling?
JS: In an orphanage in Peru, on Day Seven of my year-long trip, I thought I needed to go home. I kept locking horns with a four-year old, and felt I was not an effective volunteer. I asked my co-volunteers and they pointed out that there was no sense in trying to win with her. I had it in my mind how things should go, and I realized it was the adherence to my agenda that was getting in the way. As soon as I let go of how it had to happen, tensions eased and I learned a valuable lesson about how to be an effective volunteer. So grateful that I woke up to this lesson on Day Seven of my trip and not on Day 363!
NT: What’s the value in taking an extended period of time versus going for a few weeks?
JS: My suggestion is to go even if it is only for a few weeks. A short break can give someone a volunteer experience that can shift their life. Obviously, the longer you go, the more in-depth the experience, especially if you spend several months in one location.
I found that by being away for over two months, I really began to slow down and enjoy the trip. I lost some of the frenetic energy I had from home and could see the beauty and uniqueness offered around the world. I no longer compared where I was with home and just enjoyed it for what it was.
NT: What preparations did you make before embarking on your journey?
JS: Once I knew I was going, I told my siblings and my most encouraging friends. Many of them helped me with storage, tips, and contacts that made my trip possible. I narrowed down my options to book my tickets, determine what to pack, and what shots I needed.
NT: What about visas?
JS: Visas were not needed because I was staying within the standard time for tourists (i.e., 30 days in Thailand, 90 days in South Africa). Usually when you volunteer overseas, you enter as a tourist. If not, your agency should be able to tell you if a specific visa is needed and may even help you with the details. The one visa I did need, however, was for Australia. They are easy to get in advance online ($25) and the tourist visa is for 90 days.
NT: How did you book your around the world (RTW) airline ticket?
JS: The company I recommend is Air Treks via Bootsn’All. They have calculators, so you know what each route will cost, plus options on how to add an additional country or two without a lot more money. If you are only doing a round-trip to one location, check out Fly For Good. They may be able to offer you a great rate for your volunteer trip.
NT: Any recommendations for those who want to travel the world and help animals?
JS: If you are used to working with animals, it is easy to think that you have it all figured out. What you need to remember is you will be working in a totally different culture who may not see animals as you do. You may be startled or appalled at the amount of supplies, or how the local people work with the animal (i.e., Not all animal hospitals around the world have the vast array of medicines or equipment that is standard at home).
Bring all the flexibility and humbleness you can pack and be ready to say every day to the local supervisor, “What can I do for you today that will be of the most help to you?”
When you can say it and mean it, you will really be able to help them. You will also be amazed at the amount of great work that is being done around the world with limited resources.
Are you planning a volunteer trip to help animals? Share in a comment.