You’ve got the heart, you’ve bought your plane ticket, and you’ve found the animal shelter.
But being the do-gooder you are, you want to spend time leading up to your international volunteer escapade preparing for your experience. We’ll help you navigate these exciting waters by harnessing our one-the-ground experience.
So, get ready to put all “paws” on deck and settle in for this read on volunteering with animals abroad.
If you’re an animal lover with a mission to get volunteering ASAP, we feel ya. Here’s a summary of our tips for volunteering with animals abroad.
|#1||Arrive without expectations|
|#2||Educate yourself on cultural norms|
|#3||Be prepared to learn|
|#4||Wear sneakers, pants, and clothes you don't mind getting dirty|
|#5||Pack what you can carry in your pockets or a small backpack|
|#6||Let the shelter know the type of work you're comfortable performing|
|#7||Figure out how you'll communicate before arriving (if you don't speak the local language)|
|#8||Have a flexible mindset with last minute changes and volunteer activities|
|#9||Ask about the shelter's history, the animals' stories, etc.|
|#10||Follow through with when and what you say you'll do|
|#11||Explore ways to help the shelter from afar before you leave|
The animal shelter you volunteer at won’t be like your neighborhood humane society. It might have better amenities and resources. Alternatively, it might not be up to the standards that you’re used to.
For example, you might have an elaborate selection of buckets, brooms, and cleaning supplies to help you tidy up. Or, the shelter might give you a rusting garden shovel to sift through cat litter, comb for droppings through the yard, and dig a hole to bury it all.
Whereas some international volunteer agencies cherrypick relatively well-off animal shelters, Leaving Pawprints takes pride in connecting travelers with shelters from all economic backgrounds. Many of the animal shelters we work with are privately funded by good-willed community members, receiving zero help from the government.
Taking the time to learn about a country’s culture and customs will help you and the shelter work more effectively together.
Is it customary for people to run late in the country you’re volunteering in? If so, don’t take it personally if they’re tardy to greet you at the door. Alternatively, if you’re from a country where being late is the norm, the shelter might see it as disrespectful if you arrive after the scheduled time.
Or, perhaps it’s socially appropriate to have a long conversation about your families, backgrounds, and life goals upon meeting. If so, set your workaholic tendencies to the side and enjoy the moment.
Regardless of the scenario, volunteering with a culture-first approach promotes empathy and creates a richer animal shelter experience.
Choosing to volunteer with animals abroad involves being a listener and a learner.
So, unless you and the animal shelter pre-arrange for you to offer them donations or other means of support to directly help them improve their operations, your job as a volunteer is to serve their needs, not critique them.
In most cases, not enough funding is what prevents an animal shelter from transitioning from good to great.
Therefore, instead of zeroing in on areas of improvement, direct your attention to efforts that the animal shelter is already making. Try asking the staff questions about why they got involved, the history of the shelter, and the background of the animals there.
What they’ll likely tell you are all-too-common stories of animals that the shelter found abused, poisoned, and starving in the street. Suddenly, the overcrowded conditions that you may encounter might not seem as bad—at least the animals have food, medicine, and a roof over their heads. And, given that the staff chose to sacrifice space for taking in new arrivals, the result is fewer animals suffering in the street.
By listening instead of judging, you may also learn about another common theme, regardless of the amount of funding a shelter receives—that the staff is proud of their work, but that there’s so much more they could do, if only they had the resources.
You’re volunteering with animals, not going to a ball. So, dress the part by wearing the following clothing:
Whatever you wear, make sure you don’t mind it getting strewed with mud, fur, cleaning products, slobber, and, yes, good ole’ poop.
Furthermore, consider the climate. It’s best to assume that you’ll be spending time outside, so lather on that sunscreen or bring that rain jacket.
Regarding rain gear, rain jackets are best to use at the shelters. Umbrellas aren’t ideal because they’ll tie up your hands, and ponchos might scare the animals you work with, especially if they have a history of abuse.
You don’t need to bring the kitchen sink when volunteering with animals abroad (unless, of course, it’s a donation—more on that shortly).
Your keys, some money, and water are the essentials. If you sense that you’ll be at the shelter long enough to want a pick-me-up snack, pack that as well.
To make you and the shelter more comfortable until you build a relationship with each other, stick your valuables in your pocket or keep them in a lightweight backpack that you can wear for the duration of your volunteer gig.
Bringing your own water is especially important, particularly if you’re volunteering in a country where it isn’t safe to drink its tap water.
Also, keep in mind that some animal shelters are within walking distance to shops where you can purchase snacks and drinks. Others are a car or bus ride away. So, for your first visit to the shelter, it’s best to assume that you won’t have easy access to a store.
Do large dogs scare you? What kind of time commitment can you make? Are you all about getting your hands dirty or is dropping off a donation and cuddling with kittens more your style?
The good news is that there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to volunteering with animals abroad; the animal shelters have an array of needs and the two of you can work together to find the best fit for both of you.
If you’re just starting your research on helping animals internationally, make sure to check out our volunteer page where we list the specific needs of each shelter that we’ve partnered with.
Once you make contact, keep in mind that laying the groundwork for what you’re willing and able to do is just as important as letting the shelter know if you’re uncomfortable performing a task.
Since you’ll be volunteering with animals abroad, language barriers are another factor to consider. On our volunteer page, we indicate if the shelter has an English-speaking staff member, assuming that English isn’t the country’s native language.
In preparation for your arrival at the shelter, it’s helpful to download the Google Translate app. You can even use this app offline if you don’t have data.
Simply talk into your phone, and the app will automatically write and speak the translation for the animal shelter staff member that you’re communicating with.
If you’ll be volunteering in a Spanish-speaking country and would like support communicating with your animal shelter before you arrive, contact us and we’re happy to help. Like everything we do at Leaving Pawprints, this service is free of charge.
Every animal shelter works differently. So, a shelter might work with you to arrange a detailed plan about how you’ll help before you arrive. Alternatively, they might take a wing-it approach, assigning you tasks at the moment based on the support they need.
But even if you and the shelter have everything planned out before you arrive, it’s best to keep a flexible mindset.
The arrival of an abused animal could mean that your volunteer coordinator has to support with emergency surgery. Or, a surprise donation could cause them to suddenly need help expanding an outdoor play area.
Per tip #6, you can always decline a volunteer request that you’re uncomfortable with. However, when your abilities allow, the shelters appreciate volunteers who are flexible to tackle unexpected tasks.
The saying, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question” couldn’t ring more true for travelers wanting to volunteer with animals abroad.
Unknowns are a given when taking on a new volunteer endeavor—but especially when you’re doing it in another country and in a language that isn’t yours.
At Leaving Pawprints, we do our best to cover common questions in our animal shelter profiles. But naturally, you’re conjuring up a set of your own questions, and the animal shelters will be happy to help you with them.
Remember, if you don’t speak the local language, using a free translation service like Google Translate is an excellent option. But since those translation apps sometimes come up with awkward phrases, we’re happy to help out with Spanish to English translations.
Some international animal shelters have access to many volunteers and a steady stream of monetary support. But in other cases, you might be the first volunteer that your shelter has received in weeks.
Regardless, showing up when you say you will is a sign of respect.
Furthermore, if you promise a donation, follow through. You never know if the shelter made adjustments to their purchases in anticipation of what you verbally offered, relying on it to get them through the next day, week, or month.
Keeping promises can also involve uncertainty, if done right. It’s okay to let the shelter know that you’re unsure whether you’ll be available at a specific time or to complete a task they request.
The bottom line? It’s better to leave something open-ended, assuming that it works okay for the shelter, than to say “yes” when you sense there’s a chance that it could turn into an “I’m sorry.”
Keep in mind that volunteering with animals abroad in areas where there are few international visitors means that your actions may impact the shelter’s perception of your country—and even foreigners as a whole. So, making promises you can keep is one of the many ways to showcase your country and international tourism in a positive light.
Of course, extenuating circumstances happen. So, if you end up needing to break your promise to the shelter, offer them prompt and sympathetic communication as soon as your plans change.
When your volunteering abroad journey nears its end, it doesn’t mean that your help has to. There are many options for supporting animal shelters from afar. Examples include:
Furthermore, you can be a voice for the shelter on your own social media pages and in your community by talking about your experience and how people can get involved.
You never know—you might inspire someone to follow in your “paw”steps or find a donor to help your shelter realize its dream project.
There are two resources an animal shelter can’t function without, regardless of its location in the world—labor and money.
Since you’ll be volunteering with animals abroad, you’ve got the labor part covered. However, sooner or later a conversation will likely happen when a staff member mentions the shelter’s need for donations.
In fact, some animal shelters require a donation in order to volunteer. Sometimes it’s a fixed amount; other times it’s on a donate-what-you-can-afford policy. This policy isn’t meant to deter volunteers but to support the shelter in meeting its two most essential needs.
If you volunteer at any of the animal shelters that Leaving Pawprints works with, you don’t have to juggle the unknown—we mention on the shelter’s page if they have a donate-to-volunteer policy.
If they don’t have this policy, you’re under no obligation to donate. However, even if you can only afford a small bag of cat food, arriving at the shelter with some sort of donation is a thoughtful gesture and much appreciated.
Should you be interested in donating, you can view our animal shelter profiles. We’ve communicated with all of the shelters on our website, so the donation requests are directly from them.
Whether your plan is to volunteer your time, money, or both, animal shelters across the globe need your help. Should you have doubts about the impact you can make, let us help you give them the boot for good with this African proverb:
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.”
Leaving Pawprints connects travelers with animal shelters across the globe for free. We lay the foundation by communicating with the shelters to find out what support they need. If you want to start your journey volunteering with animals abroad, check out the animal shelters we’ve partnered with to find out how you can help.
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