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How To Travel and Volunteer Responsibly: Advice From An Expert

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Conservationists, get excited! I’m about to introduce you to one of most important people you need to know if you want to travel and volunteer abroad responsibly.

Nora Livingstone of Animal Experience International (AEI) is in the house. Woot, woot!

Nora is an all-around incredible human being who is busting her butt to save our planet (and all of the animals on it). And guess what? She’s joining Wild Life as our Responsible Travel Expert! <Happy dance> Nora will be our go-to woman for all things travel and volunteer abroad related. If you’re considering a visit to a conservation or animal welfare organization, we encourage you to get in touch with us first (pretty please, for the sake of all things wild).

Why? Because by visiting unethical (but seemingly reputable!) organizations, well-meaning conservationists are actually doing more harm than good. For example, you think you’re visiting a beautiful elephant sanctuary in Thailand, but when you get there you realize you’re actually paying to keep elephants in conditions you don’t even believe should be legal.

But how on earth can we tell which organizations are trustworthy, and which should be avoided? Well-marketed websites and fancy advertising can fool even the most knowledgable conservationist.

That’s where Nora comes in. 

Let’s get to know her and her organization a bit more and hear what she has to say, shall we?!

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Could you first tell us a bit about AEI, and what your role is within it?

The AEI mission is to provide clients from all different backgrounds safe animal volunteer experiences that:

• Are locally supported and run
• Provide fair wages
• Conduct educational programs and
• Have high standards for conservation and animal welfare

I am a founder which means my role is forever changing! Right now I do all of the volunteer coordination, site visits and social media! Basically, I talk to the best people on the planet: the people who want to volunteer, the people who are looking for volunteers, and the people volunteering!

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What inspired you to start AEI?

I had travelled and volunteered through a number of different countries and two things struck me: the great placements didn’t have enough great volunteers and the great volunteers weren’t necessarily finding the great placements.

It was important to find a way for people to find placements that were ethical, safe and who needed real help.

But, if I am totally honest, AEI wasn’t really my idea – it was my business partner’s idea. I honestly would have never had the confidence or the ability to do this by myself. It was her confidence in the idea and in me, paired up with my confidence in her, that really made the whole thing work.

I deeply wanted to help people travel safely and ethically, and I wanted to help these amazing groups that were doing incredible things for conservation and had high standards for animal welfare. However, it was Heather who helped me (and continues to help me) believe that I can do that (with massive support from her and our whole team).

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What do you think are the biggest issues in conservation right now?

Entitlement.

Humans can be awesome, but we can also be entitled for no good reason. Entitled over land, entitled over land use, entitled over other humans, entitled over animals.

Just because we can have an animal in a zoo – do we need it? Just because we can have steak every night – do we need it? Just because we can build houses on endangered wetlands – do we need to?

If we changed the narrative, if we concentrated on being grateful for these elaborate and perfect gifts that the Earth provides, I think we wouldn’t have any other choice but to join the fight to conserve them. Not for the sake of us seeing them in our lifetime, or for our children, but because these animals, plants, organisms and ecosystems have just as much right to be here as we do.

I think we would be more willing to fight to protect these if we saw them as gifts we were grateful for rather than just resources we were entitled to.

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There are so many organizations to visit abroad. How can we tell which ones are reputable (or can we)?

Everything looks glamorous and glitzy on the internet, so it can be tricky.

One of the things I have learned from doing so many site visits is that conservation tourism sits deep in a vast area of grey. There are many, many people who are trying as hard as they can, but they get overwhelmed with the amount of animals and the lack of funds out there for animal and conservation groups.

It’s really important not to judge people or groups just because they are doing things different from what we would do. This isn’t a hall pass or an excuse for bad behavior; we do just have to realize that the world is not perfect and everyone is multifaceted and generally don’t do “bad” things because they want to. Sometimes people do things that hurt animals or each other because they feel like they have no other option.

The first thing we have to stop doing is thinking that volunteering should be free. It should not be. We need to stop judging things based on price. We as volunteers cost placements money. Conservation costs money: there are materials, electricity, food for volunteers, food for animals, the list goes on.

Ethical placements are generally going to cost more money because they will be paying their partners, employees and scientists an ethical wage. When volunteers come to volunteer at a placement, someone is going to have to pay for their materials, we need to think about who we feel comfortable letting pay for our materials, food, etc.

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It’s also important to ask about funding.

Where are they getting their funds? Is it primarily through tourism, do they apply for grants, do they do international or local fundraising, do they charge admission and give tours? Are the animals used for entertainment?

Ethical groups won’t beat around the bush or give you half truths, they will be transparent and honest.

Another thing to think about is the long term goals of the program.

Groups should be willing to talk openly about specifics. Are the wild animals in rehabilitation going to be released back into the wild? If not, why not? Can you see their release rates?

You don’t want to visit a center that is keeping healthy animals in faux sanctuary as a source of income.

The same can be said while working in a domestic program. If the group is keeping all the animals they bring in and not adopting any out, how can animal welfare standards be addressed?

All of this can be time intensive, for you and the group. Many groups have very limited staff members (if any staff at all) and by making sure they are ethical, you could be draining your resources.

This is why (shameless plug) we do all this work for our clients. We ask all these questions and take care of the site visits to better engage the volunteers but also to take this work off the plate of the placement partners. We answer all the questions the clients have and do the logistics so the placement partners can do what they are meant to do: save animals!

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What accomplishment(s) do you feel most proud of thus far?

To be named the Best For the World for 2 years in a row has made me incredibly proud. We have been honored by landing in the top 10% of all B Corps in the world!

(B Corps are companies certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.)

They have quantified our benefit to the communities we serve and the planet and with the help of our volunteers and our placement partners, AEI is able to make a tremendous beneficial impact.

We just had our 385th volunteer come back from an experience, and I have to say, I feel as excited and proud about that as when we had our first volunteer come back.

When I get emails from people that say this was the best experience of their life or their lives have changed, I can barely hold back tears. It makes me so proud of our team. I have read the most encouraging emails from our placement partners, too!

Groups have invested in their centers: they have released more animals, adopted more animals, or planted more trees than ever before; they tell us they have been able to do these things because of our support and our volunteers. That makes me beam because there is nothing better than being part of real positive and beneficial change.

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This is sometimes a difficult field to work in, both emotionally and physically. What keeps you moving forward?

Working with animals, human and non-human, can be heartbreaking. We aren’t wanting for examples of that around the world. I think the most important bit is not to get stuck in the heartbreak.

It’s important to feel the emotions. Grief, anger, shock and sadness are all natural and without it, maybe we wouldn’t be motivated to help in the ways we do. However, that isn’t where our feelings should stop. We should always look for hope.

I travel around the world and visit centers that are there because of horrific things happening to animals. That’s heavy. But, it exists to help. There are people who see the injustice and have felt as angry and as sad as us and know that there is a better way, there is hope, there is a solution.

That is what helps propel me forward: knowing I am not alone in my grief, and I am not alone in my hope. We are all in this together and these groups show me that we can and will change the world when we work together!

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Just for fun! Can you share with us one of your most memorable experiences volunteering?

There have been so many!

When I was 29, I met a leatherback sea turtle who was also about 29; and she was 1,000 lbs!

I lived in a yurt in Mongolia and spent time with the last wild horses on the planet.

I feel deeply in love with a toucan in Guatemala and on my last day he gave me a kiss on my cheek (I think I had a bit of banana in my hair and he was looking for it).

I went to Croatia with one of my best friends and saw dolphins for the first time, and then we stayed in a lighthouse.

I did hydrotherapy with a small abused dog in Spain who we didn’t think would make it, and now I am friends with his forever home and get to see him take up the whole bed and have doggie pancakes on weekends.

Volunteering has brought me to places I never thought I could go, allowed me to see animals I never knew existed and, developed friendships with people I would have never known. My life has been forever changed because of my volunteering experiences and it is my absolute honor, pleasure and responsibility to help others change their lives through volunteering.

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You are one amazing woman! Where are you off to next!?

I am very excited to be leading a trip to The Great Rift Valley in Kenya! We will be taking part in community conservation and working with Kenyan scientists who are taking part in the conservation of the Rothschild’s giraffe.

This is incredibly exciting because this all female group includes my mum! We will be living in Kenya for 10 days, taking part in the behavioral monitoring of the giraffes, and working on building watering holes and being stewards of the conservancy. Sharing this experience with some strong and independent women is nothing short of incredible, and being able to make life long memories with my mum? I couldn’t feel any more blessed!

Wowza! I know there are a lot of conservation-minded folks who will want to reach out to you. Where can someone go to learn more about your organization or get in touch with you for information about volunteering abroad?

Our website: www.animalexperienceinternational.com

If you’re feeling social:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/animalexperienceinternational/
Instagram: www.instagram.com/animalinternational/
Twitter: twitter.com/animal_intl

Or you can just e-mail me directly! nora@animalei.com

Thank you, Nora! You are an inspiration to all of us and we can’t wait to hear more from you!

We’ll end with this standard Nora squirrel pose on Vancouver Island:

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