Nearly everyone is partial to a cute, fluffy animal, whether your home is populated by a menagerie of pets or you just enjoy watching cat videos on YouTube. Choosing a career in animal care, whether zookeeper or vet, is a massive and daunting prospect that few of us undertake. After all, seeing any animal at its worst is a difficult experience, let alone going through that every day. But, if to your regret you missed out on a career in animal care or simply want a unique and poignant life experience, then volunteering at a rescue and rehabilitation centre is right up your street.
You don’t need a degree to contribute to the good work these centres do, ensuring the welfare and healing of any type of living creature. I’ve worked with elephants in Thailand and sloths in Colombia, and both experiences have been unforgettable and showed me that I’m more capable than I thought I was. If long distance travelling isn’t your thing, then something closer to home would be just as incredible. Animals have a way of affecting the people who help them; the elephants were majestic and spirited after lives of misery and suffering; the sloths were adorable, vulnerable and laid back with their lives. The illegal pet trade in South America threatens them more and more each day, and beyond their cute exterior is an extremely sensitive and delicate animal that’s wholly unsuited to being a pet. The babies I helped look after are motherless, as so many bought and sold are, and the rescue centre near Medellin in Colombia is carefully guiding them towards adulthood and eventually back to the wild where they belong.
It’s a wonderful type of holiday, sometimes heart-breaking but always rewarding. You get to experience a country on a personal level, living and working there, with weekends free for touristy things. The sloth sanctuary’s website is www.aiunau.org by the way; it may be in Spanish, but even a Google translation will shed a stark light on their good fight. It’s a stressful, difficult and often dangerous career path, if ‘career’ is the right word for what these incredible people do. Tinka Plese owns the centre and has spent 20 years trying to change the attitude towards animal welfare and rehabilitation in Colombia. She’s faced illegal traffickers, police raids, severely injured sloths, armadillos and anteaters, as well as threats to her life. As a volunteer, life isn’t quite so hazardous; it takes more than a month to make those kind of enemies, but learning about her experiences has been a humbling eye opener. This is what happens when the best of humanity fights against the worst, and I’ve helped in a small way.
So, whether it’s an adventure to an obscure part of the world to look after an exotic species or volunteering at your local vets, time spent contributing to animal care is a fulfilling and worthwhile way to enrich your life, escape from everyday stresses, and make a significant change to how you see the world