Vervet monkeys in quarantine enclosures using their brains to find peanuts and rice in their enrichment games.
When we started AEI we wanted to help people like you make the very best decisions while volunteering with animals. We visit all the programs, we look at release records, humane welfare standards must be high and we show preference to programs that have home stays- so you can live IN the community you are volunteering in. We make sure the footprint you leave is as beneficial as possible- in the community and the environment. This is also the reason we don't have programs that have our volunteers working with kids. But why? Don't kids need help, too?
Did you know certain forms of volunteering can be harmful to the very people you’re trying to help? Did you know that 80% of children living in orphanages are not orphans and that volunteering at or giving to such places may be supporting the exploitation of children?
Working with children in institutions, such as orphanages or schools, is a job for local experts, not for volunteers who are just passing through. Children deserve more than good intentions, they need experienced, skilled and supervised caretakers and teachers who know the local culture and language.
If you would like to support children, speak with a local child protection organization to see how you can help (we have a list of contacts for you). There are many ways you can support children without directly caring for them. Look for opportunities that involve empowering and transferring your skills to local staff to have a long-term positive impacts, such as marketing or communications, website development, graphic design or fundraising (again, we can put you in touch with great organizations that would love for you to help).
We want to make sure we were always making a beneficial difference to the communities. We want to make sure that we do right by you, the community and the youngest and most vulnerable members of the community. For those reasons we decided to become a ChildSafe Supporter. We want to help protect children from abuse and exploitation and help our volunteers better protect children while abroad.
Do you have questions about ChildSafe or about how you can help the community without harming children? Just ask! That's why we are here!
Nora and Heather
“I am having the time of my life but things are different from my expectations - so help me!" I get emails a few times a month that say: I am having the time of my life, I am loving it here, everyone is wonderful, this is an amazing journey... however there is something I don't like. Can you help me?!
The reality of traveling is that there will always be things that you don't like. But does that mean something needs to be fixed? Being outside our comfort zone offers us the unique opportunity to learn about ourselves, to grow and to become more resilient. Even though it is hard, sometimes the best thing to do is to lean into our discomfort and accept the greater life lesson. Humans have never been this connected. We used to share information when we got home from an adventure, not at the end of every day. This meant that we would share the whole climate of a trip, but with technology we are now sharing the temperature of each day. And as AEI’s Volunteer Coordinator, I am often the once receiving these daily updates. That CAN be good. If people aren't having the time of their life. If they are unsafe. If they are sick. If they need a change. However when people think their trip is incredible, once in a life time, perfect.. but still not perfect, this is the time to rethink our mindset. When we travel we need to leave at home our preconceived ideas, our impatience and our need for instant gratification. We need to be open to new experiences and different points of view. We need to put our expectations into the context of a completely different culture and approach the situation with an open heart and open mind.
After helping hundreds of amazing people volunteer all around the world, I have a few observations about having the “perfect experience”. Here is the first one:
When you are in another country, the best people to address and solve your problems are the people around you. Traveling is an opportunity to take ownership of your life, to be your own advocate and to literally create the path you want to go down. As a Volunteer Coordinator I am here to help, but I am literally thousands of kilometres away. Rather than contacting me and asking me to fix a problem, I always suggest that people talk to the local coordinator, vet or local contact, and discuss the perceived problem together. Many times people are surprised that by discussing what is happening and learning why things are the way they are, that their perception shifts. Even if the problem isn’t fixed right away, you might be able to take a more understanding view and learn about the country and the culture in the process. This is an important and powerful shift – instead of people saying that a situation NEEDS to change FOR them, they can say the situation is changed BY them.
My second observation has to do with our perception. What makes us consider something to be a problem? Is there really a problem, or is the problem something that only exists because reality often isn’t equal to our expectations?
When we are preparing for the “adventure of a lifetime” we place a lot of expectations on the experience, imagining what we want to get out of it, and what it will be like to visit that country. We each have our own reasons to travel and volunteer with animals, and we are all hoping to get something specific from our time away. I try to help before you go by answering questions, sharing information with you about the placement and providing a travel guide about the country. However no matter how well you prepare for your trip, it will never be exactly how you imagined. Sometimes it is even better than you could have dreamed, and sometimes it is so different that your head is reeling. And rarely things happen - like getting sick, a world event, or a natural disaster - that no one could have foreseen. It often helps to realise that it's not the experience that isn't perfect - it's that the experience does not match the expectation of the traveler. Placements will never be perfect for everyone, all of the time. But is it for me, as the Volunteer Coordinator, to 'fix reality' (which would mean actually changing a placement so it fits a volunteer’s expectation)? Or is it for the traveler to redefine their idea of the placement, community, culture and country? We shouldn’t demand a change in a community because it doesn't meet our imagined ideas. As visitors to another country it seems more appropriate to approach our experience with an open mind, and try to adapt our ideas to reality.
Which leads me to my third observation: people are underestimating the country they are visiting.
The amazing people who travel and volunteer through AEI want to make a difference. However we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking we have the only skills and solutions needed to change a situation. There is a fine line between wanting to help, and wanting to swoop in with our own answers to be a hero in the community. Our partner organizations have been doing important work in their own countries for years, addressing problems specific to the animals in their area. These local organizations are the ones who best understand the situation, the politics, the laws, the culture, and the reality in their country. Many people tend to romanticize their volunteer experience, painting these countries with massive imaginary brush strokes of a place they think should be poorer- more in need. They do not understand that their view of a country may have been highly biased and base on their education, media consumption and of course political background. They are also not understanding the massive spectrum that these countries host: very wealthy to very poor (just like their own country).
We cannot go in with preconceived ideas on how we will help, and what the country will offer us in return. While hands-on work is invaluable, it is not the only – or even the most important way – that we can make a change. Just showing up makes a difference. This supports the economy of the local community, and validates the importance of the work in the community’s eyes. It helps our placement partners continue to run their programs. It educates our friends and family back home, and makes the world a more informed place. We cannot underestimate the country we are visiting and think that they owe us their stereotypes, owe us our expectations of them. We are ambassadors of our own countries, and we should be careful not to come across as being entitled or self-serving.
I believe that if we can overcome these three misconceptions, traveling can be an uplifting and life-changing experience. You cannot report the temperature every single day and have someone from across the world change it for you. We need to remember to take ownership in our lives and try to solve problems on our own. Travel with an open heart, seek to understand, and do not go on your trip with preconceived ideas of what the volunteer placement “owes” you. Remember that you are there to lend a hand, not to solve problems. And take delight in all the surprises the new country and culture shares with you. If your experience while travelling isn't “perfect”, is it the Volunteer Coordinator’s fault, the country’s fault or your fault? Or is it the essential essence of traveling and experiencing new things.
More importantly, does it even matter if it isn't perfect?
Safety is a top priority at Animal Experience International. Our amazing clients travel to more than 15 countries, helping animals in countless ways, making new friends and immersing themselves in new communities and cultures. We want to empower our clients to try these new experiences, knowing that we have ensured the best safety practices are in place.
We have personally been to all of the Placement Partner locations to inspect, participate, view and judge the transportation, activities, humane animal care, volunteer care and living conditions. We have met the people you will be staying with, working with and adventuring with our placement partners. AEI Experiences are only made official once we are satisfied that they are safe, ethical and responsible placements. AEI has signed agreements with our partners to ensure they will provide assistance in the unlikely event of an emergency or crisis, and will help you find appropriate medical care if needed.
Our volunteer coordinator emails with all of our Placement Partners at least once a week, some of them once a day! This close relationship benefits everyone. We can reach our contacts quickly if needed, we can be advised of any changes to the programs and we can give our partners feedback that we get from our volunteers. Each of our Placement Partners has established international volunteer programs, with excellent safety records. The volunteers go through applications and interviews to participate in the placement, and AEI clients sign agreements to follow rules and procedures outlined by AEI. This helps to ensure a safe and friendly volunteer environment where any acts of violence, harassment or dangerous behaviour (towards people or animals) can result in dismissal from the placement.
As a volunteer, you will be met at the airport by a representative from the organization, and taken directly to your placement. During your stay you will be living either on-site, or in the community in a pre-approved hostel or home-stay. At the end of your trip, you will be returned to the airport for your flight home. This provides a continuous duty of care, and minimizes the risk of you getting into trouble in an unfamiliar country. You are part of the group from the very beginning!
AEI provides you with up to $500,000 in travel health insurance through the International Volunteer Card - insurance specifically for “voluntourists”. The Volunteer Card has the added bonus of a 24 hour emergency support line, manned by people who specialize in travel emergencies who can offer you advice and assistance no matter where you are. You will be provided with a detailed safety procedure manual explaining how to arrange emergency medical evacuation, and payment to a hospital or facility that requests upfront payment.
We also provide you with travel manuals that give practical advice on everything from travel visas, staying safe, health concerns, and what to pack, to how to deal with culture shock - these manuals are guidebooks specifically designed for you and your exact adventure. We believe that the more prepared you are, the safer and more enjoyable your experience will be.
AEI also offers a book, Traveling Without Baggage (written by our volunteer coordinator), about keeping safe while traveling. This book is available for purchase as an e-book or a printed version can be sent to you. We’re sure all authors think their book is important, but we really believe travelers will benefit from this short book – in terms of both physical and mental health.
As you can see, your safety is very important to us at Animal Experience International and to our Placement Partners. Despite all the safe guards that are in place, safety ultimately comes down to the individual. This is a trip that you will be taking on your own, so we encourage all of our volunteers to be smart, not to take unnecessary risks, and to trust their gut! Guts always know. If something feels unsafe, it probably is, so be empowered to say no if needed and trust yourself. As in all things in life, there are no guarantees that nothing bad will happen - but we try our very best to stack the deck to ensure you will have a safe trip and a positive, life- changing experience.
If you would like more information or clarification about safety policies and procedures, please don’t hesitate to ask. That’s why we are here!
Nora and Heather.
On occasion, people have shared with us that they were unable to go on an AEI Experience because they could not afford to pay the trip fees. We find this really heartbreaking because we truly believe if there is a will, there is a way. If you want to travel and volunteer with animals, we want to help you do it. We want to help you live your dreams and that’s why we offer fundraising mentorship. We have been fundraising for volunteer trips, work, school and charities for years and we can give you ideas on what has worked for us and what has worked for our clients. We are here to help, so we hope that you accept it!
But why are there fees?
The sad reality is that it is actually quite expensive to run an animal welfare or conservation centre, and animal sanctuaries have even more associated costs. From electricity for the surgery rooms, to water for cleaning and bathing, from food for the animals (they do eat a lot) to medications and veterinary staff to look after the health and well being of the animals - it is not free, or even low cost, for a centre to be in operation. Thankfully volunteers, like you, step up and offer help – meaning these centres can exist on the limited funding they receive from donations.
Feeding, housing and caring for the animals are large expenses. But what about the cost of taking care of you? Who will pay for your meals and your electricity while you are volunteering? Who will pay for the petrol required to drive you around? Who will pay for the water you use for your laundry or showers? In order for us to be ethical and just-minded, we have sat down with all of our partners and agreed on ethical and fair compensation for your stay while you are volunteering. We know that the time and skills that you volunteer are invaluable (thank you!) – but we don’t want our partners to lose money because we are helping. We cover the cost of the resources required to host our volunteers. We offer more than a living salary to our drivers and of course we pay house mothers for their time preparing meals, not just for the groceries our volunteers consume. Since most of our trips include your accommodation and food in the total price of the trip, we think of AEI Experiences as “all inclusive trips”. When considered in this light, our experiences are less than what most people pay for a one week vacation!
AEI is a B Corp and we have pledged social, economic and environmental responsibility. The majority of your money goes directly to our placement partner to pay your placement fees which cover your accommodation, meals, airport pick up and drop off, training, support while on project and any membership fees and uniforms that are required. Your travel insurance and IVC Card benefits are added to your fees and so are carbon balancing your travel with the Carbon Farmer. The rest of your fees go towards supporting our placement partners (such as the place where you will be volunteering), developing new placement opportunities and allowing AEI to function as a socially responsible B Corp.
We provide our clients with many fundraising ideas as well as much fundraising assistance and mentoring throughout the process. Please let us know if you are interested in learning more about fundraising – either for your personal fees and airfare, or to provide additional support for the organization where you will be volunteering. Most of our volunteers do fundraise for at least a portion of their fees and you can too! If you do have any questions about fundraising or about fees, please ask! We want to help you be able to help some of the most ethical programs on the planet - as a responsible AEI volunteer!