A quick internet search will demonstrate the vast number of volunteering schemes offering the opportunity to work with wild animals.
The Born Free Foundation has serious reservations about many projects which claim to deliver conservation benefits, believing that in some cases not only is the opposite true but that there are also negative welfare implications for the individual animals involved.
We therefore urge you to consider the following issues when choosing your volunteering experience – assuming you share our views, these pointers will provide you with some preliminary guidance in helping you to satisfy yourself that your chosen project is not having the negative impacts outlined below.
Origin of captive animals
Wild animals may have been: removed directly from their natural habitat; bought from suppliers (who obtained animals from the wild); or bought from breeding centres, zoos or private individuals keeping them as pets. All of these activities threaten the stability of populations of wild animals, undermining conservation efforts, rather than supporting them.
Contact with captive animals
Direct physical contact with wild animals can encourage them to become more accustomed to humans, and is usually not in their best interest (unless for the administration of veterinary or neonatal care). Direct contact with wild animals also poses a significant risk to human health and safety, through potential disease transmission or injury.
Captive breeding for conservation
Even when following very strict guidelines, the reintroduction of captive-bred animals is fraught with problems and generally has a very poor track-record in terms of success: while many animals die after release, others never breed successfully once back in the wild.
Captive-bred wild animals may not have adequate skills to survive unassisted in the wild and may be released into areas with inadequate resources to sustain them. Should these animals be accustomed to human contact or lack the necessary skills to hunt and survive, there is the additional risk of coming into conflict with humans once released, exacerbating conservation challenges, instead of alleviating them.
In some cases young are separated from their mothers at an early age in order to be hand reared, thus becoming more familiar with humans and easier to train and control. This causes acute distress for both young and mothers and impacts negatively on their health, behaviour and ability to interact naturally with other animals. Once such young animals have grown too big for photo props, cuddling, walking with, etc, they are often sold on to private owners, zoos and trophy hunting operators.
In the case of the deplorable practice of breeding lions for use in the ‘lion encounter’ industry under the guise of conservation, Born Free’s reservations have been backed up by some of the world’s most renowned big cat biologists and conservationists, who “… ﬁnd little of conservation value that justiﬁes the use of captive-origin lions for reintroduction…(and that)…even under the best possible circumstances, breeding lions in captivity does little to address the root causes of the species’ decline in the wild. Resources and attention would be more productively steered towards securing existing lion habitat and mitigating anthropogenic killing of lions and their prey”. Read more.
Many establishments call themselves ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘rehabilitation centres’, terms one might associate with non-commercially driven projects which rescue animals from lives of suffering.
However, while a true sanctuary might be expected to, for example, prevent animals from breeding, preferring instead to allocate available resources to animals already in need, many establishments using these terms do not limit breeding, thus increasing the captive population of animals with little chance of release to the wild and undermining the welfare standards they are able to provide. For further information on what the Born Free Foundation believes to be appropriate practices for sanctuaries, see the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries website.
We hope that you will now be in a better position to see your way through the abundant options available and that this will help you to spend your time and money volunteering in a way which truly benefits animals, such as through the volunteer opportunities suggested by the Born Free Foundation!
When in doubt, we would encourage you to contact the establishments on your list, asking them any questions you might like answered. If you don’t like the response or aren’t convinced – don’t go!