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Give Back and Vacation Abroad with Purpose

See the world, indulge in new experiences, and save animal lives.

by Jayme Moye
June 5, 2012
A caretaker surrounded by four dogs
Filip Petronijevic / Stocksy

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After spending the past few years hibernating, have you considered what your next vacation might be? If you love animals, maybe you’ve thought about adding a pit stop to see some sloths or dogs during your trip. But what about more?

“Animal experience” tourism is becoming an increasingly popular reason to travel. But unfortunately, animal welfare isn’t always a top priority. So, wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to connect with standout animal sanctuaries, shelters, and conservation programs? Enter Animal Experience International (AEI), an adventure travel company that matches vacation travelers with ethical animal-related volunteer opportunities around the globe.

Saving street dogs in Spain, cuddling with Kangaroo in Australia, what about helping cats in Kenya? Yep, these volunteer experiences are worth skipping the margaritas and white sand beaches for.

How Animal Experience International Started

Four months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, college student Nora Livingstone decided to drive from her home in Toronto to New Orleans to assist at a hurricane-affected animal shelter during winter break. Livingstone, a double major in environmental studies and anthropology, thought she’d be walking and grooming dogs who had been separated from their pet parents during the flood in an otherwise comfortable setting. The experience wasn’t what she expected.

The section of the city where Livingstone had signed up to volunteer didn’t even have full power. She slept on a cot alongside other volunteers in a second-floor loft overlooking hundreds of displaced cats caged on the floor below. Outside, chain-link fences separated the runs that housed about a hundred homeless dogs. “At that time, there were still houses on top of houses,” Livingstone says. “There was tons of debris. There was no food. There were stray dogs everywhere.”

Livingstone’s volunteer work in New Orleans was difficult, both physically and emotionally. Despite the challenges, Livingstone considers her time volunteering in New Orleans as some of the most rewarding in her life. The sadness she felt was tempered by the joy of witnessing daily reunions with families who had come to claim their lost pets. While she didn’t know it at the time, her experience planted the seed for what would become her life’s work.

But before the idea for AEI could materialize, she headed to Nepal in 2007 for another round of volunteer work. While in Nepal, she learned about a groundbreaking dog clinic, the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). She wound up spending several weeks volunteering at the center, which aims to improve the lives of street dogs through vaccination, injury rehabilitation, and spaying/neutering. After dogs are treated, experts at KAT evaluate them for pet potential and keep those with promise at the shelter for adoption instead of returning them to the streets. “I loved being there,” Livingstone says. “A place like KAT is so rare in Nepal. I wanted to find a way to get more people involved, to let more people know about it.”

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An idea formed once Livingstone returned to Canada and the vision stayed in the back of her mind even as she took a job as a volunteer coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. It was there that Livingstone met veterinarian Heather Reid, who helped bring her idea to fruition. Reid shared Livingstone’s passion for travel and her interest in volunteer work with animals. One step ahead of Livingstone, Reid had been considering what it would take to create international animal-based volunteer experiences for other veterinarians. “My brain practically exploded after talking to Dr. Heather because it was just so obvious,” says Livingstone.

Connecting Animal Advocates and Adventure Seekers

Animal-based organizations from all over the world started contacting AEI to create volunteer travel programs at their locations. But Livingstone has been careful to add trips slowly. Unlike other “animal experience” travel opportunities, one of AEI’s core values is to partner with only the best and most effective organizations; Livingstone or Reid vets each partner organization before adding it to the lineup. AEI offers 18 trips to locations ranging from Costa Rica to Thailand and Australia. Travelers can choose to volunteer with dogs, cats, bats, turtles, monkeys, elephants, parrots, bears, leopards, tigers, crocodiles, and kangaroos, among others. “People have been knocking down our door, which is both inspiring and a little overwhelming,” says Livingstone.

AEI travelers can also customize the length of their trip, from one week to two months, with longer options available. Prices range from $1000-to $2000 (CAD) for one week with reduced rates for longer stays. For two months of helping animals in Thailand, the cost will be $3360 ($420/week) and includes accommodation, meals, training, and a COVID test. Livingstone recognizes that money is one of the biggest inhibitors to international travel. She and Reid have devised aggressive fundraising techniques for clients and a scholarship program. “If someone is inspired enough to go on one of our trips, we’re going to do everything in our power to get them there,” says Livingstone.

Trips also include cultural experiences and sightseeing excursions. Both Livingstone and Reid want Animal Experience International travelers to experience the natural and manmade wonders that draw tourists to the destinations where they are volunteering. But they are also clear that AEI trips are not typical vacation getaways. “We’re not offering a vacation,” Livingstone says. “This is not going to a resort, this is work. But it’s work that’s transformational— through the animals you work with, through the family you homestay with, and through the community you live in.”

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Jayme Moye

Jayme Moye

Jayme Moye is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, places, ideas and events that are changing the way we think about the world. She is a Senior Writer with Kootenay Mountain Culture and her freelance work regularly appears in OutsideCanadian GeographicNational Geographic, and Condé Nast Traveler, among others.