At the beginning of our trip we were looking forward to getting some volunteering experience on the road; something we’d had little time for during our hectic lives back in London. However, our first six months on the road flew by in a whirl of adventures and by the end of it we hadn’t managed any volunteering at all – the closest we’d come was to visit the BAWA animal shelter in Bali, Indonesia. Fortunately, the perfect volunteering opportunity arose during our trip to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand where we learnt we could help out with their Dog Rescue Project.
Finding an Ethical Way to Volunteer Abroad
It can be incredibly difficult to find volunteering opportunities abroad which are ethically run, provide an actual benefit to local communities and are free or inexpensive to take part in. I learnt a bit about these issues before we left the UK when I attended a seminar about Responsible Volunteering at the World Travel Market.
During the seminar I heard stories of children in orphanages abroad who were negatively affected by the high turn-over of tourists who arrive and form close bonds with them only to leave a few weeks later causing more emotional harm than good. I was told about instances where volunteers paid to take part in building or teaching projects which took jobs away from local people and schools which were set up but never opened because there weren’t any teachers in the area.
After hearing these stories I was more determined than ever to make sure any volunteering we did had a truly positive impact. In researching further I read the Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, written by Shannon O’Donnell, who has been travelling and volunteering abroad for years. On Shannon’s advice, I decided the best course of action would be to look out for locally-run volunteer projects to take part in as we travel; the Dog Rescue Project was a great example of how this strategy worked out brilliantly.
Volunteering with Animals Abroad at the Dog Rescue Project
The Dog Rescue Project was set up by the Elephant Nature Park’s owner Lek and her husband Darrick, when they first rescued 2,000 dogs from the Bangkok floods in 2011; 155 of which they re-homed at the park. Since then they have also taken in animals from surrounding areas and rescued others from the dog-meat trade; they now look after over 360 dogs altogether. While many of the dogs roam freely around amongst the elephants, most are housed in runs set further back in the park. There is also a small clinic where Erika, an international vet, and Thai veterinary nurses provide medical attention for the dogs and a small number of cats.
Unlike many animal shelters, the main aim of the Dog Rescue Project isn’t re-homing (although some dogs do ultimately get adopted); it’s to provide a happy and safe place for the animals to live for the rest of their lives. We found out about the project when we took our day trip to the park and saw posters advertising for volunteers; we were able to talk to staff about how the project was run and determine that the fees we would pay (£40 per person per week) would cover all our food and accommodation costs at the park before we signed up.
A Day in the Life of a Dog Volunteer
While I’ve spent a bit of time volunteering with dogs for the Mayhew Animal Home in London, this mainly involved helping out at events, writing some articles for their magazine and co-publishing a book of short stories to raise money for the shelter. I never seemed to actually spend much time with the animals so I was looking forward to getting some more hands-on experience during my week at the Dog Rescue Project.
The average working day turned out to be a lot more intense than I’d anticipated though; that’s not to say that the work wasn’t fun or worthwhile – we both got a huge amount out of the experience – but it could also be pretty dirty, hectic, exhausting and in some cases, emotionally draining. Alongside the regular daily schedule, emergencies would often arise. One day a dog was rushed in from one of the local villages with an infected machete wound and later died. The next day a tiny puppy, just a few weeks old was brought in after her mother had been killed in a motorcycle accident, her sister was discovered the next day suffering from a maggot-invested wound which later turned septic – an especially heart-rending experience for Maggie, one of the volunteers who cared for and hand-fed the pup day and night (update: we’ve heard from Maggie that the puppy, Bekka, has had surgery and is doing remarkably well now). Here’s our typical daily schedule:
breakfast with the other volunteers and staff at the main platform; we’d often be surrounded by elephants, buffalos and dogs as we ate against a backdrop of spectacular Thai countryside and mountains.
8am – 10.30am
Although Thai mahouts are employed to clean, feed and manage the majority of the open dog runs, volunteers are responsible for looking after around 30 to 35 clinic dogs. We’d start by walking the dogs that had been stuck in cages all night; many of which were sick or bandaged from surgery while others had infectious warts and needed to be kept separate from the other animals. Walking often involved cajoling the more nervous dogs out and lifting and carrying the injured animals, which Andrew was especially useful for. While the dogs were being walked we also set to work cleaning their cages, feeding them and helping to distribute their meds. Two people would be responsible for cleaning Steel’s cage, a big marble-floored pen built so that Steel, whose back legs are paralysed, could easily slide around. One morning I was also sent over to help out at the dog runs over the road; this literally involved shovelling huge amounts of dog shit – did I mention the work could be pretty dirty?
10.30 – 11.30am
Once the immediate tasks were taken care of there would usually be other projects to work on; bleaching areas where contagious animals had been housed, bathing and de-ticking dogs, helping with office tasks or just generally socialising with the dogs.
11.30 – 1pm
Lunch at the platform and a chance to rest.
1 – 2pm
Once again we’d walk the caged animals and take care of any cleaning that needed to be done.
2 – 3.30pm
Working on projects, de-ticking and socialising with the animals. Andrew and I liked to try and spend time in the runs which were further away and less visited; although the dogs would bark and go crazy when we initially entered normally they’d calm down and we’d have a chance to seek out the quieter animals which tend to hang around at the back of the pens.
3.30 – 5pm
Time to feed the dogs their main meals and help distribute the meds. Often a few animals would refuse to eat and would need to be hand-fed with a spoon; after that it would be time for final walks and cleaning before the end of the day.
After a shower and dinner at six o’clock we’d usually spend some time up on the main platform with the other volunteers and staff. We became quite addicted to the cheap massages offered by local women and would often indulge our weary limbs before heading back to our room at the house which we shared with four other dog volunteers. The house was located just beyond the dog runs and on several occasions we arrived back in the dark to find one of the wily creatures had escaped, setting all the other animals into a barking frenzy as we tried to catch the runaway. We were normally so exhausted that we were in bed by 9pm only to be woken several times throughout the night by the roars of elephants followed by a chorus of dog barking.
The Benefits of Dog Volunteer Work
Our week at the Dog Rescue Project was one of our favourite travel experiences to date and we’re already hoping to return there next year; here’s why:
- You make an immediate difference – when volunteering you have to recognise that your efforts are a very small contribution to the wider cause; you can’t change the world in a couple of weeks but over time the help of hundreds of volunteers like you will make a positive impact. This is certainly true of the Dog Rescue Project but I also feel that our simple actions did make an immediate difference to the animals; simply taking a dog out for a walk or spending time with them improves their day-to-day lives a great deal.
- Close contact with the animals – unlike volunteering with the elephants at the park, you get constant close contact with the animals when you volunteer at the Dog Rescue Project. All day is spent in the company of hounds and you get to stroke, cuddle and play with the dogs throughout the day – this was the best part of the experience for me. What’s unique about this project is that you get to work and live amongst elephants too, which is an incredible bonus.
- Chance to meet other volunteers – when volunteering you’ll get to meet and work with people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world. We got to meet some great people during our week at the Dog Rescue Project who all shared a common goal – to improve the lives of animals.
- Gain valuable experience – I believe taking part in any volunteer project provides valuable life and work experience which will help you develop and grow as a person; it’ll also look great on your CV, whatever industry you work in.
How to Become a Dog Rescue Volunteer
If you’re interested in volunteering for the Dog Rescue Project at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand here are the details you’ll need to sign up:
- Location: The Elephant Nature Park, which is located about an hour away from Chiang Mai Thailand.
- Price: 4,000B (£80) per person per week*. This cost covers your accommodation (a basic room with fan and shared bathroom), transport to and from the park and three buffet-style meals a day.
- Volunteer hours: volunteers must stay a minimum of one week, working from 8am till 5pm everyday with an hour and a half break for lunch. If you work more than one week you get a day off in-between.
- How to find out more: check out the official website to find out more about volunteering for the Dog Rescue Project or leave a message on their Facebook page.
You can also become an elephant volunteer at the park; find out more on the Elephant Nature Park official website.
*Full Disclosure: we paid 2,000B (£40 per person).