Image: Cougar at Cougar hill, Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary
(c) Keepers of the Wild
A sanctuary for big cats, Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary in Valentine, Ariz., welcome volunteers year-round. It's home to cougars, tigers, jaguars, lions and other critters like wolves, monkeys, reptiles and more.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/2/2008 2:18:09 PM ET 2008-01-02T19:18:09

As 2008 gets into gear, if you’re an animal lover and still stuck for a terrific new year’s resolution, here’s a great idea: resolve to book a vacation. However, not the usual two weeks in Mexico or Hawaii, but an itinerary that will benefit your furry, feathered or finned friends — and is guaranteed to be good for your soul. That’s what the latest travel trend, volunteer vacations, is all about.

Voluntourism as it's being dubbed by the travel industry, offers people from all walks of life, the opportunity to visit interesting places in the U.S. as well as remote and exotic destinations, and volunteer their time or specific skills for the benefit of a cause of their choosing — and animal welfare and related environmental issues top the list.

“It’s travel and adventure with a purpose”, explains Erin McCloskey, Operations Manager for North America Biosphere Expeditions an organization that  offers volunteers the opportunity to work with scientists on real hands-on wildlife and conservation expeditions in such diverse destinations such as Brazil, Namibia, Spain, Honduras and the Altai Republic in Central Asia. The focus of their pet projects includes saving snow leopards, cheetahs, dolphins, whales, coral reefs, wolves and bears.

“The best part is that you don’t have to any special skills to come along,” says McCloskey. “And you can never be too old or not fit enough. It’s a matter of looking at the experiences we offer and picking one that you think is realistically achievable for you. To date our oldest expedition team member was 87 years old. Trips vary in length from what we call taster weekends to expeditions lasting up to several weeks.”

“Most people know what cause they would like to get involved with, but are stuck how to put it all together,” says Michael Organ Executive Director of

Charity Guide a Web-based volunteer directory that puts it all on a plate for potential volunteer vacationers.

The Web site lists some of the best volunteer vacation possibilities offered worldwide by reputable organizations and links potential travelers directly to them so that they can efficiently glean all the information they need to put their travel arrangements in motion.

The extensive catalog of animal and environmental-related causes listed includes whale tracking vacations in such diverse places as Oregon, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Azores. Or you can get involved in sea turtle rehabilitation programs in Kenya, Thailand or the Greek Islands. Other vacations focus on elephants in Africa and Asia and saving chimpanzees from extinction.

“There are so many personal benefits to be gained from this kind of giving experience too,” says Organ. “It’s a great way to bring families together as well as great learning experiences for children. And it’s nice to know that the fun you are having is simultaneously benefiting a particular cause.

According to Organ, there are a few agencies that will actually pay a stipend to volunteering vacationers, but usually it can cost the benevolent traveler up to $3,000 as they have to pay all their own expenses and often need to reimburse the agencies involved for training programs and other expenses.

Image: The birdhouse at Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary
(c) Keepers of the Wild
The birdhouse at Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary
“Some of the program fees on the more expensive trips usually include extensive pre-travel reading materials as well as someone to escort you from the airport, security when using public transportation in high risk areas, on-site training, hotel accommodation and meals. However because these vacations have a purpose, U.S. residents can claim part or all their expenses as a tax deduction.”

When it comes to volunteering around wildlife, exotic cats are always a popular choice, and the Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary in Valentine, Ariz., offer a perennial welcome to volunteers.

Founder and director Jonathan Kraft, began his career as a magician with two tigers working on the Las Vegas strip. On realizing he’d bought them for all the wrong reasons, he switched lanes, left the city of neon lights and opened his sanctuary for big cats nearly 20 years ago.

Image: Tiger
(c) Keepers of the Wild
As a magician working with two tigers on the Las Vegas strip, Jonathan Kraft realized he’d bought them for all the wrong reasons, and opened his sanctuary for big cats, Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary in Valentine, Ariz., nearly 20 years ago.
The tigers are still his pride and joy. These days, they enjoy a huge grassed habitat and a true wildlife lifestyle along with many other exotic big cats at the sanctuary.

“A lot of families love to include us in their general travel plans,” says Kraft. “Although we don’t have accommodation on site, there are hotels and RV parks nearby.”

“I read about the Sanctuary in the Smithsonian magazine,” says Mike Carter an occupation therapist from Carey, N.C. Back in 2003-2004 my wife Anna and I decided to take a year off. So we bought an RV, took our kids Kayla and Nick, then aged nine and 13, out of school and traveled across America.

“The time we spent volunteering at Keepers of the Wild was definitely a highlight. Together with the kids, we prepared food for the animals, cleaned out cages and did a lot of maintenance chores to take the pressure off the regular volunteers. Being able to get so close to these wonderful creatures was a very special personal experience and a great hands-on learning for the kids.”

For those looking for a volunteering vacation experiences within the U.S., and more specifically, with domestic animals such as cats, dogs, birds, horses and even pot bellied pigs, there are many wonderful accessible opportunities in all parts of the country.

One of the best known American volunteer vacation destinations is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, playing host to more than 12,000 volunteers of all ages per year.

This 33,000-acre ranch is home to over 1,500 assorted domestic animals that have been brought from all over the country, mostly from shelters that don't have the resources to rehabilitate them and where they would otherwise be destroyed. Here, they are cared for and nurtured and socialized until they are ready to be adopted into loving permanent homes. Those that have been badly traumatized through ill treatment or that are old, crippled or chronically ill, find a permanent home at this tranquil Eden.

The Sanctuary has reasonably priced on-site accommodation, and there’s plenty more in the nearby town of Kanab.

“We try to tailor the volunteer experience around what people are looking for,” says Kalene Craddock the organization’s volunteer manager. “People can opt to spend time with our dogs or cats. There are also opportunities to work with birds and rabbits, horses, goats and pot bellied pigs.

“The work can be something simple such as walking a dog or a goat or doing some cleaning and poop scooping. Some people come and volunteer whatever special maintenance or service skills they have such as lawyers opting to assist with legal tasks.”

Image: Family volunteer vacationers
Family volunteer vacationers John Guske, 13 of Lake Geneva Wis., Tom Statz and Tina Yapelli of San Diego, Calif., Thomas Guske, 9, Maggie Guske, 11, of Lake Geneva Wis., with their grandparents Elaine Statz and Chuck Statz of Elkhorn, Wis. The dogs Tie, Flower and Sundance are available for adoption from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
Volunteer vacationers Tina Yapelli, a professor of art and director of the University Art Gallery at San Diego State University and her husband Tom Statz, an electrical engineer in San Diego, have been coming regularly since 2002. This past Christmas and New Year, their group totaled 11 family members including their nine-year-old nephew Thomas Guske of Lake Geneva, Wis., whose biggest thrill was being able to bring different dogs back to their cabin each night for a sleep over.

“Personally, I love working with the dogs,” says Yapelli. “Needless to say we have adopted two from the Sanctuary that initially came back with us to our cabin for sleepovers.”

According to Craddock, mornings at the Sanctuary are reserved for chores when volunteers pitch in with tasks such as cleaning and grooming, and the afternoons are for reading to the cats, playing with the bunnies and taking puppies to socialization classes. Visitors can take pets for outings into the town or on hiking expeditions.

“Just giving any animals some extra love and attention is huge and makes our job easier in finding them wonderful permanent homes,” says Craddock.

As for Yapelli and her clan, they are already planning their next trip, while some of the kids are even talking about getting jobs at the Sanctuary when they are older.

“It’s such a wonderful way for our family to get to spend time together,” she says. “Personally, I consider each trip food for my soul.”

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle writer. She is the recent recipient of the Humane Society of the United States' Pets for Life Award. Her work appears in many national and international publications.

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