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Voluntourism: Travel the World to Help Big Cats and Small

Travelers help at Tampa's Big Cat Rescue as well as feral/stray groups in Latin America and Asia.

Phillip Mlynar  |  Nov 10th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our July/August 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

It’s a weekday afternoon, and I’m talking to Susan Bass, the director of public relations at the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, about the charming issue of scooping up wild kitty poop.

The organization’s 85 lions, tigers, cougars, and other lesser-spotted big cats aren’t exactly enthusiastic about being trained to use some sort of oversized litter box contraption. Instead, Susan told me they typically drop their nuggets within 10 feet of the perimeter of their enclosure, at which point volunteers use a long metal pole with a hook on the end of it to retract, bag up, and dispose of the feces.

I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to survive the olfactory attack that comes with such mega-scale cat poop maintenance, but that hasn’t stopped other cat lovers with tougher noses from spending their time volunteering at the sanctuary, often for spells of three months at a time. They’re not alone either, with voluntourism becoming a trending movement that’s seen feline-loving folks around the world giving back by donating their time and hands-on experience to cat-related causes.

When it comes to the volunteer selection process, Susan said it’s definitely a bonus if you have cat care experience. “We always say a cat is a cat is a cat,” she explained. “So a tiger or a leopard will like catnip or climbing into a box just as much as a house cat. It can help if someone has a house cat and realizes they sleep about 20 hours a day and clean themselves a lot and like to be up high and look down on people.”

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Photo via Big Cat Rescue

Tricking a big cat with treats also works: When giving a lion shots or taking blood samples from a cougar, a volunteer will dangle a long stick with a piece of meat on the end of it while a worker does the medical business.

Susan added that Big Cat Rescue is a no-touch facility, so volunteers shouldn’t be at risk of being mauled — as long as they follow the rules. This is something Kate Stefanko, the placement director at People and Places: Responsible Volunteering, agrees with. She warned against siding with an organization that promotes the idea of volunteers touching big cats: “When any wild animal is accustomed to human touch and interaction, the chances of their rehabilitation are very slim.”

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Big Cat Rescue volunteers. Photo via Big Cat Rescue

When researching places to volunteer, Kate said to ask about the organization’s roots and motives, bring up local health and safety procedures, and work out what insurance you’ll need beyond standard travel insurance. She also said you’ll want to speak to someone who’s volunteered at the place before, but track down someone yourself on websites like the Better Volunteering Facebook group rather than letting the organization suggest someone.

Beyond the large-scale big cat volunteering scene, there are bountiful opportunities to work with feral and stray cats in exotic or blighted places around the world. My initial search for overseas opportunities brought up organizations like the P.A.W. Animal Sanctuary in the breezy climes of Belize and the presumably frostier Animal Aid Iceland. After checking out All For Progress in Animal Care in Cuba, I discovered that tourists can also help out by traveling with small amounts of veterinary supplies that can be donated to local workers. (Check customs rules and regulations first before you hop on a plane with a bumper batch of lysine hoping you’re going to wholesale alleviate feline herpes in Micronesia.)

Over in East Asia, the Japan Cat Network offers philanthropic types the chance to work with cats in the Fukushima region, which was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami five years ago. Director Susan Roberts said that on a day-to-day basis, while staying at a cat house, volunteers are “mostly spending time with the animals and taking care of them, so they’d be cleaning the rooms and playing with the cats and grooming them.” She pointed out that volunteers are also tasked with accompanying visitors who might become potential adopters. (And yes, volunteers themselves often end up taking cats home, with three kitties currently on their way to the United Kingdom.)

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Socializing cats is a big part of volunteer duties at Japan Cat Network. Photo via Draycat.com

Thousands of volunteers from all over the world have passed through the Japan Cat Network’s doors. Susan said volunteers are usually split between people who specifically want to work for an animal organization and those who are interested in sightseeing Japan but lack the funds to cover their stay. Helping out at a house filled with rescue cats becomes a mutually beneficial arrangement.

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A tiny kitten enjoys mealtime at Japan Cat Network. Photo via Draycat.com

Rosanna Holmström’s experience backs up these claims. Earlier this year, she traveled from her home in Sweden to volunteer at the Baan Unrak Animal Sanctuary in Thailand for two weeks. “My advice is to really look into the organization before going to make sure it’s a serious place that treats animals with love and respect,” she said, before adding that you’ll need to be prepared to “work hard and get dirty.” But for Rosanna, the payoff was definitely worth it: “Seeing the animals get better from sickness and injuries is the most rewarding thing of all.”

Help closer to home

If traveling to volunteer isn’t your ticket, try helping out near where you live. Here are some ways.

  • Be a shelter hand: Contact your local shelter and offer your time. Hey, those litter boxes don’t clean themselves.
  • Be a foster kitten caretaker: If you love being surrounded by adorable furry little things — and won’t fall completely in love with them all — ask about foster opportunities.
  • Be a cat socializer: If you think you’re great with cats, look into opportunities to help socialize rescues before they go up for adoption.
  • Spread the word: Shelters often need help with fundraising and spreading awareness. Offer your social media skills if you’re a Facebook wiz.
  • Donate: Shelters always need more food and litter — some will even take unused food that your own pampered kitty has turned her nose up at.

About the author: Phillip Mlynar writes about cats, music, food, and sometimes a mix of all three. He considers himself the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.