Tips – volunteering in a wildlife rescue center

There are many rescue centers around the world.  And choosing the center that is right for you might be difficult. 

Are you interested in a particular species? 

Are you an animal lover and would like to spend as much time as possible with them? 

Is it important for you to be part of a group of volunteers? …

Here are some pointers which might help you navigating the different rescue center websites and making your decision. 

1. The aim of the center: Rescue center or sanctuary?

In Costa Rica, as in many other places, there is a clear distinction between a rescue center and a sanctuary or zoo. 

In the first one – the rescue center- the primary goal is to recover and release the animal back into the wild. In the second– the sanctuary- the objective is to keep the animals either to increase their population or to offer a decent home to animals that for various reasons cannot return to the wild. Sanctuaries are considered the same thing as zoos.

The differences in the aim are very important for the volunteer experience. 

When the aim is to recover the rescued animal and return it to the wild, it has to remain wild. This means for us, as volunteers, that we need to keep the interaction with the animals to the minimum. One cannot talk with the animals and has to be in the cages as little as possible (for cleaning, feeding or enrichment). So, if what you are looking for is to spend as much time as possible interacting with animals, a rescue center with a clear focus on release might not be the best option. You are going to be working a lot on support activities, like cleaning, getting leaves for the enrichment of the cages, doing laundry, etc.  If, on the contrary, for you is very important that the animals are returned to the wild, even if it means minimum interaction, then these types of centers are perfect for you. 

In a sanctuary or zoo, on the other hand, most of the animals are resident animals. They might have been rescued, but after recovering from their wounds or their entry condition, it was decided that they could not be returned to the wild. For example, owls that cannot fly any longer, monkeys that have been kept so long as pets that they do not know how to swing on a tree or parrots that have grown as pets and talk endlessly. Animals in sanctuaries are more used to human contact. As volunteers, one can often interact with them. In fact, the interaction is part of their “enrichment”, a way to make their life a bit more interesting. 

Now, the problem is that in practice many rescue centers have both animals that can and will be released and animals that cannot so….

TIP: Enquire about the main goal of the center and which animals you could be interacting with, that is, which are the resident animals and which ones are “out of reach” for the volunteers. 

2. Variety of animals

There are rescue centers/sanctuaries that specialize in just one species -sloths, macaws, elephants, cheetahs- and there are some that take any type of wild animals. 

The first one provides opportunities for in depth knowledge of a particular species. You might be a passionate about monkeys or sea turtles, and you would like to learn as much as possible of that particular species. In Costa Rica, for example, there are rescue centers and sanctuaries that are specialized in wild cats, sloths, macaws or sea turtles to name a few. We would recommend these types of centers for people that have a clear preference for a particular animal and know for sure that they will not mind working almost exclusively with that animal, be it cats, elephants, monkeys or macaws. 

The second one provides opportunities for breath. You learn a bit about a large variety of animals, from turtles to monkeys, for example. You might discover that you thought you would love to work with a particular species, but that didn’t turn to be as you expected and instead you fell in love with a different one. This happened to me. I was initially very keen on working with monkeys but I felt in love with birds. Working with both in a broad center, allowed me to learn that I had a very good hand with birds…and not so good with monkeys. If the center did not have a variety of animals, I wouldn’t have been able to make that discovery. 

Tip: Look at the center’s website. Do they talk about a variety of animals or just a few? Ask with which animals you will likely be working with as a volunteer. It might be that they have all sorts of animals but that volunteers will mostly be working with birds. If you are not a bird person, that will not work for you. 

3. How the animals are kept

If you are an animal lover – and I am assuming that you are if you are considering volunteering in a rescue center – how the animals are kept is a VERY important issue. Most of the discussions that I have heard in the center between volunteers and staff are about the living quarters of the resident animals.

Whether the animals are resident animals or animals to be released, some issues to consider are if:

  • The cages are large enough for the type of animal, the number of animals in the cage and their behavior
  • The animals are taken out regularly (whenever possible), 
  • The cages are cleaned regularly and
  • The cages have enrichments
  • The cages are not close to big disturbances, like a busy road or a construction company

Tip: Check on the center website to see if you can find any information about the cages. For example, some photos might do. Ask the center if they could share any document which describes the policy on how each of the animals at the center should be managed. 

4. How the animals are released

Finally, if you are mostly interested in centers that have a strong release policy, it is important to dig a little deeper into how the animals are released. Which form of release is being used, where are they released and who makes the decision?

As you can read in this blog there are fundamentally two types of release: soft and hard release. In the first one, the animals are moved to a pre-release station and once freed they continue to receive support in the form of shelter and food until they are ready to live on their own. In the second one, the animals do not receive the gradual support. 

It is also interesting to know where the animals are released. If the animal came to the center because it was attacked by dogs or run over by a car and it is released close to a urban settlement… then there is a high chance that it will suffer a similar fate. Centers that have a release station, nature reserve or work with different protected areas for the release of their animals are best.  

Finally, and this is the hardest part to know upfront, it is important to know who makes the decision about releasing an animal…or not. We have witnessed and heard of cases in which the decision is in the hands of qualified staff, like the head veterinary, in consultation with the head biologist, and considering both the physical and the psychological condition of the animal; but we have also known of cases in which the decision to release an animal has been done by someone else, for example, a middle manager with no formal training in anything related to animals. An example of the later was the release of a blind nocturnal and arboreal animal that would depend on sight for survival in the wild or the release of an animal that is usually a prey in a nature reserve specialized in large cats… 

Tip: If the “release part” of a rescue center is important for you, do not be shy in enquiring about the type of release they use, where do they usually release them, the criteria for release and how the decision to release is made. 

And now, the most important tip! Do not miss to volunteer in a rescue center for a heartbit.

It is a wonderful experience!!