Here’s how to volunteer with animals abroad
Imagine spending your days taking a leopard out on a hunting walk, nursing a baby toucan back to health, playing on a jungle gym with spider monkeys and sloths, or helping turtles lay and hatch baby eggs. You can actually volunteer with animals while traveling, and Costa Rica is the best place to do it.
Volunteering with animals in Costa Rica is a special experience. Costa Rica is a model of conservation to the rest of the world: the most bio-diverse country in the world by density, it has outlawed hunting and keeping wild animals as pets and vows to be carbon neutral by 2021. In impressive effort to regain much of the forest and wildlife that was lost decades ago, 25% of the country is protected as National park and natural reserve space. But no country is perfect, and there is still a lot of work to be done!
“My dream job is to work with animals.”
“I want to help animals when I grow up.”
“If I could do anything, I would care for animals.”
“How can I volunteer with animals in my spare time?”
Time and time again, I hear people saying they wish they could work with animals. And it’s no surprise: humans have long revered and bonded with animals, and there is plenty of scientific evidence proving the therapeutic and emotional benefits of these human-animal bonds. Pet therapy is a growing practice, cat cafes abound from Japan to Seattle, and people with severe depression are talking about how their pets saved their lives.
It goes beyond the selfish. There’s a reason everyone curses the Sarah McCloughlin dog shelter commercial, tearing up within 3 seconds flat. People want to help those who can’t help themselves. It’s hard to see an innocent creature suffer and not feel compelled to do something about it.
While helping individual animals and giving them a home is certainly fulfilling, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between domestic and wild animals. Sometimes instead of giving them a home, it’s better to return them to their true homes in the wild. This is an act that is so much greater than helping one animal: you are helping sustain entire ecosystems and the global environment as a whole.
If you love something, set it free…
The fact is that this issue is much larger than saving individual animals. It is an issue of global environmental consequence and the survival of our planet depends on it. When animal populations decline and species become endangered and extinct, it affects the entire food chain, alters the greater ecosystem, and eventually changes our planet as a whole, lending to the denigration of our land, the destruction of our forests, the infertility of our soil, and more. The destruction of the animal world makes it harder for us all to thrive on this planet. For every action, there is a reaction.
So, while looking for opportunities to work with animals and organizations that offer volunteer programs, do your research! If you really care about these animals, I urge you to put aside your desire to form a bond with them and instead offer them a respectful reverence, at a distance. Broaden the impact of your work by supporting organizations whose mission focuses on re-releasing their animals into the wild whenever possible.
And finally, I hop off my soap box and move onto the real reason you opened this article…
The top 5 volunteer opportunities and ways to work with animals in Costa Rica!
Below is a list of some of my favorite wildlife sanctuaries and rescue centers with volunteer programs in Costa Rica. These are non-profit organizations doing important work that rely on donations and tour fees (many don’t even receive government funding because they choose to remain autonomous) to sustain the very important work they do, so they can’t afford to pay their volunteers. But they are all affordable programs, some are even free, and a few places offer a room, food, or tips.
If you don’t have the time or money to commit to a volunteer program, you can also support these wonderful organizations by donating to them or visiting them and taking their tours while you travel. Enjoy!
Located on the beautiful Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, just outside of Puerto Viejo, this organization has both a center where they nurse and rehabilitate rescued animals ranging from monkeys to wildcats to toucans to sloths, and a 49 hectar natural reserve in primary forest called “La Ceiba” where they re-introduce animals to the wild. They offer volunteer programs at both of these locations, as well as a research internship.
- Total cost: $150 for three weeks, $100 for 6 weeks, and $75 for 12 weeks. Yes, it decreases as length of stay increases!
- Minimum stay: Three weeks
- Included: Housing is not included, but the center can provide help finding housing or offer a room in their fully equipped jungle home for an additional $15 per day. Tour guides can receive tips.
- Requirements: Basic Spanish, medical insurance, and a tuberculosis test.
A great short-term volunteer opportunity for tourists on vacation, Proyecto Asis is a wildlife shelter located in La Fortuna, near Volcano Arenal. They offer a 3 hour tour + volunteer, a full day volunteer experience, and an overnight homestay and volunteer experience. They also have longer programs with cultural immersion or Spanish lesson components as well as service learning programs for high school and college students.
- Total cost: $54 for tour + volunteering, $85 for full day program, and $133 for overnight program with homestay. Longer term programs total roughly $650 per week and drop to $400 per week after 8 weeks, including room and board. See website for more detailed prices on long-term programs including a Spanish school program.
- Minimum stay: A few hours!
- Included: The day programs include a tour and some instruction and opportunity to work with the animals. The overnight program includes a homestay with a local family as well. The long-term programs include instruction, homestay (including meals and laundry), and 24/7 support.
- Requirements: Just make a reservation!
Costa Rica is teeming with sea turtles on both its Pacific and Caribbean sides, but unfortunately these turtles face a lot of threats as well. Because of this, there are a lot of volunteer programs in the country that focus on sea turtle conservation, and they can be found on both coasts. These programs have volunteers work in the research stations, do night patrols on the beach, preserve turtle nests, and assist in hatchings when necessary. La Tortuga Feliz, located in the mangroves of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, touts the most affordable sea turtle volunteer program. Note, most of these places, including this one, do not have electricity! Regardless, I have a Costa Rican friend who did this program for three months after finishing college, and he said it was one of the best experiences of his life.
- Total cost: $25-40 per day depending on time of year.
- Minimum stay: 7 days.
- Included: Nesting turtle training, hatchery training, lodging in dormitory style beach huts, bedding, 3 meals per day, coffee and tea.
- Requirements: Book well in advance! See website for a list of recommended things to bring.
- Similar programs: There’s another program on the Caribbean’s Pacuare Reserve with a similar cost as well as a slightly more expensive program in the Osa Peninsula on Costa Rica’s pacific coast.
A visit to Costa Rica wouldn’t be complete without butterflies! Butterflies are not only dazzling to watch, they are also crucial pollinators that help rainforest vegetation, and thus wildlife and humans, thrive. The Butterfly Conservatory, located in the beautiful and incredible town of El Castillo (my favorite place in Costa Rica!) at the foot of both the Arenal Volcano and the Cloud Forests, is a nature regeneration project and learning center with the largest exhibition of butterflies in Costa Rica. They house both butterflies and frogs and have regenerated area of rainforest where wildlife now thrive on what used to be a cattle ranch that destroyed the area’s primary rainforest. Volunteers work to maintain the center and help educate visitors by giving tours and answering questions. It is one of the most highly rated volunteer programs in Costa Rica! They also have an intern program that will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a butterfly farmer; how awesome is that?
- Total cost: DO NOT QUOTE ME ON THIS, I need to contact them to confirm, but I thought I remembered a friend saying it was free. Again, I need to double-check, and you can also contact them for more information on cost.
- Minimum stay: One month, preferred longer.
- Included: Housing in their fully-equipped volunteer house in El Castillo, training. May include a small portion of organic food from their rainforest farm, but they grow in limited quantities).
- Similar program in El Castillo: If reptiles and snakes tickle your fancy, the Arenal Ecozoo down the street, an educational center that doubles as a free venomous snake relocation service for the community, also accepts volunteers at times. Contact them directly for more information.
A rescue and rehabilitation center that recently relocated to a remote forest in Costa Rica’s central valley, not far from San Jose. They re-introduce animals into the wild whenever possible. As a volunteer you are given the unique opportunity to work hands-on with the animals. Living accomodations are fairly minimal, but frankly, I would be skeptical about an animal rescue center that funnels a lot of its limited funding toward building luxurious accomodations!
- Total cost: Not listed on website. For more information, contact them directly.
- Minimum stay: Not listed on wbesite, but I have read reviews of people staying for a week or even less.
- Included: Housing and food.
Two Amazing Bonus Opportunities! Sloths and turtles and rainforests, oh my!
- The Sloth Institute (not to be confused with the famous and highly unethical Sloth Sanctuary) does not offer public tours but they do hire skilled interns.
- Osa Conservation, which does amazing work in water conservation, reforestation, sustainable food systems, and sea turtle conservation, all on the Osa Peninsula, the most biodiverse place in Costa Rica!
I hope this was helpful! Feel free to contact me with any questions or leave a comment below! If you’ve volunteered with animals in the past, I’d love to hear about your experience.