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Monday, January 2, 2017

Make 2017 the Year to Have an Adventure

AEI Offers Animal Volunteer Experiences Worldwide
Nora Livingstone of AEI and her mother give fluids to a sick turtle in Greece.
Photo by AEI.  

Are you the adventurous type? Then imagine being on a research boat counting dolphins in the Adriatic Sea. Or helping care for eggs at a turtle hatchery in Sri Lanka. Or feeding orangutans in Indonesia. These sound like amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would be impossible to plan on your own. However, Canadian company Animal Experience International makes going on journeys like these easier for people who want to give back while seeing the world. To learn more about it I spoke with CEO and Volunteer Coordinator Nora Livingstone.

Animal Experience International (AEI) began in 2012 as an idea from Dr. Heather Reid, a wildlife veterinarian with over 15 years of experience helping Canada’s native animals. Dr. Reid wanted to make it easier for people who love animals and travel to put these things together in a volunteer environment. Livingstone, who has experience volunteering after natural disasters and working with animals, thought it could work. Dr. Reid knew animal welfare groups that needed help and Livingstone new how to organize volunteers. Since each had something to bring to the table, together they make AEI possible for their clients.
Clients can travel the world. Photo by AEI. 

“Dr. Heather and I met at a wildlife center in Canada, she is the veterinarian there and I was the volunteer coordinator,” Livingstone says. “It only made sense for us to keep on doing what we loved and what we were good at.”

“I wanted to make it easier to help groups I had volunteered with in the past, find great volunteers who were prepared, interested and dedicated,” says Livingstone. “AEI was born, out of the very best intentions to want to not just help volunteers, animals or conservation communities, but to help all of them.”

Livingstone was on the ground in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, while still a student at Trent University in Ontario. She says it gave her real world experience for AEI.

“I was able to see how much one could do without having an animal background. There was feeding, cleaning, dog socialization, cat enrichment, map reading for rescue teams, laundry, cooking and more,” she says. “This kind of inclusive coordination of volunteering helped me understand that no one should be turned away. There are roles that experts have to be present for, but there are support roles that are important, valuable and can be filled with almost anyone with passion.”

Keep in mind these are not vacations or tours. These are experiences. What kinds of experiences can people have? Just about any adventure they would want. The company covers all of North America, along with Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa. The animals helped also range from domestic to exotic in some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Clients can help with sea turtle conversation on the beaches of Guatemala, study orangutans in the tropical forests of Sumatra, research the unique bats of Cuba, and care for magnificent elephants in Thailand.

Clients can choose their own experiences, 
like this one in Australia.
Photo by AEI.
Animal Experience International has a goal of bringing those who want to see the world and help animals with organizations that need extra hands. AEI clients pay a placement fee for this specialized service and AEI does the rest. Livingstone’s expertise provides an all-inclusive experience that includes airport pick up and drop off, accommodation, most meals, on-site training, donation to the Placement Partner, AEI Travel Manual tailored to the country visited, volunteer handbook, emergency support while on site, carbon credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions and Premium Individual Travel Insurance of up to $500,000 USD in emergency medical coverage. Depending on the client’s chosen experience, fees may also include volunteer uniforms (if necessary) and guided tours of nearby geographical and cultural areas. Fees do NOT include flights, entry visa costs, international and domestic airport taxes, immunizations, and medications.

Livingstone herself has been on all of the experiences, gaining knowledge of the organizations they represent and learning what kinds of volunteers they need. While picking a favorite experience is difficult (“That is like picking my favorite animal. Impossible!” she says), some experiences are near and dear to her heart.

“Last summer I took part in a dolphin conservation program in Croatia. It was incredible,” she notes. “We had afternoons out on a research boat doing behavioral monitoring of dolphins and in the evening we would cook together using local olive oils and wine. Conservation biology has never looked so lush!”

She also says that all the stray dog programs tug at her heartstrings.
Turtle conservation is a popular choice.
Photo by AEI.

“Our programs in Nepal make me so happy I want to burst!” she says. “Volunteers live beside UNESCO World Heritage Sites while they help public health and safety by giving the street dogs of Nepal a second chance at life…We also have a number of sea turtle centers, which are great fun because to help them we must live on the beach!”

Livingstone says that both she and Dr. Reid visit every organization before adding them to the experience list to make sure their clients have an amazing experience and that they are working with a true conservation organization. This knowledge is valuable because one of the biggest fears people have is safety.

“What we provide is security,” says Livingstone. “Security that the group is an ethical group, run by local community members who are looking out for the interests of the animals. Security that there will be someone there to pick up clients from the airport. Security that you have someone to help you with all the travel speed bumps that come up when you go to another country. Security that dollars and time invested are going to the most ethical, just and conservation-centric groups we have found. Our programs are great because we have been there so we know exactly the type of volunteers the group is asking for, making the volunteers happy and making the center really prosper.”

While animal care and medical skills are useful, potential clients do not need these skills to volunteer. Livingstone says some places need support with feeding, cleaning and enrichments, things most anyone can do. Some places need help with conservation monitoring, some with website design and public outreach while others need veterinary expertise.

“We don’t look for specific skills for most placements, we just look for the willingness to help. Realistically most hard skills; washing dogs, counting wild horses, preparing monkey’s breakfasts, can all be taught,” she adds.

Livingstone says to date the company currently has booked 483 people with 398 of them have completed their experiences. Experiences have a two-week minimum because of the time needed for travel and training, but there is no limit on length of stay and volunteers can have long term experiences for several months if they desire. While costs vary depending on the cost of living in each country, the average cost for a two week trip is about $1900 Canadian.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand is one of
the company's most popular experiences.
Photo by AEI.
“We have a lot of people going next and next, next year!” she says excitedly. “I bet we will have 1000 alumni by 2018.” The company’s most popular experience is an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.

“How could it not be?” asks Livingstone. “The land of Pad Thai and warm weather with the added bonus of working with rescue elephants all day. Amazing!”

For those who are interested, but are not sure if this is the right trip for them, Livingstone tells them not to worry.

“The most common fear is the fear of the unknown,” she says. “People worry about their safety in other countries. The important thing for travelers to remember is that they aren’t volunteering in a bubble. They will most likely be with a number of other international volunteers and local volunteers, employees, supporters and families. We have sent hundreds of volunteers on trips and, even in natural disasters (we had three volunteers on the ground when the Nepali earthquake struck), our volunteers continue to remain safe. This is because of our great partnerships with families and people I call friends, all around the world.”

“Traveling can be scary,” she adds, “but I think it helps knowing we have been there first and made sure the people and groups hosting our volunteers are as in love with our volunteers as I am.” To provide an example of this, Livingstone says that all groups and programs must pass the “my sister/mother” test.

“Would I send my little sister, if I had one? Or my mother and still be able to sleep at night? We have 28 programs and so far, my mum has been on two! We look at safety, community leadership, equal and ethical compensation of workers, high standards of welfare, real volunteer work, not just busy work, and transparency. We want to partner with groups who care about the environment, the animals and the community as much as we do. We look for groups we can trust.”
Volunteers in Costa Rica. 
Where to do you want to go? 
Photo by AEI.

Animal Experience International is also a company people can trust. AEI has been a certified B Corporation since March 2013. That means they have been independently certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance. The US non-profit B Lab promotes businesses that meet “the highest standards of verified, overall social and environment performance, public transparency and legal accountability.” To be certified, organizations must allow B Lab to go through financial books every two years and follow up to make sure the company is benefiting the communities they serve. AEI also provides educational opportunities with pre-approved professional organizations both veterinary and non-veterinary to offer continuing education credits, university credits and college internship/externship credits. Visit the AEI website to learn more about these types of opportunities.

To show that AEI means business, Livingstone says there are organizations she has visited that did not make the list. After visiting, Livingstone says some groups were turned down because the living arrangements were awkward or the organization was more involved with animal tourism instead of conversation.

“We want to be proud of the whole program and sometimes after visiting, we weren’t able to say that,” says Livingstone.

With so many organizations battling for our travel dollars, what is it about AEI that makes it worthwhile? All of Livingstone’s past experience in volunteering and coordinating, both good and bad, are put into Animal Experience International.

“It’s important to know and tell volunteers, not every day will be a sunny one. That is normal and okay and we will all get through it together. People can absolutely volunteer on their own, but they may find that doing it alone leaves them feeling a bit overwhelmed.”

Traveling through AEI means you won’t have to travel alone. In fact AEI offers groups discounts for groups of five or more people. These groups get a 10% discount per person, which can mean hundreds of dollars saved. The largest group Livingstone has booked is 21 people. It’s a way for families and friends to bond while helping another community. 

Find a unique experience for 2017 by visiting the website.

Help animals while seeing another part of the world.
Photo by AEI.

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