What the End of the Tiger Temple Means for Volunteering with Animals Abroad

by Megan Lee

Baby tiger behind a fenced in cage

Wild animals have long been a source of entertainment for humans, but is it done with respect?

Living an ethical life isn’t always as easy as it sounds; ignorance plays a huge role in individuals’ behaviors and decisions. For instance, were you aware that many of your favorite fast-fashion brands violate human rights on a daily basis? Were you aware that palm oil production is doing irreparable damage to the environment and depleting resources at alarming rates?

Or that petting that awesome animal, even in a wildlife sanctuary, might do more harm than good? “Sanctuary,” a word associated with feelings of safety, security, and comfort, might actually be a misnomer. Animal lovers often visit wildlife sanctuaries, both at home and in other countries, to see fascinating creatures up close and to support rescue efforts for endangered species and neglected animals.

But when does the price tag of petting that (admittedly freakin’ adorable) tiger trump the good intentions of conserving animals to eventually reintroduce to the wild? How much are the animals used as a prop to draw in a paying public? And how is that money being spent?

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Last week, animal rights activists rejoiced as the 20+ year old temple in Thailand, dubbed the “Tiger Temple,” was officially shut down by the government of Thailand in response to global pressure over wildlife trafficking. The 147 big cats that called the Buddhist temple “home” were slowly relocated to a government-run DNP facility and other local breeding centers. Accused of exploiting the animals for a quick tourist’s dollar, the once-small-potatoes monastery will no longer open its doors to lovers of Frosted Flakes’ mascot.

What does this mean for animal sanctuaries around the world?

Hopefully, this is the first of many in the long fight towards justice and respect for our four-legged friends. Appreciating the beauty of these creatures can be done without inundating our friends’ newsfeeds with our cute tiger selfies.

The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is working hard to standardize the quality of life for animals in captivity. While education and research are important considerations as benefits to caging creatures, it is far too easy to slip into the unfortunately profitable world of breeding and animal trafficking.

So, don’t worry. You can still waltz up to your favorite tortoise park or watch in awe how kangaroos hop. These facilities aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That being said, it falls on the consumer to differentiate between ethical animal services and ones that are scamming you for your money. Once demand for these quick-photo-ops lessens, so too will their presence.

Sea turtle poking its head out of the water

Sea turtle conservation projects are popular with international volunteers, but it’s important to choose sustainable, ethical projects.

Is volunteering abroad with animals wrong?

There are many genuine animal and wildlife sanctuaries around the world that are positively and effectively working to better the plight of animals. You can even visit these places and interact with animals sometimes, when done in the right way. In order to suss out the good from the bad, we have to be aware that the bad exists.

In the same vein, it is important for would-be conservation volunteers to be aware of the potential pitfalls of wildlife volunteering. It can be an attractive, “exotic” project and satisfy some curiosity about animals in their natural environments. However, it must also be understood that conservation volunteering is a rapidly growing sub-sector of eco-tourism, and has become a marketable commodity in a market dominated by private companies.

Ultimately, if you are considering visiting an animal sanctuary on your travels or volunteering with animals abroad, you should be prepared to put some serious legwork into your research.

Public-handling sessions, close-up photographic opportunities with the animals, and animal-performances (tricks, stunts, etc.) are all red flags. If the organization doesn’t have evidence of their conservation project status or educational information/session on these efforts, proceed with caution. Search an organization’s website to find membership in worldwide organizations that support sustainable conservation, such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria.

How can you avoid a bad animal volunteer project?

The Dogstar Foundation has put together a great list of questions to ask before volunteer with animals abroad:

  • What is the need?
  • What am I going to do that will address that need / do I have the right skills and experiences to actually help?
  • Could local people could be employed and trained to address the need?
  • Is the organization I am working with in country an NGO/Charity or a business?
  • Am I “booking” with the organisation directly or via a third party?
  • How does the NGO/ Charity /business measure the impact the program is having?
  • What supervision/ training will I receive?
  • Where does the money I pay actually go, what % is given to the project if booked via a third party?
  • Does the project really need hands on volunteering or could I provide more practical help from home with fundraising or virtual volunteering?

Get the insider scoop by reading reviews of past participants’ experiences before volunteering with wildlife and before you settle on a program, and check out some of GoAbroad’s top opportunities for volunteering with animals to start your search.

Koala sleeping in a tree

We get it. He’s super cute. But is holding it for a photo really keeping the animal’s best interest in mind?

Care for the Wild International’s Philip Mansbridge put it this way:

The best way to avoid CONservation is to think logically, and not let the emotion or desire to get up close with animals get in the way…Ultimately, the best way to see wildlife is in the wild, in a way that is not interfering with their existence. 

So before you sign up to save baby turtles, reintroduce endangered species to their habitat, ride an elephant, take a koala-selfie, and/or cuddle a tiger, sit down and do some thinking. Then research the heck out of it!

Volunteer abroad with animals and go wild!