Hot New Vacation Destination: Animal Rescue Shelters

For most people the word "vacation" conjures images of relaxing in a tropical paradise, but for some animal lovers, their precious time off isn’t spent sipping margaritas. Fueled by a desire to make a difference, they’re using all, or part, of their vacation time to help improve the lives of homeless pets here and abroad.

One of those people is Crystal Hall, an administrative assistant who lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Hall's last five vacations were spent at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, where she happily works eight-hour days filling food bowls, washing litter boxes and grooming cats.

“I think I have a bit of a cat addiction,” she says with a laugh. “I just love them and can’t get enough of them. It just makes me happy to see them happy.”

Labor of love

Hall isn’t alone. Each year, almost 5,000 volunteers make the journey to Best Friends, the nation’s largest no-kill shelter caring for abused and abandoned animals.

Located in the heart of the Golden Circle of national parks, the refuge is a short drive to the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Lake Powell.

Some people help for a few hours; others stay few days, said Barbara Williamson, a spokesperson for Best Friends.

“Some even end up moving here permanently so they can contribute their labor of love to the sanctuary on a regular basis,” she said.

Offering volunteer vacations wasn’t a formal idea when the sanctuary was founded two decades ago. Over time, though, enough people began showing up that a full-time staff was needed to handle the requests.

In the beginning, rustic cabins on the 33,000 acre ranch — built when the area served as a movie location in the 1950s — provided accommodations for folks who didn’t mind “camping indoors.”

Today, modernized cottages and a few RV spots provide clean, convenient places to stay for a nominal fee. Deem yourself lucky, though, to land a coveted reservation. The vast majority of visitors must stay in the nearby town.

Global effort

For an overseas adventure, World Vets — a nonprofit organization that provides medical aid to areas with limited or no access to veterinary care — might be the right feel-good trip for you.

Small groups of licensed veterinarians and technicians, as well as animal enthusiasts, fly to far-off destinations to work mainly on spay-neuter projects. Upcoming trips this year include Costa Rica, India, Mexico and Panama.

No prior experience is necessary. Volunteers are trained on location for tasks ranging from giving injections and applying flea treatment to capturing cats and dogs for surgery.

Even though you’re donating your time, the trip isn’t free. On average, expect to pay $600 (plus airfare) for hotel, local transportation and other related expenses.

World Vets director Cathy King, DVM, said most trips are designed as ongoing projects for maximum impact to both the community and animals.

“We don’t just go one time and do a project and leave,” she said. “We want to go and have a pretty significant impact through sustainability.”

In November, for example, a team is traveling to the tiny village of Tena, Ecuador, where mass poisonings control the burgeoning population of stray dogs and cats.

In exchange for stopping the practice, World Vets members are launching a community-wide, spay-neuter program that includes surgical training for local veterinarians, public education and sterilizing as many animals as possible.

On these trips, though, expect to work more than play. Volunteers toil daily for 10 hours during excursions. And usually only a day or two is allotted for sight-seeing.

Still, that hasn’t stopped animal lovers from signing up.

“Because we’re working closely with the local people in these communities, it really gives you a different perspective of the country than you would get as a tourist,” says King. “For many people it’s the experience of a lifetime.”

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