How to Use Spring Break Travel to Help the Planet

How to Use Spring Break Travel to Help the Planet
Courtesy: Mia Taylor | News Source:

For countless travelers, spring break typically means two things: quality time at the beach followed by quality time on the party circuit each evening.

It’s practically a rite of passage.

Nora Livingstone however, would like to see travelers consider a different way of spending their spring break, one that could quite possibly change your life.

The CEO and founder of Canada-based Animal Experience International (AEI) suggests using the time off to give back to the planet, and more specifically, endangered wildlife.

Founded in 2012, AEI is a social enterprise that was created with the goal of helping animals around the globe by matching travelers with ethical, authentic volunteer experiences at sanctuaries, hospitals, and research projects.

This ranges from such experiences as volunteering at a wildlife rescue center in Guatemala that was built to help care for and rehabilitate wild animals that were confiscated from the black market by the Guatemalan government, to spending time working on dolphin conservation in Croatia, or perhaps helping to protect wild horses in Mongolia.

The common thread throughout all of AEI’s trips is that they have been carefully vetted by Livingstone and her business partner, Heather Reid, a wildlife veterinarian who has more than 20 years’ experience and has worked with in excess of 200 species of wild animals.

Each placement offered by AEI is personally visited by a member of the team to ensure the work truly helps animals and does not exploit or harm them.

“We always make sure the programs are locally run and have an educational component,” explained Livingstone. “And since Heather is a wildlife veterinarian she is able to understand the nuances of handling of animals, making sure they are treated properly and understanding things like release rates.”

For example, AEI’s offerings in Thailand, which involve working at an elephant rescue center never, ever include riding elephants or using any sort of bullhooks with the animals or chaining them. The center’s mission is to stop the suffering of the magnificent creatures and they do so by providing a sanctuary for elephants who would otherwise be living on the streets of Bangkok or in other large cities.

At the sanctuary, however, the elephants are free to live and roam safely on a large plot of land and the care and attention they receive (including from volunteers) ensures that the elephants can live healthy and natural lives, no longer having to perform for tourists or carry out back-breaking work.

Animal Experience International (AEI)

Animal Experience International (AEI) (Animal Experience International)

Similarly, the dolphin program in Croatia does not involve swimming, touching or trapping the dolphins, said Livingstone.

The locations where volunteers work also have strict rules prohibiting selfies with the animals and more importantly volunteers don’t ever take part in activities that they are not qualified to handle, said Livingstone.

But why spend your spring break this way?

“With volunteer help, the animals' quality of life drastically improves,” Livingstone told me during an interview while she was on location volunteering in Guatemala. “Here in Guatemala, there are about 200 animals we are helping with. There are a total of 10 volunteers and five staff members. Without those volunteers providing enrichment for the animals; cleaning, checking on welfare and feeding them, that’s a lot of work the staff would otherwise have to do.”

“The same with our elephant programs,” Livingstone continued. “When there are double or triple the amount of hands helping these animals, we can ensure they get the very best care…More enrichment, more deep scrub cleaning, more socialization.”

AEI offers numerous program options that are just one week long, which would fit into a typical spring break, Livingstone added, including opportunities to work with elephants or sea turtles. What’s more, AEI is just one example of such opportunities.

And if you can’t pry yourself away from the beach this year, Livingstone advises at the very least opting for a resort that does not include captive animals as part of its offerings, such as swimming with dolphins on property or other such attractions.

“It’s cruel for the animals,” says Livingtone, noting that it is critical to be a responsible traveler and also to find ways to give back.

"Now more than ever we understand humanity’s and tourism’s footprint. We have seen the horrible pictures of plastic in the ocean, we have felt the effects of climate change, we hear about the amount of elephants being poached for ivory,” said Livingstone. “We live in the age of information, which means we also live in the age of compassion and service. We know there are problems but we know there are solutions.”

“It's so easy to be apathetic right now and to be sad. But volunteering is the way for all of us to help,” she said.