Saturday, October 23, 2010

Volunteering at African Dawn Animal Sanctuary


As I mentioned, after my time at my first placement I was thrilled to be a volunteer at African Dawn. My first week at the sanctuary was absolutely wonderful and exactly what I had hoped for when sitting at home in New York dreaming about the trip. I was doing amazing work with animals in a beautiful setting, with awesome like-minded people and having great intellectually stimulating conversations with the sanctuary’s owner. However the second week things started going downhill.

During my second week at the sanctuary was also Fashion Week in New York and my parents had gone into the city (completely unrelated to Fashion Week) to see my grandmother and sister and were staying at my apartment. I started to become extremely homesick and doubtful of what I was doing on this trip. I guess the grass always looks greener on the other side, and sitting in my little shack in the middle of nowhere Africa, the grass in New York looked like the friggin’ Emerald City it was so green. I had felt a little homesick missing my family and friends, but until this moment I was doing pretty well. When I started to imagine all my friends in cushy jobs working as assistants in the city I started going down the path of the road not taken and wondering the big “What If.” What if I hadn’t decided to try a career in wildlife photography and socially responsible journalism? What if I had stayed in New York and gone into fashion photography like I originally wanted to when I started college? The what if’s started to pile up and can be hard to deal with. I eventually snapped out of my funk and went back to loving the experience of being here. A big thanks is due to all my family and friends for letting me rant via email about being stuck in a shack in Africa and for all their amazing words of wisdom that really helped me pull through.

On top of my own emotional turmoil the sanctuary’s owner had left for the week to pick up a kudu a few days drive north and there was a veritable strain on the workers and volunteers left at the sanctuary. The feeding schedules for the animals are very complicated and elaborate and I had a hard time understanding them and had to keep asking questions- while these questions were tolerated the first week, my second week of questions was met with hostility and frustration. At American sanctuaries I’ve worked at there seems to be a bit more of a learning curve then was allowed at either of the sanctuaries I worked at in South Africa. I do believe though that this attitude I encountered was unique and more do to timing then the general attitude of how the sanctuary usually is. From speaking with long-term volunteers some who had been there before me I don’t think this somewhat hostile attitude is a true reflection on the temperament that most volunteers experience.

Again at this sanctuary like the one before I dealt surprisingly well with the extremely basic living conditions, constantly being covered in animal pee, poo, and cows blood, but I had trouble with the things I wasn’t expecting like being snapped at for asking questions and not being able to ever fully feel like I knew what I was doing. Eventually by the end of the second week I felt more like I knew what I was doing and I had snapped out of my funk so things got better. Unfortunately during the third week I got a horrible case of bronchitis that lasted till Wednesday, followed almost immediately on Friday by a debilitating case of gastro-enteritis, which left my hospitalized with an IV in my arm and then on a week of bed rest.

You can volunteer at the sanctuary for anywhere from two weeks to years on end. I think three or four weeks is a perfect time at the sanctuary for a casual volunteer. If you are a real bird lover you may want more time, but otherwise I think much longer starts to get a little boring. Two weeks is a little short and you leave just as you are starting to get the hang of things. I am personally used to a very fast paced lifestyle and while I really did enjoy working with all the animals, I got bored after the first week. I think this may have to do with the fact that after the first week things felt tense and I felt a bit rushed to complete all my tasks, and I didn’t get very much animal interaction. I spent most of the time just dropping off food and leaving. Despite all my hang-ups with my first sanctuary, at least I got to spend a lot of time interacting with the lion cubs. I would suggest if you are volunteering here (or anywhere really) to be proactive and if you feel like your not having enough animal interaction simply find more. If you love cats ask if you can help out more with the servals or cheetahs. If you love dogs take the dogs for a walk through the game park and enjoy the beautiful view of rolling hills dotted with antelope and zebras. Use your downtime to sit in with the animals and take moments to enjoy the experience while doing the feeding and cleaning chores because those small moments will make all the difference. I have really learned on this trip that my enjoyment is my responsibility and if I am in a funk or feeling unhappy it is up to be to be proactive to change my circumstances. That lesson is one that I will definitely take home with me and will apply it in the future to my life back home.


The living conditions at African Dawn are extremely basic and volunteers should be prepared. If you have never traveled in third world countries as a back packer there are certain things that you probably don’t know you need, which are very important! First if you are going anytime other than summer it gets extremely cold at night and you need a warm sleeping bag! I would also suggest warm clothes to sleep in because the sleeping bag alone may not keep you warm. A towel is also very important! Many travelers don’t think to bring a towel and backpacker/hostel accommodations do not provide them. I would also suggest a robe because the bathrooms are not attached to the rooms and it is nice to have something other than a towel to go back and forth between your room and the bathroom. Rubber flip flops or shower shoes are also a good idea because the bathroom floor can be a bit gross as the cats often kill rabbits and mice and leave them as little dead presents for the volunteers in the showers. The housing for the volunteers is just down a big hill from the rest of the sanctuary- literally a 5-minute or less walk to the main entrance, but it is a steep hill and it is a great leg workout as you walk up and down multiple times every day.


Most of the rooms are dormitory style with bunk beds and are lined up next to each other in a little complex with the bathroom attached. There are also three little shacks very near the complex of rooms. The shacks are nice because they are private, but they are very small with no storage space and if you are sharing one no privacy. They also have the problem that they can be locked from both the inside and outside. A few days into the first week my roommate locked me in by mistake and went up to dinner. Everyone was up at dinner and had forgotten about me and I didn’t have the phone number of the sanctuary in my phone yet, I had to call an i-to-i representative to call up to the sanctuary to have someone let me out. Luckily I am not overly claustrophobic, but it was enough of an anxiety-inducing experience for my roommate to move into another shack and I was left with the privacy of my own cabin. The cabins do have a light bulb, a fan, and one electrical outlet.


If you keep your door closed the bugs pretty much stay out, but I did have one tarantula-sized spider visit me one evening. I came back down to my room late in the dark and came inside and closed my door using my flashlight to find the latch and my flashlight shined on the gigantic spider perched on the slatted window blinds on the inside of my door. After screaming and hyperventilating for a few minutes I grabbed my shoe and slammed it against the door (this spider was to big to crush with a tissue). Unfortunately all that happened is the spider slipped between the window and the blind slats. Now this was a major problem because if I just left him there he may have crawled out during the night and could have ended up in my bed, which I swear would have given me a heart attack and killed me. I tried to open the slats from the bottom, determined to still squish him, but they were stuck on the side he was on. I did however get the ones on the other half of the window open. After about five minutes of freaking out I came up with the brilliant idea of gassing him out. I then used almost an entire bottle of bug spray to gas him out of hiding and onto the half of the window that was exposed where I promptly crushed him with my shoe. The whole process took about 30 minutes and I was a nervous wreck afterward, but Rebecca-1, spider-0!

I believe that I had a rather unique confluence of events to create a less than optimal experience, but I would still highly recommend volunteering at the sanctuary. Because of the wonderful time I had the first week, I think that under different circumstances I could have had a much better time and other people thinking of volunteering would really enjoy it. I think it is an amazing opportunity to do great work and really be part of a wonderful sanctuary on the front lines of the battle to save animals in Africa. As for the giant spiders, cold nights, and perpetually being covered in animal excrement- whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I really think you will leave the sanctuary a stronger more self-aware person.


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