Animal care «volunteering» for private individuals is something a lot of people desire to do as a way to take a cheaper holiday. I’m no different; I’m on my sixth Workaway experience. In exchange for walking the dogs, feeding chickens, or riding horses you get room and board, a more intimate knowledge of the locals and their culture, and most of the day is free to do as you please. Sounds ideal. Remember, there’s no such thing as a free ride. People that need someone to care for their animals require help because they’re a lot of work. Either that or they just don’t want to do the dirty work.
What they don’t tell you about the chickens is that they also have roosters. Only in storybooks do they crow when the sun rises. Fact is, they start around 3:30 in the morning and crow for five minutes every half hour until the sun rises. Only then do they go silent. You’ll probably be stuck in the room closest to their roost, too. Haha if you think ear plugs are going to save you from coq-induced sleep deprivation.
People that “just need someone to walk the dogs” usually have at least four of these creatures. Have you ever walked five dogs on leashes at the same time? It’s quite a challenge, especially when one needs to stop and do its business and some of the others decide it’s a good time to run. One gets a sense of what it must’ve felt like to be quartered in the Middle Ages. Then, if your shoulders haven’t been dislocated, you have to attempt to pick up the mess while reining in the others.
Having a main responsibility of caring for pooches also means that they need to be walked three times a day so forget about sleeping late or having the days free because you’ll have to be back by midday to take them out. It also means that when the owner abruptly changes the dog food on them then goes out of town, you get left cleaning up the ensuing diarrhea from five dogs.
No matter how much you love dogs, there’s always one that will make you nuts with his incessant barking, whining or licking of himself. Ever try petting just one dog? Impossible! As soon as the others see one getting attention they all come for some loving. While this seems like a sweet dilemma it can be overwhelming when they’re jumping on you, claws digging in, or the dogs are large and prevent any breathing of fresh air. It can be a bit scary, too, when jealousy causes some serious growling while you’re buried under them. Personally, I don’t like dogs to lick me. I’ve seen where they put their mouths and the ones that I’m currently caring for like to eat horse manure. It makes me nauseous every time.
Then there are the horses: big, beautiful, majestic beasts that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. However, here, my job is to shovel up wheelbarrows full of their manure first thing every morning and to remove the ammonia reeking, urine soaked hay from their stalls. I don’t actually mind the work but when we spoke there was no mention of this. She did advertise for needing admin help as she has her own publishing business. That’s what I came to do, plus “a little help” with the animals. So far there hasn’t been any need or desire for administrative work. Hopefully I’ll get to go for a ride before I leave.
On top of all this, animal care opportunities are often far from other life. If you’re the only volunteer it can be quite lonely and boring. Without a car, to get anywhere can be a lengthy ordeal that must be timed perfectly if buses are infrequent.
The intent here isn’t to deter but to forewarn of the realities. Hosts also suffer when their volunteers are disillusioned. Nobody wants bad reviews and hosts particularly don’t want to be left in the lurch because the volunteer had no clue of the smells, filth or intensive labor involved with animal care. Sometimes, however, it’s the hosts fault, like in my current situation where she was less than forthcoming about my responsibilities and her expectations. For everyone’s benefit it is important to have a clear idea of what you want and expect from the experience. If you need to be near city life, don’t volunteer in the country. If you require solitude, don’t volunteer in a chaotic house filled with animals, children and friends that constantly come and go. If you’re an animal lover don’t volunteer at a self-sufficient farm where that rabbit you named in the morning will be on your dinner plate in the evening. Have a video call with the host get a sense of their personality and to outline exactly what your duties will be. While there needs to be flexibility here, if they are vague take heed. Go into details like how many hours daily, time frame of work and days off. Sometimes they’ll expect you to cook dinner and clean up afterward even if you’ve already put in your hours for the day so clarify this. Also, be honest with them about any limitations you may have. There is no right or wrong when it comes to this as long as honest conversations have been held and everyone is in agreement with the terms. Problems arise when people feel like they’ve been lied to or are being taken advantage of.
So go forth and care for the furry friends. Feed them, give them love and walks, and clean up after their messes. You’ve been warned.