“I want to volunteer with animals in Africa. Or with children, but preferably with animals. I mean baby animals, especially lions and monkeys. Maybe also a few baby antelopes, but you can’t hug them as nicely. On TikTok I saw someone sitting on the floor, while cute animals were crawling all over him. Super adorable, I want that too!”

This is a message I got from someone who had very enthusiastically reached out to ask some questions about her gap year. Of course I wanted to help her make her beautiful dreams come true. So to be able to give her the best advice, I asked what exactly she had in mind for her time in Africa. And then I got the above answer…

Volunteering with animals gives you beautiful pictures

I certainly get it. Baby animals are super cute and cuddly. I often compare it to puppies and kittens. Who can resist petting them? And then there are the amounts of likes you’ll get on social media when posting photos with these baby animals.

Petting a baby lion in Africa
Isn’t this cute?!

The big difference with lions and monkeys is that they belong in the wild. Unfortunately, there are situations in which all kinds of orphaned animals end up in a rescue or rehabilitation centre. The fact that they are raised by humans from then on, doesn’t mean they should be treated as pets. A good, ethical wildlife centre aims to release as many animals as possible back into the wild. Whether they came in as a young orphan, or as an adult with illness or injury, they should eventually go back to nature. And that is only possible if they are cared for in a professional and responsible way.

What exactly does this professional and responsible care mean?

It differs per animal species, but in general you can recognize an ethical wildlife centre by the following points:

  • Animals are kept in an enclosure in which their natural environment is imitated as closely as possible.
  • Animals get food that they would also get in the wild, or that comes as close to it as possible. No, yogurt drinks are not healthy for wildlife!
  • Animals are only here for as short a time as possible, and are released back into the wild as soon as they are ready.
  • No babies are born here, unless the organization is part of an official breeding program. In that case, the centre specializes in a limited number of animal species (usually even just one), and the young are released into protected natural areas as soon as they are independent after an extensive integration or rewilding process. This is not possible with every animal (species or individuals) anyway.
  • 99% of ethical wildlife centres are registered as a foundation or non-profit organization and not as a commercial business. They are also affiliated with or recognized by umbrella organizations.
  • The animals, young or adults, come into contact with people as little as possible.* Where possible, the animals do not see, hear or smell people at all. So cuddling is really NOT DONE and if volunteers or tourists are allowed to do this for a fee, you know that money is more important here than animal welfare.
  • And to come back to the beginning of this story, not everyone is allowed to come here to volunteer for just any job. Even if you do or have done a specific training in animal care, that does not automatically mean that you have all the knowledge to deal with all the different animals right away. The permanent team consists of professionals and is only supported by volunteers in specific tasks. Without these volunteers and/or their financial contributions, the project can still continue in the same sustainable way.

* For most apes and monkeys it’s very important that young animals are held and touched a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to find an adoptive mother. In that case, people will have to fulfil this role. However, this should always be done by professional and experienced caretakers, who know the differences between, for example, monkey and human body language, and who are fully committed to raising that one baby monkey or ape, just like their own mother would do.

Volunteering with animals in Africa with a monkey
We all learn every day. I have also done some work at a place where they hand-raised cute animals, like this monkey, under unprofessional circumstances. It was before I started wearing glasses to see the world better…

Volunteering with animals at a zoo

I’m talking about volunteering at an animal rescue or rehabilitation centre, but of course you could also go volunteer at certain zoos. If that’s what you’re up to, then you probably don’t expect to be able to cuddle with baby animals. That would certainly be an great option, as long as you keep in mind that zoos abroad (and certainly outside the EU, US and Australia) often have less rules and regulations. To make it extra confusing, in many African countries the differences between a zoo and an animal rescue centre are not entirely clear. They often overlap.

Pay close attention to the points I mentioned above. Because you only want to have valuable experiences at a place where real good work is done, right?

Impalas on safari while volunteering with animals in Africa
Nothing beats seeing animals in the wild, no matter how cute and cuddly they are

Is volunteering with animals in Africa always bad?

Would you really like to volunteer with animals? First, think carefully about why you want to come and do that in Africa. I’m sure the petting zoo or animal shelter near you could use volunteers too.

If you have thought carefully and have several responsible reasons for coming to Africa to volunteer with animals, then you are of course very welcome on this fantastic continent. But be mindful of the choices you make. Unfortunately, not every animal project is about the animals.

You now have a much better idea of the kind of projects and organizations that handle animals ethically and responsibly. They will never allow you as a volunteer to come and cuddle, bottle or bathe the animals.

But even though it may seem like you’re not allowed anything now, you can still make a positive impact in Africa by volunteering with animals! Do you want to know how?

Then make use of our knowledge and years of experience, and follow the course

More impact and joy while volunteering in Africa