Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Glassman Photography

Before starting our volunteer day at Return to Freedom, we gathered in a barn where our leader, biologist Celeste Carlisle, asked us what we enjoyed about horses. Some people said they liked learning from animals. Others lauded their whimsical personalities or calming demeanor. I fidgeted on my haybale seat. I don’t have much experience with horses. Or animals in general. I’d come to the sanctuary to escape smoggy city life, get some exercise, and soak in the coastal scenery.

“I like their beautiful colors,” I said, blushing as I heard my insubstantial words.

Luckily, a 6-year-old comedian quickly captured the spotlight when he made a joke about horse poop. As we headed over to the central barn to start work, I realized with dismay that he had set the tone for the day.

“This is your poop fork,” said Carlisle, as she grasped the wooden handle of a pitchfork. “You take the manure and put it into the wheelbarrow, then rake the leftover hay.”

It didn’t take long for me to get lost in the calming repetition of scooping, tossing, and raking. Sunlight poured into the barn, and friendly horses peered through the fencing to check out our work. In the 1990s, sanctuary founder Neda DeMayo devoted herself to the plight of wild horses. A longtime horse lover, she researched conservation policy, visited sanctuaries, and created a plan to help. In 1997, she left her job as a Hollywood stylist to create Return to Freedom in Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County.

Most of the ranch’s 255 horses and burros are wild and come from government roundups on public lands. The sanctuary re-releases these animals and lets them live out their lives with minimal interference on its 300 acres. The sanctuary also rescues horses from abusive homes or failed adoptions and houses many of them.

Most of the sanctuary’s horses and donkeys roam free on the surrounding golden hillsides. Volunteers can glimpse the wild creatures during a guided hike by foot. As we climbed away from the ranch, we passed the dun mustang with flowing black hair that inspired the animated film Spirit and the “three amigos,” a band of inseparable donkeys.

As I watched the mustangs roam the countryside, I felt privileged to help preserve their home—even if my role was as modest as mucking.

Humpback Whale Research

Off the coast of CostaRica’s remote Osa Peninsula, spend your days at sea counting humpback whales with Oceanic Socity, identifying them by their markings, plotting their movements, and recording their sounds. Your work will help to determine if the same whales return each year and whether the area should be designated as a marine sanctuary. $2,690 for one week, including food, lodging, and airfare from San Jose,Costa Rica.

Snow Leopard Conservation in Central Asia

Snow Leopard Conservation

In Land Rovers and on foot, climb Central Asia’s mountains in pursuit of snow leopards. Volunteers search for the elusive green-eyed cats by tracking their footprints, scat, and prey: the argali (mountain sheep) and the Altai ibex. The expeditions provide data that can be used to help protect the endangered cats. At night, retreat to a base camp at 7,500 feet. Snowy peaks tower overhead, and the immense, open steppe stretches out below.

Escort Elephants in Thailand

Escort Elephants

Accompany elephants as they make their way to a “retirement” park in Northern Thailand after careers in trekking camps. The project is an attempt both to give the elephants a more pleasant, natural life and to rebuild the bonds between the animals and the Karen people, who have traditionally worked closely with elephants. Volunteers stay in homes in Karen villages.

Orangutan Rehabilitation in Indonesia

Orangutan Rehabilitation

This riverside orangutan rehabilitation camp is usually reachable only by boat. For times when the Sekonyer Kanan River runs dry, volunteers are building a 2.5-mile boardwalk to the camp. Workers are often approached by two curious orangutans, a welcome interruption following a busy day in the humid rain forest.

Meerkat Conservation in South Africa

Meerkat Conservation

Just south of the Botswana border, in the Kuruman River Reserve, you’ll find meerkats so friendly they occasionally jump on volunteers’ heads. Visitors study the effects of the mammals’ cooperative breeding, in which adults help raise each other’s pups. You’ll learn how to weigh a meerkat and observe the intriguing interactions between the meerkat and the fork-tailed drongo, a bird that steals the meerkat’s food. At night, stargaze in the vast Kalahari skies before retreating to a thatched-roof hut.

>>Next: How to Plan a Volunteer Vacation You’ll Really Love

Kellie Schmitt I’m a health reporter, science writing graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and contributor to the Center for Health Journalism.

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