When people hear about programs in the Amazon jungle, they probably imagine rustic accommodations, sleeping in tents, or picking a tree for the bathroom. But when I walked into the kitchen at Lead Adventure’s volunteer site, the first thing I saw was a television.
That’s right. In the center, the volunteers had a television, Wifi, and tiled bathrooms. But living in this luxury didn’t mean that they were on vacation; in fact, this was one of the most impressive volunteer programs that I’ve ever seen.
The ethics of “voluntourism” is one that often deters people from going overseas to help out. All too often, young college students are found hopping on planes around the world to find that the only people truly benefitting from the work are themselves. Because of this, I always tiptoed around volunteer websites and recommendations with caution.
However, being at the animal rescue center was a completely different story. Here, the volunteers did real, meaningful work. There were boards listing the different tasks of each volunteer, and if it didn’t get done it mattered. Each person’s contribution truly made a difference to the center.
Purpose of the center
The overall purpose of the station is to rehabilitate animals that have been abandoned or mistreated. Local officials or citizens usually drop them off so the amount and type of animals varies. Each animal is placed in a separate quarantined space until they were ready to be moved to an enclosure. At the time I was there, they were even preparing to move a black caiman from the quarantine.
What I liked most about the center was that it’s run entirely on donations, money from volunteers, and visitor entrance fees. Because of this, the revenue really does go back into the local community, something that people don’t often discuss when it comes to volunteering.
I was told that the center could hold 15-16 volunteers in total but that they usually have 9-10 at a time (depending on the season).
What do the volunteers do?
Twice a day, volunteers gathered in the kitchen to chop up fruit and separate them into the appropriate buckets. Each group of animals had their own specific diet that they had to follow, so what each person worked on was important. Afterwards, the volunteers fed the animals themselves, allowing them to get first-hand experience.
They also had to help out with a variety of projects that could range anywhere from painting the walls to building enclosures. For more specialized work, the center brought in skilled professionals, easing my concerns about having volunteers do work that was too difficult for them. Sometimes they also had to observe the animals and record their behavior on ethographs, an activity perfect for students. But you didn’t have to have any special skills to that; the coordinators explain how to use it.
And there was plenty of work to go around. Although the center looks small, the paths actually wind between trees to extend far out to a large man-made lagoon where caiman are kept. In one walk, you can see monkeys, pavas, birds, tortoises, and more. This large amount of animals makes it a popular tourist attraction as well.
On the weekends, each person was required to work for at least one morning. This would be discussed and arranged at a weekly meeting. But when the volunteers weren’t working, they were free to relax, go to Puyo, or even visit Banos, a nearby place known for its affordable adventure activities. Playing cards was also a popular activity in-between work.
Visits to Puyo
Luckily for the volunteers, the nearest town isn’t very far away and it only costs 30 cents to take the bus there. Volunteers often stop by Puyo to pick up food or drop off laundry. If they bring back any food, there are separate cabinets in the kitchen where they can keep it.
Puyo is also the town that volunteers first arrive in. The ride from Quito to Puyo takes about five hours and a cab from the bus station to the animal center is about three dollars.
Volunteers were also required to help out with cooking and cleaning up. Like the other work, it was divided up so that everything was organized and efficient. Many of the volunteers were vegetarian (which made sense considering where we were), which wasn’t a problem at all. Whenever there was meat, there was also an alternative choice such as eggs or veggie burgers. For breakfast, food was placed out and the volunteers could help themselves.
While I was there, the coordinators had an additional fun project for us. Once a week, the volunteers were given a budget to go into town and get ingredients. With this, they could cook any meal they wanted.