Alumni Spotlight: Mera Sande

Mera has a particular fondness for dogs, horses, elephants, sea turtles, sea horses, starfish, wombats and butterflies, but really, she loves all animals. One of her favourite quotes is “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World” (Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)).

Why did you choose this program?

I really wanted to participate in a volunteer experience with animals, the environment and conservation, but I didn’t know where to start. There are so many programs advertised on the internet that it is overwhelming and there is no way of knowing which programs are legitimate. When I found Animal Experience International, something about it resonated with me.

My first email contact with Nora, the CEO, confirmed my intuition. She really took the time to talk to me about AEI and answer all of my questions concerning volunteer placement, without making me feel rushed to make a decision and choose a placement. AEI offers so many interesting programs that I just couldn’t make up my mind. When Nora announced that she was leading a group expedition to Guatemala, I made my decision to go right away.

Having Nora as a group leader was an added bonus as I had many reservations about volunteering in a strange country and concerns about safety.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

AEI offered a wealth of assistance. As soon as I signed up, I received a program manual, which covered everything from pre-trip health care to safety during the placement to packing lists. AEI also partners with a travel agency as an option for volunteers to book their flights. I used them and it really took away the stress of researching and booking flights.

Nora and her team were always there to provide information and answer questions: she even gave us a history lesson on the country. All I really had to do was pack my bag and go, knowing that AEI had also arranged for someone to pick us up at the airport. Even after the trip, I have kept in contact with Nora and AEI. She and the other volunteers on this program will always be my Guatemala crew!

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Don’t go with the expectation of what you will get out of the experience. Rather, go with the intent to work, to give to the world, to be a good citizen. Giving of oneself, one’s time and energy, is the most precious gift that we have to give. It is best given without intent of reward.

When you return home, to work, to school, to your everyday life, you will find that the experience has changed you. You may not be able to define that change, but you will stronger, more of yourself.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Each day followed a similar schedule.

  • Six-thirty AM: Prepare food and feed the animals and clean the cages.
  • Eight AM: Breakfast.
  • Nine Am: Volunteer meeting to discuss animal food intake, behavior and well-being. This meeting is very important as the information will be passed on to the veterinarians and used to determine the overall health of each animal. The caretakers of the animals at the Guatemala sanctuary constantly monitor their behavior for signs of illness or stress - such as a runny nose, missing feathers or fur, not eating and isolation (in the case of social animals) – or (happily) indications that they are ready to be moved to the next stage of rehabilitation. As a volunteer, the veterinarians and animal care technicians will rely on you to report these behaviors, no matter how small they may be. If in doubt, tell the vets or caretakers. What might seem insignificant to you could mean the world to a howler monkey or a macaw!
  • Ten AM: Special projects. for example, cleaning the turtle pond, raking leaves, building bird platforms.
  • Eleven AM: Prepare food and feed the animals.
  • Twelve Noon: Lunch and free time.
  • Two PM: Prepare food and feed the animals.
  • Three PM: free time. Some activities to engage in include swimming, hanging out in the hammocks, go into the nearest town, Flores.
  • Six PM: Dinner.

After an early morning start and a long day, it was usually lights out by nine pm.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

As an introvert and a very private person, I feared that I would be lost in a sea of extroverts. That was not the case at all. Everyone, the other volunteers and the program staff, were all very accepting of all individuals. What is important is one’s dedication to the cause and to the work at hand. This is how one’s personality is expressed and this is what unites people. I learned that there is room for everyone and everyone has a voice. For older people who fear that these programs are for the young only, we had volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 62.

Any last thoughts?

When working with wildlife, it is important to understand that the volunteer programs are about the animals primarily, and our personal experience as a distant second. We are there to help care for the animals, in the most unobtrusive way possible.

Reducing the amount of human/animal contact is extremely important at the sanctuary in Guatemala, as its goal is to release as many animals as possible back to the wild. This means no selfies with wildlife, no eye contact, hand feeding, touching or talking to the animals. The latter is especially important regarding birds such as parrots as their tendency to mimic the human voice can disrupt and even prevent their return to the wild. Added to these rules, is one of my own: no photos through wire cages.

l would like to share with you, World Animal Protection's list of 10 things to avoid when on vacation:

  • Elephant Rides.
  • Wildlife Selfies.
  • Swimming with Dolphins.
  • Wildlife Souvenirs.
  • Monkey Performances.
  • Marine Parks.
  • Crocodile Farms.
  • Tiger Tourism.
  • Holding sea turtles.
  • Bull Runs and Bull Fighting.

“If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with a wild animal, the chances are it’s a cruel venue. Don’t go.” (Quoted from World Animal Protection)