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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Consent-based volunteering and tourism with Nora of AEI

Imagine being able to live your dreams, travel the world and volunteer with animals! Well, guess what? You can totally do that with Animal Experience International (AEI), a B-Corp organization!

In this episode, we invited co-founder Nora to share more about the unique experiences offered through AEI. Together, Michelle and Nora discuss how to find a career path that aligns with your passions and how volunteering helps you discover new passions. They also unpack how AEI helps you make memorable and rewarding experiences through their various programs and how AEI puts consent based and ethical volunteering at the forefront of all of their adventures.

So, if working with wild horses in Mongolia alongside Mongolian experts sounds right up your alley, listen in!

Topics Discussed

  • Nora’s journey of finding a career path that aligned with her passions.

  • What ethical animal volunteering looks like.

  • Defining consent-based volunteering and tourism.

  • How volunteering leads to finding new passions, interests and hobbies.

  • The incredible programs at Animal Experience International.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year podcast! My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap your expert.

Today, we are talking all things animals with the incredible Nora from animal Experience International and she has so many little gems to share with us today, so welcome to the podcast Nora.

Nora - 00:23

Oh, thank you so much Michelle, it is excellent to be here.

Michelle Dittmer - 00:28

Wonderful, so why don't you give us a little bit of your back story because you don't get involved in animals in this way unless you love animals. So how did you end up where you are today? What was that back story for us?

Nora - 00:43

Yeah, well that is a great question because it gets me to talk about myself and I love talking about myself and also it is a long story, but I'll make it short, don't worry!

I always loved animals and I always knew I didn't want to be a vet. So I knew I wanted to do something with animals and I had no idea what that looked like. I remember talking to my high school guidance counselor and they told me that I was really strong in English and really strong in environmental studies, and so I should consider being a secretary. I'm not so old that we even called them secretaries, they were still administrative assistants when I went to high school and lso that is not an animal job and so I left going “I have no idea what I'm going to do”.

So, I went to university. I went to Trent in Peterborough for environmental studies and anthropology, hoping that something would jump out at me. I loved thinking about how different people interact with each other in different cultures. And you know, all of us like animals around the world is what I also figured out in school.

And then I went travelling after I graduated and I volunteered in central and then Southeast Asia with a bunch of different groups, a bunch of different programs, but what really made my heart come alive was I volunteered with dogs and Nepal and then elephants in Thailand. So I got back to Canada and I was like OK, how does this translate? I love doing hands-on work. I'm not a vet. What do I do?

I became a volunteer coordinator at a wildlife centre in Canada and then a few years after that my business partner said, hey, I have this idea to help people travel like you did and volunteer with animals. Her name is Doctor Heather Reed, she is an amazing wildlife veterinarian. She said that she can vet the programs for animal welfare and why don't we help people travel and it was like, YES! That totally makes sense. I love travel, I love animals, I love people. That is what my high school guidance counsellor should have said to me. Why did they not know about this company that didn't exist until we invented it?

Michelle Dittmer - 03:09

I think that it's accurate, right? Guidance counsellors only know what they know and so they try and put you in a box, I think sometimes. They say your test, your test scores show this or your aptitudes are this and that tells us this direction and sometimes we have to like shake our heads and go that doesn't feel right I don't like that is that is not something that would light me up every day, so I'm going to carve my own path and that's really kind of what you did.

As a side note, though, anybody who's heading into post secondary should take anthropology courses. I think it is one of the most underrated streams that exist and people just don't know anything about it. Even with my biology chemistry degree, my Anthro courses were some of my favourite courses!

Nora - 04:02

I totally agree! I just kind of picked anthropology because the course material like one of the books had like a cool cover on it with all kinds of masks and I was like I want to learn about that. And then I remember sitting in our very first lecture and anthropology and our Prof said you're all sitting in chairs and you're all looking at me. Why did you do that? And we all went. I don't because the chair is here so why did you sit in the chair? Like because chairs are for sitting just like well, who told you that? And we all want what? It's so eye opening to learn about people around the world, but then learn so much about yourself and so much what you take for granted and what's happening in your culture.

Michelle Dittmer - 04:50

Anthropomorphism at it's finest, haven’t said that word in a million years!

I think it also kind of shapes a lot of our understanding in the travel world or people who have been bitten by that travel bug. There's so many things that we learn by observing, and it really also not only do we have the magnifying glass looking at other cultures, but that magnifying glass turns into a mirror and you start looking at yourself and the things that you just kind of do because you've always done it and you start to question things and look at things in a different way and I think that's a skill and it feeds really well into entrepreneurship as well where you see an opportunity and then you fill that opportunity with a solution, which is what you guys did which is so fantastic.

Nora - 05:50

That is an excellent segue! But yeah, it's all about that storytelling, right, and seeing where you fit in the world and how other people fit there as well.

So instead of you going, you know instead of the roots of anthropology and othering and us going to see how different people are. It's well, how different are we to each other and how do we all fit together, and in that mosaic? And those masks on that book that I saw? How are all of them important? And how are all of them from different cultures, they're all masks, they all use sort of the same pigment, the same paints the same sort of folklores. How does that fit?

Then yeah, in entrepreneurship the same thing. How do I fit in the world and how do I fit with everyone else? And how can I help other people fit as well?

Michelle Dittmer - 06:42

And in your case, how do you stand out like nobody else has this focus like you guys do, which I think is just so brilliant especially when we're looking at the world of animal lovers like there is a certain gene, I don't know something in bred with people that they that they have this passion for animals and we all want to support them and that is really something that you guys saw.

So what do you think it is about volunteering with animals or supporting animals that is so contagious or so thrilling that people want to get involved with that?

Nora - 07:27

Well, I think one of the things that I think makes it so thrilling is oftentimes we are told no, because you don't have a degree or no, you don't have experience or no you've never held a monkey before. So of course you can't do that.

However, with the right guardrails and the right training and parameters and leadership around you really can help animals in many, many different ways. I think what often happens is people wherever they're from, if they see a sad, hurt, injured animal, they want to help.

But then they go, but it's not for me. I don't know what to do, I don't know how to help it or they watched a nature documentary and they go Oh my gosh, like something's happening with the coral someone needs to help. Or you know there are polar bears, there's any matter of sad things to talk about, but all of us are so action driven we wanna help or we want to go like what but what can I do? And donating is very helpful and is so good. But people want to do more.

They want to have that tangible, actionable thing and they want to have a memory of doing it.

How oftentimes we donate and that helps, and that's wonderful. But then we forget and then at tax time we go like what I donated to that.

When we go away when we get our hands dirty when we are in experiential learning, these are memories that last forever and so people go they and they can then look themselves in the mirror, looks itself in the face I guess is the actual expression, but they can tell their friends and they can look around them and say, ah, I have a place in this world and I know that I do because I helped this monkey, dog, elephant, horse, things like that.

It's just, you know, understanding the world a bit more and understanding that you can help and you can do something I think just feels good

Michelle Dittmer - 09:38

Super empowering! I think that goes across sectors, whether it's animals or other people's causes that are particularly close to your heart. I think that we get endorphins released.

We get those, feel good hormones when we are supporting somebody else in that sustained ability to help out, like physically is so powerful, and I think those memories that you take home too.

If we go loop it back again to storytelling, the stories that you get to tell afterwards also have a ripple effect, because then people will understand some of the issues that these animals are facing, or some of the other opportunities that are out there. So not only did you support through the actual physical work that you did, but those stories that you bring home might inspire somebody else to support either financially or get involved in some way, so you're actually magnifying the impact that you're having by telling stories and by having those memories for yourself.

Nora - 10:41

Absolutely and having those stories of hope! Like we have a sea turtle centre in Australia which is amazing and there is hands-on work with the sea turtles. But then you are living in and supported by the local community and two of the sea turtle conservation supported activities is planting mangrove trees and the other is helping a recycling co-op that's run by women. I just think that it is so amazing and we often say that we trick people into learning about themselves and learning about human rights issues. We tricked them by saying you're going to see a sea turtle and then saying you're going to see a sea turtle. You're going to help it and you're going to understand all the different intersections that sea turtle conservation is important to you, to the environment, to local men and women and everyone.

So people come back and, you know, they tell those stories. Like you said, they say people say oh, what did you do with the sea turtles and they have these making stories and are like, but what's also equally incredible is there is this locally run women's co-op that does recycling with everything they find on the beach and with the whole municipality and it was supported and it started by the centre. And now these women are all through the pandemic, never lost their job, always were able to be breadwinners, always helping their families through recycling and through sea turtle conservation.

I think it's just so great and again, like you don't have to be a vet you don't have to be on track to do vetty stuff, you can just go down and say, oh, sea turtles seem kind of neat. And then you learn about recycling. And you're like, oh, I actually want to do more of this. Where I wanna learn about micro biome or woman's co-ops or everything else. I think that the story thread goes through so many it gets woven into so many different patterns that can be really interesting.

Michelle Dittmer - 12:54

Also, the complexity of the world that we live in. You may be brought in through this one vein, but you're actually going to be exposed to so many other issues, and the interconnectedness of that I think, is also really humbling for us, as human beings to realise that there is so much more than that, that elephant that has been brought into captivity for tourists like the issues are so much there's so many compounding factors that you get exposure to and you discover other passions that you might never have known that you had, and things that you want to pursue, or things that make you curious, or things you want to learn more about, which is really part of my goal in living is how do I maintain curiosity? That is what makes life exciting, is always asking what's next or what's different or or how do I get involved and having new experiences and opportunities is a way to really bring that to life.

I want to loop back to what you kind of said a little while ago, you were talking about volunteering but having those guardrails in place and some parameters because I think when it comes to volunteering when it comes to volunteering abroad, when it comes to volunteering with animals that don't necessarily have a voice, I think sometimes things can go awry. So what are some of those pitfalls and subsequent guardrails that exist when it comes to volunteering with animals?

Nora - 14:33

Yeah, well you know to start on a happy note and then I'll get to a not so happy note. The one of the most empowering and wonderful parts of my job is every time I go somewhere I am working in the local community with leaders who have helped these animals before I got there. Who will help them when I'm there and help them when I leave and so it's not about me being a white saviour coming in changing everything.

It's me saying “what are the leaders doing and how can I help them”? So we only go to places that contact us first and say we are looking for help and this is what the help should look like, so we typically don't have professionals that come with us because there's already professionals on the ground. What we don't need to have vets. We need people that will support the work of these vets and can do work that anyone can do. Anyone can cut up a banana to help an orphan monkey. A vet doesn't need to do that, but I can do it and I have a much better experience because of that.

But so one of the guardrails is making sure that we're always working in the local community.

I am just a conduit to help other people learn what everyone else is doing. I have been to all of our programs and even more and that means I have been to more than 45 countries and I like to tell people that I don't know anything. I just know treat me like I'm five. I've been to a lot of different places, but I have not been to this community yet, so what are your problems? What are your solutions? What can we help with?

I think the other problem unfortunately is so we all, well, I didn't, I will not lie to you, Michelle.

I did not watch Tiger King, but a number of other people did in this past while and it really showed how people, a lot of people have entitlement over animals and this happens a lot in tourism as well. That people want to pay some money, have an experience, and then leave again. This happens a lot in volunteering, and this is one of the reasons. I visit all the places first because I want to make sure that everything is on the level and it has high standards of animal welfare so I can go up to a worker and say hey can I maybe ride the elephant and if they say whoa, no, absolutely not, why would you ask that? I can say oh perfect! Because elephants don't want to be ridden and they shouldn't be ridden, and so we have to make sure that it's not about exploitation.

We have something that we call consent based volunteering that over, you know, we, we've been doing for the past ten years, but we've been calling consent based tourism for the last year because I made it up, but I really like it.

And we look at it in sort of like a triangle that every being in the interaction is consenting to it. And if they're not consenting they can leave. So the local community is saying yes, we do want you here. Please come, they are not being coerced into it and saying like I guess we'll have volunteers. They're saying no, no come come. The volunteer wants to be there. They want to have this interaction. They are given the tools. They are trained. And again they're not coerced in going. Oh, I guess this is fine. They have the correct expectations of what they'll be doing.

And then the animals also are consenting to it, so they are not on tethers, they're not chained.

If there is an enclosure, they have to be in because it's a wildlife rehab and they need to be protected from people or people need to be protected from them. They can leave, they can go somewhere and hide or den, or, you know, get away from the interaction that could happen.

And so it's you know, it's one of those things that we see people swimming with dolphins riding elephants, putting slow lorises or monkeys on their shoulders for a picture, every person thinks it's just one interaction. And yes, for you that was your one and only interaction. But maybe in that day that was 100 people on the back of an elephant. That was 100 people that swam with that dolphin that lives in a small tank. And so you know, we look at the exploitation that happens through tourism and through the entitlement people have over animals and we say there's a better way, and there's a way that we don't have to feel gross like we can help tigers.

We can help dolphins. We can help wild horses and we're not going to leave and tell these stories later on with an asterisk of being like it felt OK, until I saw this happen, everything is vetted so we can say it was amazing because all this happened.

Michelle Dittmer - 19:40

Yeah, I think that's I think that's so important because there is this glamour when it comes to animals. It is the sexy Instagram picture. It is the stuff that communicates out really well and sometimes we don't recognize the damage or the harm that's happening in the back end of that. So I think it's really important that if you really, truly do care about these animals well being and this is something you want to be pursuing, or even if you're just a decent human being. Doing that research and looking for organisations like AEI, that does proper vetting that makes sure that everybody is consenting, including the nonverbal beings that are there.

I think that that's so essential and not to be overlooked and not something to Fast forward through because I think we need to make sure that we are doing our job and we are doing the best case and another thing that you said at the beginning in terms of like what should you be doing or what can you do if you're not a vet? I love that example of cutting the banana for the monkey because I think sometimes people think well, oh I'm, I want to be a vet so I'm gonna go and I'm gonna be a vet somewhere where there are no vets and that's just that's just silly. You have no training, why are they going to let you care for that animal without any training?

I'm not going to let you do open heart surgery on me without a ton of degrees. Why would we subject animals to that too?

Nora - 21:23

Yeah, and like what will happen when you leave? Like if you want to do open heart surgery on a lion on the Savannah, that is problematic in itself, but you leave what will happen to the hearts of all of those lions that you didn't operate on, and so you know you do have to look around and have that self awareness of like wow yeah wouldn't it be so cool to be a vet and do that, but you'll have to pay your dues for a while.

You'll have to become a vet, become a wildlife vet. Spend a lot of time assisting. Do a lot of residency and like you know if yes, someone came up to you and said, oh, I think I can do open heart surgery on your cat. You would say Oh no, thank you and it's you know the exact same for all around the world. We have to, you know look around and say why do I think I can help with this?

I remember I was on a program a few years ago in Malawi and we were talking about veterinarians and just kind of a lot of stuff. And one of the vets there, some Allawi, is in the southern Africa and there was a vet from South Sudan and she shared that 150 veterinarians graduate from the vet program in South Sudan every single year and there is one paid position in South Sudan and a lot of that is because people are volunteering on short term programs and they're just isn't like why.

Why would you pay a vet if you have a whole bunch of volunteers that are coming through?

It's not sustainable, it's not helpful. It does not build up a local community and you know, like I, you know I, I don't want to shame anyone, but I want to shame some people, but I don't want to share a lot of people and like we just don't know what we don't know and so I do like I love having these conversations. And I love talking about animal ethics and travel ethics and we have tons of that information on our website and we do a lot of Instagram lives. And just lots of content because like, again, I'll say it like we don't know what we don't know and so people want to do the very best by these animals by themselves, by the community and they just haven't thought, there's probably people here that are doing it, so I think you know. I think it's my responsibility to say things like, Oh no, this is a nice way of doing it. This is a helpful way of doing it and then that also triggers in other people's brains, you know. Like you said, being curious and saying well if that's not unethical, this probably isn't. And what can we do about this instead?

Michelle Dittmer - 24:12

And I wanna link this podcast and I'll do it in the show notes as well to a podcast that we released just a little while ago with Claire Bennett, who is an incredible human being and the author of a of a book called Learning Service, and just an absolute powerhouse in ethical volunteerism, just incredible. And in the conversation, one thing that really sticks out. I'm going to say it again, so sorry if you've listened to that other episode too, but we talked about how my understanding of things really shifted when we all know that the old adage gives a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll, he'll have food for a lifetime.

Well? A mentor of mine said, well, take it one step further and ask them if they even like fish?

Like maybe they maybe they don't even like fish and then why are you teaching them to fish like that's your role as a volunteer coming in and Claire pointed out and she said no, there's one step before that and like my mind just exploded. I said what do you mean? There's one step before that. She said, think about it. Any civilization around the world that is located close to water. Do you know any of them that do not already know how to fish? They have lived there for thousands of years, they know how it's done. Why do you think you know any better? And why would you even come because they know how to catch fish way better than you do in their particular river or ocean, or stream or whatever it is. And I just thought that was such a handy way to put everything in perspective that there are those experts on the ground and that is not the role that we play coming into a Community that we that we have a lot of humility we have to take that dose of humility and be like OK what? What is the role that I play here?

Nora - 26:11

Oh, I love that I am going to steal that immediately because yes, so much of travel and so much of just life actually is just humility and saying, you know, just being thoughtful and kind with your interactions and saying yes, you probably bring a lot to the table. But why don't you ask what people would like you to bring and instead of showing off all these other probably wonderful things just sitting there and saying, what do you need or what do you know? What do you want to tell me?

There's quite a few communities that I've worked with that have like a cultural idea that they won't answer your question. Because if you're asking it, it means that you are not ready to hear it yet, and so you'll hear the answer in storytelling through other times. And so if you're like, why do we do this thing, no, we do this thing because of that thing. And that thing happens because of something that happened before. So you have to already pay attention to things that are already going on and I think it's just so interesting for us especially you know people from the West that go somewhere and say, well, I know how to fish and I can fish effectively and efficiently and I'm going to show you all these things so you can live like me and people look at the West and they go. Ohhhhh, do you really wanna live like you? Actually, pretty happy living like me. Thank you though.

And the people that are hosting us are giving us true gifts. They're giving us the gift of working with orphaned baboons and we'll just say primates, antelope, and so many other things like we are. We're being hosted and given the opportunity to help, and I think that is like such an amazing part of everyone's story to say these are the people I met these are the animals that I worked with and this is how it continues to change my life.

Michelle Dittmer - 28:28

I think it's such a beautiful thing and I know that you guys offer a ton of like different diverse experiences. So what are some of the things that if people really feel connected to working with animals? What are some of the things that they might be able to experience through AEI?

Nora - 28:48

I think I did say wild horses once, but one of the most amazing ones that I like bringing up is volunteering with wild horses in Mongolia and because the program is citizen science and you work with 100% Mongolian scientists, you live in a yurt on the Mongolian step. I'm going to say Mongolian 100 times and what you're doing is you were just collecting data points and so literally anyone can do it. You walk on the step and there are wild horses and you just write down where you saw the horse, the behaviour, GPS coordinates, whether things like that.

Because as we know in science, more data means better science, and so if there's only three points of data every day from these scientists, then it's good. But if we have 20 volunteers and there's 23 pieces of data for two weeks. For then three months we have so much more and we can understand how to conserve these horses. So it's a very easy adventure. You just go hiking every day, and then that translates to like a better horse conservation in Mongolia in this amazing place.

But then we also have some really hands-on wildlife programs to do wildlife rehabilitation in places like Malawi and Guatemala. And that is incredible, because again, you don't have to have any experience. It is a lot of husbandry, feeding, cleaning, doing enrichment for the animals you're always working on a team and you always have volunteer coordinators as well as team leaders, so there's never a time that you're put in an enclosure with the Jaguar and told to go to town. You're always very safe.

I took my mom to Guatemala a couple years ago and on our very first day she cut up a bunch of food and then I got to bring her into the enclosure with toucans and she was able to put food out for like this amazing, charismatic, weird bird that all of us like have seen before, but whoever thinks that they would be able to like feed a toucan that is being rehabilitated so that is can be released again, so pretty like so special. And then that program in Guatemala we take our volunteers to Tikal National Park after and so they're able to see beautiful Mayan pyramids that are still used contemporarily by the Mayan people and you get to see a bunch of wild animals in the wild, and so you work with these toucans when they’re in an enclosure.

They're getting healthy, and then you see them in the wild and it's just like this, holistic, just wonderful like. Ah, OK, yeah, This is why we're doing it. It's not just sad animals. They're all so happy.

But then we also have dog and cat programs in places like Nepal and Kenya and Mexico for people like me that just love doggies there's some spay neuter programs that again anyone can work on. It's always helping vets, but sometimes it's helping the vets do things like grooming the dog, sometimes it's enrichment. The amazing part of going to all the programs first is knowing exactly who can help and how. People say I've always wanted to go to Nepal, I love doggies, I have zero experience ever working with dogs, I have one at home and that's it. So I can create a program for them that they're safe, the vets are comfortable and the animals are like, well loved and taken care of. So it's pretty special to do that because some people will carry on with a career with animals and some people will say. Yeah, you know what like, I love design and I love animals so I'm going to continue with design and I will work with animals every now and then and I think that is really cool. We have people that have all kinds of different backgrounds and just, you know have this heart for animals. So I can say sure if you can sweep you can go help an elephant.

Michelle Dittmer - 33:21

Well, that's actually one downfall. I am a terrible sweeper so I will have to pick a different program for myself. My husband thinks it's hilarious. He doesn't know how somebody so mechanical and formulaic cannot figure out how to sweep the floor. But that is a whole other podcast episode altogether that's sweeping experience International. That'll be the next podcast coming right up.

Well Nora, this has been so enlightening and exciting. I know there are so many animal lovers out there that have really connected with your message and now they know that you exist, which I think is really important. But more important than just knowing you exist. How can they find you? Where can they find you? Where can they get more information about all of the amazing things that you shared with us today?

Nora - 34:13

Oh my gosh, we'll flattery will get you everywhere. That we are Animal Experience International. I do like to joke that we are very googleable, so if you forget what our name is you can say I want to have like an experience with animals internationally and you'll find us. We are on Instagram and Facebook. We do a little bit of TikTok, you will see that I'm an elder millennial because I have a side part and skinny jeans and we are on LinkedIn as well. So anywhere you want to find us we will poke up their heads and say, hey, let's talk about animal ethics.

Michelle Dittmer - 34:51

Love it, wonderful! Well we will put all of the links to all of those at places in the show notes.

So if you do want to connect with Nora and the folks at Animal Experience International, we will make sure we'll make that as easy as possible for you so Nora, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today.

Nora - 35:09

Thanks so much Michelle, it was so fun!

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