Travel Confessions: Animal volunteer Liz Bellward
Lifelong animal lover Liz Bellward swapped her corporate finance career to work with big cats at Dreamworld’s Tiger Island. Inspired to make a difference for endangered species, she founded Karma Cats, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to protecting big cats and all species that share their habitat in the wild. Her passion has also seen her volunteer at a private big cat zoo in New Zealand, Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast and the Clouded Leopard Breeding Centre in Thailand. Want to work with animals overseas? You don't have to be an expert - Liz tells us how to get involved.
What's your background with animals?
To see if working with animals was what I really wanted to do, I paid to attend a school in the US to learn how to handle exotic animals such as big cats, grizzly bears and elephants. I volunteered at Australia Zoo on weekends while working in finance, and then gained more voluntary experience at a private big cat zoo in New Zealand. When I returned, I went back to university and studied for my Masters in Animal Studies and was extremely lucky to be offered a job with Dreamworld's Tiger Island hand-rearing their Sumatran tiger cubs and then worked as a tiger and cougar handler for 3 years. I’ve also volunteered on 2 separate occasions with clouded leopards while on holiday in Thailand.
Do you need any experience to volunteer to work with animals?
It depends on where you are volunteering and what you are doing. Many places accept people with no experience and allocate them jobs such as cleaning or preparing food for the animals. Most places (with any credibility) will not allow volunteers to work with dangerous animals without experience and strong supervision, if at all.
What kind of activities can you expect to do when volunteering with animals overseas?
It's not as glamorous as people think! There is a lot of cleaning, picking up poo, scrubbing enclosures, mowing lawns, raking up leaves, preparing meals, feeding etc., but depending on where you go, some offer you the once-in-a-life time opportunity of jobs such as feeding the baby animals. It’s definitely more dirty and mundane work, but it is completely worth it for the help you offer the centre and the time you get to enjoy the animals you normally wouldn't be able to get so close to. It is also fantastic experience to have on your resume if you are looking at gaining employment in that field. I am 100 percent sure I would not have been considered for the job at Dreamworld if I hadn't been volunteering at Australia Zoo, the zoo in NZ or took the course in the US.
What have been some of your highlights when working with animals?
Seeing tiger cubs being born, hand-raising them all the way to adulthood and having that amazing relationship and bond with them. Going to sleep with the lion or tiger cubs while they are all snuggled up to you was pretty special.
Best parts about working with animals?
Having a relationship with an animal that potentially could kill you - I can't describe it, you just feel so privileged. Having that respect and bond where the animal accepts you and shows affection to you is amazing!
Being pooed on, weed on and vomited on!
Being completely flattened when young adult tigers are playing in front of an audience - people love seeing you go flying!
Any scary moments?
Working with big cats, there are sometimes scary moments as you are dealing with a wild animal and you always have to remember that. That is where you have to trust in your training that you can read the cat's body language well enough to take the correct action. You have to always be on alert. You love them, respect them and care for them, but you can never trust them as they are programmed to take an opportunity if they see it.
If you’re interested in volunteering overseas to work with animals, where should you start?
There are literally dozens and dozens of facilities around the world that offer volunteer work to travellers. Just do your research to ensure it is a reputable establishment and not one that is exploiting animals. For example, some places in Africa use volunteers to help raise lion cubs, which are then used for hunting expeditions.
What's next for you?
A few years ago, I started a not-for-profit organisation called Karma Cats (www.karmacats.org.au) to raise funds to support conservation programs protecting endangered species in the wild. Long-term, Karma Cats plans to open a breeding centre in South-East Queensland. I am also working with a director to produce a TV show about breeding centres and animal orphanages around the world. The goal is to educate the public about what is happening to these animals in the wild and promote the centres to volunteers or anyone else who wishes to help!
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