In this interview with Karen Daly, a volunteer with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (known, and referred to as CIWY), she shares her experiences of volunteering abroad with animals, her favourite memory (it involves a Puma), the challenges of volunteering abroad, and some recent good news from CIWY.

Volunteering Abroad With Animals Will Completely Change Your Life: Podcast

CIWY is Bolivia’s leading organisation in wildlife rights and care. The organisation cares for rescued wildlife, gives disadvantaged youth a sense of purpose through involvement with wildlife care, and educates the Bolivian public to respect wildlife.

Always wondered what it really is like to volunteer abroad with animals in Bolivia? Now you can find out! You can listen to the interview with Karen here, or read it below.

Nisha: Hi Karen, can you start by telling us a little about CIWY? 

Karen: CIWY is an organisation that was started in Bolivia over 20 years ago by a group of Bolivians. It actually began with some Bolivians who were helping disadvantaged youth. They were taken out of the cities on excursions to other parts of Bolivia where they got to experience the nature that Boliva has to offer.

Unfortunately when they were on the excursions they saw a lot of slash and burning of the forests and also how a lot of the animals were treated when they were caught after the slashing and burning. It was the expression of the children who were on these excursions that the Bolivians running things saw and decided that they need to do more to help and that is basically how it became an organisation that looked after animals, the environment, and the youth of Bolivia.

Nisha: You’ve been volunteering there for an incredible 8 years now. Can you tell us about the different roles you have had in that time? 

Karen: Yeah, 8 years.. it’s a long time! Some people come for 2 weeks or a month which is the minimum volunteering time. I came with the idea of going for a month and ended up staying 6 months and went back again and again and again!

During my time I have been lucky enough to work with most of the areas with the animals. With the cats there, which is my main work, but also with the monkeys, and smaller animals – deer, birds, everything that they have there in Bolivia.

What it is like to volunteer abroad with animals in Bolivia

Basically what we do is make sure that they are happy – feed them, clean them, exercise them, provide enrichment programmes.

Once I was there for a little while and I had experience with a large range of the animals, the work, and how CIWY runs I was asked to take on other roles which was to help the Bolivians there who were managing things day to day with managing the volunteers that come in.

Volunteers tend to come for 2 weeks or a month so the volunteers change a lot and we need people to facilitate their stay – make them feel welcome, provide them places to sleep, show them around, organise work for them to do, do a lot of training. So I’ve been involved with that. Also through the years I’ve helped manage some of the parks – I’ve done the accounting, the weekly food shopping, setting up training for volunteers, as well as then helping with the animals such as building bigger enclosures, planning the trails we use for them, and basically just anything and everything that’s needed.

Nisha: Wow! So staying there for a long period you have been able to get involved with lots of different parts of the work.

Karen: Yeah, there’s really no escaping it!

Once you are there for a long time you see the need and you remember what it’s like when you first come there, so you help the new volunteers settle in and find their place really quickly so they can really help the organisation. The longer you are there the more you can’t help but fall in love with the animals and the lifestyle. The Bolivians who work there are all so lovely and so nice and they work so hard, they aren’t there for just a month they are there for years on end, so yeah you become part of the community quite quickly and there is always work to do, so there is the opportunity to do so much there.

Nisha: What motivated you to get involved with CIWY in the first place? 

Karen: I have always loved animals, I’ve always loved nature and being outside and being physical.

What it is like to volunteer abroad with animals in Bolivia

Back in 2006 when I first planned to travel to South America, I had planned to spend 6 months travelling around South America but when I did some research on the Internet I read that a lot of people when they went to South America they did volunteering. It’s not something I had thought about doing. A lot of people were volunteering with orphanages and with children. I’m maybe not the best person with children but I love animals so I did a search on the Internet for volunteering with animals in South Africa and the CIWY website came up. I read it, saw some of the comments, and I realised that that’s the place for me!

I went with the expectation of staying for one month and here we are many years later!

Nisha: You’ve told us how much you love it there, you must have a lot of happy memories from your 8 years there. What’s your favourite memory from your time there?

Wow, a favourite memory? That’s really hard! Having worked in so many different areas…

I guess the best thing is the relationship you build with the animals.

What it is like to volunteer abroad with animals in Bolivia

If you are there with them for a few weeks they allow you to be near them and to work with them, but when you really put in that time you see them trust you and you see them relax and be happier. It’s really building a friendship with these animals and helping them… but which one is the best memory? I don’t know…

I was working with this one Puma Elsa, this is during my second time. I had worked in one Park, so the next time I came back to South America I went to the other Park for two months first. Because I had all this experience with the cats already from my first time they put me with a Puma named Elsa. She was a little bit old at this point, I think around 6 years old. She was what we call a cage cat, she didn’t come out of her cage for walks in the jungle. She came to the Park when she was already more or less an adult. When we are training the cats to walk them they need to be quite young so this Puma, Elsa, she couldn’t come out for a walk because she didn’t like anyone touching her collar, so we couldn’t attach a rope to walk her with. So I was asked to basically try to get used to having a rope and having someone holding the rope behind her to take her out for the walks in the jungle.

I spent two months with Elsa. After I think 4 or 5 weeks I actually achieved that. Seeing her getting out of her cage and exploring the jungle she was quite nervous and quite scared in the beginning but just seeing the change in her from being quite bored and little bit lazy to seeing her change in personality and become more like a Puma. Now she has no problem, she walks every single day, gets out of her cage, she’s not scared of the rope, she’s very very loving and affectionate which she has always been, but I think more so these days. That’s probably one of the best things I have achieved at CIWY.

Nisha: Wow that’s amazing! Were the staff surprised you managed to get her to trust and get used to the rope and get out of the cage? 

Karen: Yeah, I think everyone was a little surprised, I know I was. I think maybe a week before it happened I was starting to think maybe this wasn’t going to happen, and the little bit of stress this was adding to her was maybe not worth it. The manager of the Park was actually on leave for that week and so I was really proud to be able to tell her what Elsa had accomplished while she was gone.

Really I don’t think it was just me, I think my experience with the other cats that I had worked with definitely helped, but it was an accumulation of every volunteer that had worked with her over the last four years, making her easy to handle and comfortable with people so I could build a relationship with her where she could trust me even if I was asking her to do things she didn’t like. But yes I think everyone was a bit shocked!

Nisha: I can see why that’s one of your favourite memories! Is there a video of this special moment? 

Karen: No, because I was actually working by myself. There are a couple of videos of Elsa out walking, I put a couple on YouTube myself because obviously so many volunteers had worked with her for the four years before she was out walking and so many people were so happy to hear the goal was finally achieved for her. I posted a few so people could see she is out in the jungle exploring and really enjoying herself.

Here’s a video of Elsa the Puma:

Nisha: I’ve been a volunteer for a number of organisations but they have all been in the UK (where I am from). I’ve never been a volunteer abroad but I have considered it. What would you say to someone who is considering volunteering abroad but is feeling a little hesitant? 

Karen: I would say definitely do it!

I think it’s really important you research the organisation you are going to be working with. I’ve heard of some other people working with some organisation’s that maybe aren’t so much about helping as opposed to maybe profit or creating tourism but there are definitely all over the world so many worthwhile programmes to help different causes.

I think it’s a great way to challenge yourself and experience new things and see a bigger picture, something different from your everyday life. I also think it’s quite valuable that by doing these volunteer programmes the people you meet is absolutely incredible, because if you are going to volunteer overseas in something you are interested in you are going to meet like-minded people, some of the friendships you could make, you can’t put a value on it.

Nisha: You are definitely selling it to me! Karen you mentioned earlier that you were planning to initially go travelling for 6 months. Did you get to see much of Bolivia while you were volunteering? 

Karen: At that point, no not really. But now since I keep coming and going I have managed to see more of Bolivia.

What it is like to volunteer abroad with animals in Bolivia

Sunset in the Bolivian Jungle

Sometimes I go and volunteer for 8-12 months, it’s pretty much 6.5 days a week, 8-12 hours a day because I help with a lot of the running of things. So it’s really important to take breaks so that you don’t burn out, so I’ve managed to travel to different parts of Bolivia. But also what I think is quite valuable is the fact that I have been to the three locations CIWY have and spent over a year in all of them. Getting to know the locals and the culture and how society in Bolivia works, I think that’s really important when you travel.

Nisha: It’s incredible you have spent so long in Bolivia, I don’t think I have ever spoken to anyone who has volunteered abroad for so long. I assume the majority of people who volunteer at CIWY are there for just a couple of weeks or a month like you mentioned? 

Karen: Yes we have a minimum of two weeks to volunteer, but some animals require more stability so to work with them you have to volunteer for a minimum of one month. A lot of people do just come because they only hear about it while they are travelling around South America through other volunteers so a lot people can’t actually change their plans and accommodate a longer stay. I have over the years definitely met a lot of people who come just because their friend wanted to come so they are there for a month and they end up staying six months quite easily, so a lot of people do end up extending their stay. It’s really sad when people come and they love the place and they work really hard and really well and they fit in with the community so well but unfortunately they already changed their plans to accommodate this one month and they don’t have the leeway to allow for more time.

I was lucky I was at the start of my travel with no plans so I could shuffle, well, basically scrap the rest of my travels and basically stay there, and there have been many people who come for their one month or six weeks, they finish their trip, they go home, they save, and they come back and stay for a solid six months, eight months, sometimes even twelve months.

Nisha: Wow OK! So if someone is considering going abroad and volunteering that is something to bear in mind, it might completely change your life!

Karen: [laughs]Yeah you need to be careful of that!

Nisha: You’ve shared one of your happy memories with us, and you have obviously enjoyed supporting the organisation, you’ve been there for so long. I’d love to know of any challenges you have faced in your roles and how you overcame them.

Karen: I think aside from the lifestyle change, it’s completely different going from the modern world where – I didn’t even speak any Spanish when I went there – it’s the poorest country in South America, most of the locations when I arrived didn’t have electricity, you are sleeping on straw mattresses sometimes, these sort of things – but also you are in the jungle! You need to learn how to adapt to that and work with that.

Then of course the other part that is challenging – you do get really attached to the animals, and unfortunately there’s only one of you so you can’t spend your whole time working with the animals you love, you have to pick who you are going to work with – that can be difficult. Of course then when the animals get sick or even die that’s really heart-breaking.

The biggest challenge I think is you are living and working with other people. That has it’s good and it’s bad sides, but when you are there for an extended period of time it can be really difficult to have these close and intense relationships with people who you really like and then their time finishes and they have to go home and leave, so sometimes it feels like you are always saying goodbye to people which can get really really hard. But once you leave the jungle there is the Internet, and you can travel and you have somewhere everywhere round the world to stay, or you just stay in the park and wait for them to come back!

Nisha: Have any of your friends and family ever worried about you going to Bolivia because they see it as too dangerous? 

Karen: No.. I was raised with animals, we always had dogs around, and my parents when I left Australia to Bolivia for the first time had Irish wolfhounds, which are bigger than Pumas so when I saw a Puma I wasn’t so scared!

I think at the beginning my parents were a little concerned about just how I was in general and once I ended up staying there for quite some months they learnt, ‘she’s fine, if we don’t hear from her in a month it’s not a problem, she’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s difficult to get to the Internet’. Now they are really OK, it’s kind of funny, if they don’t hear from me for 6 months so long as I am in the jungle it’s OK, but when I’m living in Europe trying to earn money to go back and they don’t hear from me in 3 months they are like, ‘what’s up what’s going on, are you OK?’ but yeah they don’t worry about me in the jungle.

Nisha: And of course there must be training so you don’t just land in Bolivia and get taken straight to the animals! 

Karen: No no, when you arrive there is an orientation and when you are assigned to work there is training and we have training guides and manuals written up from previous volunteers about the animal you will be working with, about their routine and behaviour.

Also there are always the permanent and semi-permanent staff there to support you and it’s not just for the best interests for the volunteers but also for the animals, so when they have a new person everything goes smoothly.

What it is like to volunteer abroad with animals in Bolivia

Some animals need a week handover when we are changing volunteers. Other animals are more relaxed and only need a day. So it’s about balancing the training between what the new person needs and what the animal needs.

Nisha: You’ve shared some really interesting things about CIWY already, but if there is one thing you wish more people knew about the organisation what would it be? 

Karen: I think just that by people going there to volunteer they are just going to experience so much that they can’t experience anywhere else. And it will change you. You become part of this community, and it is life changing.

Nisha: One of the reasons I started the Good News Shared website and this podcast is to raise awareness of all the awesome things going on in the world. Do you have some recent good news from CIWY you would like to share with us? 

Karen: Unfortunately because of the animals and the situation with the environment in Bolivia it’s not always possible, it’s actually very rarely possible, that we are able to release the animals back into the wild, but in the recent month or two we were able two of the peccaries that we have raised since they were little piglets (I don’t know if that’s the right word!) but two wild peccaries who are adults now were released recently into the parks so they can live freely. We are always happy when we are able to give the animals another start to a wild life.

Also at the moment CIWY is doing a fundraising campaign to help two of the Bolivian youths who have been involved in the organisation since they were kids – Rusber and Osso. I have known these two since they were quite young. They are both very hardworking, very smart boys, and we are doing some fundraising at the moment to help them put them through university and give them an education so they do have a bright future, and hopefully they stay with the organisation and help us prosper. The fundraising is going really well so far.

UPDATE: So far CIWY have raised over £1,700 to support the future vets through university! Click here to find out more about Rusber and Osso, and donate to help CIIWY fund their education.

Nisha: I’m blown away! That’s really good news! It’s awesome to hear that the animals are being released into the world, but also I love that it’s not just about the animals, I love that young Bolivian children are being supported by CIWY. 

Karen: CIWY started with children – a few of the original children who were first working with the organisation are still with us. CIWY don’t just take on employees for a small time and then they move on, as I said, it really is a community, and they still work with any young Bolivian with a keen interest in the wildlife or the environment. Whether they come from a disadvantaged background or not, if they have an interest there is always the opportunity for them to come, live, work in the parks. They have the opportunity to be exposed to learning English, their education is paid for, so it is still really helping the youth of Bolivia, which I think is really important.

Nisha: It is, it’s awesome. Thank you so much Karen, I’ve really enjoyed our chat today. It’s opened my eyes as to what volunteering abroad can be. Are you planning to go back any time soon? 

Karen: Yes, yes as soon as I can! This has been one of my longer periods that I have had a break from there. I left a year ago and I currently am on a course which doesn’t allow me to leave where I am living at the moment but I plan to go back next year for at least 3 – 6 months because I miss my best friend and they don’t have a passport to come see me – my best friend’s a Puma!

Nisha: Ah, awesome! Well, good luck with your course – I hope you manage to get back there as soon as possible. Thanks for sharing your story and the good news from CIWY.

Karen: Thank you

Find out more about CIWY and how you can get involved by clicking here.

Interested in volunteering? Check out some of the opportunities available here:

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Nisha Kotecha is the Founder of Good News Shared. Having worked and volunteered for charities in the UK for over 10 years, Nisha is on a mission to highlight how amazing charities are.

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