At this point, you likely know that our team is all about making a sustainable and positive impact. But what you may not know is that we also really love animals. So when we discovered Animal Experience International through the B Corps community, we were thrilled, to say the least. Why? Animal Experience International (AEI) is a social enterprise on a mission to help animals around the globe by matching clients with animal related volunteer opportunities at sanctuaries, hospitals, wildlife rehabilitation centers, conservation projects and government programs. For example, volunteers can participate in the conservation, egg collection, and releasing of endangered leatherback turtles in Costa Rica; help with a spay, neuter, and vaccination program in Nepal for the benefit of the community and the health of local street dogs; or work on the protection, rehabilitation, and breeding of native and endangered species in Australia.
When we found out about AEI, we reached out to founder, Nora Livingstone, and discovered that she’s just the kind, fun, and passionate individual we hoped she would be. Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with her about her work at AEI – here’s what she had to say:
How did you come up with the business model for AEI?
I met Dr. Heather (my business partner) at Toronto Wildlife Centre, where she works as a veterinarian and I was the volunteer coordinator. I got that job after volunteering with animals in America (after Hurricane Katrina), Guatemala (at a wildlife centre), Nepal (at a dog rescue), and Thailand (at an elephant sanctuary). I love the idea of coordinating volunteers – you invite people, no matter their background, to take part in this massive and amazing mission. You get excited by getting other people excited, and you get to be part of a much bigger impact than if you were working on something alone. AEI is really just inviting more people to volunteer in more places, and planning and running logistics to make sure that people have a positive experience – both the hosts, and the volunteers! I loved the idea of getting people involved in programs I had volunteered with and loved, so sharing these adventures with people is really a dream come true. We both love the idea of getting more and more people excited about animal welfare and conservation around the world – understanding that all these actions are cumulative, and the more people involved with AEI, the more positive change there is!
How do you select the partners you work with in destination countries?
When we first started, we contacted the groups that I had volunteered with in the past, where I had loved my experience. We let them know our vision and asked if they wanted to be part of it. All of them said yes (and today, they are still our partners)! After a few years, other organizations started contacting us. We had made and continue to make our mark on the conservation and animal welfare community. People like AEI and they talk about it. We get lots of groups contacting us every week to partner with them, and there are almost endless possibilities to help. An important part of our placement research and due diligence is our initial visit. It means that Heather and I travel to all the placements to make sure we can see with our own eyes that they are safe, ethical, doing real work with animals, are benefiting the animals, are supported by the community, have a positive attitude, and most importantly, are doing no harm. This travel is quite a perk, and means that we have real relationships with these groups! We have stayed at, and volunteered with them, and have been a real part of the community. Not only does that mean that we feel like stakeholders and want to make sure we send the best clients, it also means we can make sure our clients are prepared before they go. Their expectations are congruent with reality and all their questions can be answered by people who have already walked the road.
You’ve partnered with The Carbon Farmer to make 100% of the travel associated with your trips carbon-balanced. What does that look like in practice?
The Carbon Farmer is this amazing family business in Northern Alberta – an incredible family who saw the importance in reclamation forestry, organic trees, and diverse plants to encourage a diverse forest from butterflies to bears! We sat down with them and said that we wanted to make sure all in-country travel would be carbon balanced, and asked how we could do that. The easy answer is trees! We buy carbon credits and they plant trees, which will never be cut down and will be home for more plants and animals in the future! For each client we buy tonnes of carbon credits and more trees are planted. This means that since 2012 when we sent our first clients on a trip, 1,308 tonnes of carbon have been balanced through the planting of forever trees in the Boreal Forest: Canada's lungs!
You place a big focus on ethical, informed travel. How do you help your volunteers be both effective and responsible in how they approach their trips?
A lot of this is just talking about how we don't know what we don't know. During interviews with our clients, we sit down and have really great talks about everything from ethics, culture shock, dress codes, and euthanasia to compassion fatigue, and anything else that may come up. We are the guides, and it's up to us to set up our clients for success. They could choose to travel with other companies and other organisations but since they choose to travel with us, we don't want to let them down by giving them an experience that is pretend ethical or not quite as ethical as they thought. We are able to explain to everyone why we do certain things like ethically compensating our host families. We think it's important to pay for the products and services we and our clients consume, so we pay the families who host our clients. Not talking about things won't make them go away, so we think it's best to talk about ways that clients can help AND hinder when they travel – that way, they can make the most informed choices.
Also, I wrote a book about this! Traveling Without Baggage. It's not required reading for volunteers, but we do recommend they read it before venturing off. If nothing else, it gets them learning from my travel mistakes!
Do you report on and/or review your impact? If so, has this affected how your businesses has developed?
We are a Certified B Corp! Which is excellent, because if we didn't track things, I don't think I would know to be as proud as I am of AEI. Since we need to review and report on our impact for our B Corps assessment, I see how many thousands of dollars we have sent to conservation and animal welfare programs globally. I also get to see the thousands of hours our clients have spent volunteering on programs that work with critically endangered species, declining habitats, and homeless dogs and cats. By tracking the good that is done by our clients, we get energised to do even more work, get more clients, and bring on more placement partners! I read the annual reports from all of our placement partners and it's incredible. From finding bats in Cuba they thought were extirpated, to publishing the first-ever tally of dolphin pods in the north Adriatic Sea, to lowering dog populations by the thousand in Kathmandu (humanely, through spay and neuter programs), to expanding sanctuaries by dozens of hectares ,and making room for double the number of elephants, our clients have been part of some very special work. If this was just my impact or just Dr. Heather's impact, it would be a touching story, but because it's all of our impact together, it's not just ripples – it's waves that are changing the world!
Since you started AEI, what is your favorite memory -- a time when you truly got to see the positive impact of your work, either with a volunteer or a community you serve?
There are so many memories, it's hard to choose. I have spoken to incredible people who inspired the heck out of me with their stories – trying out new careers, new lifestyles, getting over break ups and deaths. I have been to some amazing places that knocked the wind out of me and made me just stand in awe – releases of endangered animals I didn't know existed, sanctuaries where animals finally are allowed to sleep in the sunshine and not perform for humans, clinics that operate on less than a dollar a day and continued through civil wars because animals needed help, too. I have almost peed my pants with laughter after meeting people while on trips and I have cried real tears saying goodbye to people. But my most treasured memories are with my mum – we went to Greece to take part in sea turtle conservation and to Kenya to do giraffe monitoring! Each trip was so special because I get to share what I love so much with a woman I love so much. The programs are deeply immersed in conservation and animal welfare, but they are so much more than that! When I go on these trips and I get to take my mum, we share in culture and food and jet lag and archaeology and baby animals and running from buffalo, and we both get to be our true selves: animal weirdos who will do anything for a cup of coffee. AEI has brought so much into my life and I couldn't be more thankful.
And, for fun, do you have any pets of your own? If so, what kind, and what are their names?
I don't have any pets right now because I travel a lot with AEI. It wouldn't be fair for animals to have a mama who is always off somewhere else. But that doesn't mean I get left out! In February, I looked after my friend’s farm and I got to play house with a dog, cat, and three horses. What a life, eh? Eventually I am sure I will be completely covered in rescue dogs and they will all have names like Quinton Bearwood and Netwon Poppleford; I just saw those names on town signs while on a trip to the UK, they are begging to be my next puppers.
You love Nora and AEI already too, don’t you? If you’re interested in animals and travel, or just want to experience the world differently, we highly recommend you check out AEI and get in touch with them through their website or social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.