Craig and I had just returned from our first global volunteering experience in Zimbabwe and we were so head over heels that it felt like our hearts had literally been ripped out of our chests as we reluctantly re-engaged with our “real” lives. To this day, we’re pretty sure our hearts are still being held hostage in Africa and patiently waiting for our return. That experience was the beginning of a life-changing passion for us and we were eager to meet others who had also traveled to global destinations and volunteered with animals, either working to conserve endangered species or helping with rescued animals in sanctuary. We had questions and concerns, dreams and ideas. But what we didn’t have were resources for first-hand knowledge beyond those we met during our time in Africa, most of whom didn’t have any more experience than we did.
As a child, I would spin my globe with my eyes shut, then I’d touch it to stop the spinning, open my eyes and wherever my finger landed I said to myself that I would go there.
Cut to a year or so later when I first heard about Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. As I started to do my research I posed a question to some of the volunteer friends we had made asking if anyone knew about ENP, and a friend of a virtual friend suggested I get acquainted with Barb Hautanen. Living in the U.S., Barb was an experienced world traveler and global volunteer and she was, literally, at ENP at the time of my inquiry. I contacted her immediately, and ever since she has been kind enough to allow me to pester her on several occasions to glean some of her sage advice.
Since that initial introduction I’ve followed tales of Barb’s adventures as she’s traveled to destinations such as Thailand, India, Nepal, and Romania, to name just a few. Barb has been able to consistently incorporate travel and volunteering into her life and I’ve been eager to learn her secrets, ask some questions, and discover what makes her tick.
I’ve never met Barb in person, but one day I will I hope to. When I do, I’m pretty sure it will not be in North Dakota or Washington State, where we each live, but in a sunny, warm climate with an ocean breeze, sights to see, and animals in need. Barb has volunteered with more organizations and in more locations than anyone else I’ve ever met and she has become a source of inspiration for me. I’m thrilled to give her the opportunity to share her story so she can inspire others as well with her wealth of experience, passion and energetic attitude.
Please tell us a little about yourself?
Barb Hautanen: I was born and raised in Ironwood, Michigan, but have lived in Fargo, North Dakota for forty years. I am sixty-one years young. I have degrees in community health education and nursing. It took me a few years to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, so before college I worked as a nursing assistant, waitress, nanny, phlebotomist, and pharmacy technician. I have worked at the same hospital for thirty-six years and spent most of my career as an emergency nurse, but now work in the post-operative recovery room. What makes me tick? Helping both people and animals.
What passion developed first for you: volunteering with animals or world travel? How did those passions develop over time and when did you realize you could bring them together with global voluntourism?
Barb: The desire to travel has been with me for as far back as I can remember. I loved to read National Geographic. As a child, I would spin my globe with my eyes shut then I’d touch it to stop the spinning, open my eyes, and wherever my finger landed I said to myself that I would go there. As for the desire to volunteer, that also started when I was a child and read my grandmother’s church missionary magazines. When I saw photos of poor people around the world I had the desire to go help them. It was a natural progression that eventually these two interests would merge.
What countries have you volunteered in and with what organizations?
- Peru: Rotary International (healthcare)
- Philippines: U.S.-Palawan Medical Group
- Cambodia: Angkor Hospital for Children
- Tanzania: Global Service Corps (healthcare)
- Zimbabwe: African Impact (lions)
- Thailand: Elephant Nature Park & Care for Dogs
- China: Bifengxia Panda Base
- South Africa: The Emma Animal Rescue Society (dogs)
- Indonesia: Samboja Lestari (orangutans) and Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue
- Sri Lanka: Animal SOS (dogs)
- Romania: The Nature Association (dogs)
- Colombia & Belize: World Vets (spay/neuter dogs & cats)
- India: Animal Aid Unlimited (dogs)
- Nepal: Street Dog Care
You’ve spent time volunteering with a variety of different animals, but dogs seem to be the species that have most captured your heart. Why dogs and what inspires you to travel halfway around the world to volunteer with them when you could volunteer at your local shelter, forego the jet lag, and save money? Do you volunteer locally when you’re not globetrotting?
Barb: The main reason I am now focused on dogs is that you can have physical contact with them. Hugging wild animals is not a good idea. As for traveling around the world to volunteer with them, by doing this I can pursue my dual passions of travel and helping others. Currently, I don’t volunteer in my local area but plan to do so when I retire in a few years.
When planning an upcoming trip do you first pick a location you want to visit and then look for a volunteer opportunity located there, or do you find the volunteer opportunity first? How do you vet the organizations you volunteer with to ensure it’s a legitimate operation?
Barb: When it comes to choosing where I volunteer, sometimes I have decided on a destination due to a certain animal and other times it is because I want to see a specific country. I do a lot of research before I go to ensure that the organization I want to work with is legitimate and a good match for me. On the Internet, I check out the organizations’ web pages, look for articles about them, read volunteer blogs, and through Facebook I have connected with volunteers who share their project experiences and photos, both good and bad.
Have you had any experiences that have been disappointing or that you felt the purpose wasn’t well-served or your time and skills underutilized? Do you feel that volunteering somewhere for a week or two really makes a difference? Is the concept of voluntourism more about the experience of the person doing the volunteering as well as the opportunity – and some may say illusion – to say they’ve done some good in the world, or is it about real change in the destination you’re visiting? Another question would be how do you make sure it’s about real, effective change?
Barb: When I made the switch from healthcare projects to animals in 2006, the first animal I wanted to work with was lions. When I was on that project I had a positive and memorable experience, but after following that organization for several years I now have mixed emotions about what and how they are doing things. As for making a difference in a week or two, all the places I have been at are short-staffed due to finances, so if I can ease their work load for even seven-to-fourteen days I feel useful. For example, if I scoop poop and feed animals this frees up a regular worker to do maintenance, catch up on paperwork, etc.
Regarding if volunteering is about the volunteer’s experience and how it makes them look good versus really making a change, I have spent time with both kinds of individuals. Some people volunteer just so they can put it on a resume or to tell their friends that they didn’t spend all six weeks in Thailand at the beach. It is easy to see who they are because they arrive late, leave early, and do the easiest and least work possible. But, I have met many more who are committed to working hard and making at least a small, positive change in the world.
To answer the question of how do I ensure that I am participating in effective change, this is accomplished when I research the organizations I plan to work with. As a potential volunteer for a project I look at what their expectations are for volunteers, and are there concrete tasks to perform and measurable goals to achieve.
How has global travel and volunteering changed you as a person and the way you view the world? How do you keep those insights and inspirations you’ve acquired with you when you’re back at home in your daily life?
Barb: Global travel and volunteering has made me feel like a citizen of the world. I am now much more interested and concerned about what is happening outside the U.S. Being in foreign countries has shown me that people around the world are more alike than different. We have the same basic desires and needs: sufficient food, clean water, safety, sanitation, healthcare, education, freedom, meaningful work, and the love of family and friends. Also, having primarily been in third world countries has transformed me into a minimalist. I have seen how little is needed to be happy, and so have cleared my house of unnecessary items, clothes, papers, etc. When I get home I use the internet (primarily Facebook) to keep in mind what I have seen, experienced, and learned, because I follow the groups I have worked with and the people I have met.
Along those lines, I believe you are married but you travel solo. Does your husband share your passion for travel and animals? What are you able to bring back to your relationship at home after you’ve been away on a solo adventure?
Barb: I am fortunate to have a husband of twenty-five years who has always encouraged me to follow my dreams and pursue my passions, even if they are different from his. He was in the Air Force and traveled overseas a lot, so at this time he doesn’t have a desire to go outside the U.S. We do travel together in our motorhome, though, and have been to over forty states. As for my husband’s interest in animals, he also loves dogs and we have been dog parents for over twenty years.
Regarding what I bring back to our relationship after a solo adventure, I always return home with a renewed appreciation for our marriage. Even though I enjoy my solo adventures, it is always comforting to return to the life we have built together.
The United States is not known for providing a lavish amount of vacation time in contrast to many European countries, yet you seem to have been able to maintain a consistent travel itinerary. What’s been your secret for maintaining a work-travel balance?
Barb: Yes, the U.S. is definitely lacking in the amount of vacation days given to employees! As I mentioned earlier, I’ve worked at the same hospital for over thirty-six years. I receive six weeks of vacation, which allows me time to go overseas. Last October, I semi-retired and changed to an “as needed” work status. Now, when I am home I work as much as possible but can take off as many weeks as I need to travel.
You seem to have a particular fondness for warm climates near the ocean, yet you live in North Dakota. Would you ever consider permanently moving to one of your favorite sunny locales?
Barb: You are correct that I enjoy tropical weather and beaches. I was in my mid-thirties before I had the opportunity to experience such beautiful climate and scenery. After that trip, winters became more difficult to endure because I had experienced the heat of a February sun and discovered that I love having my feet in sand and salt water.
Every time I travel to a warm, scenic destination I ask myself if I could live there. But, as I contemplate that location, my itchy feet tell me to go someplace new. Now that I am semi-retired I do plan to spend several winter months someplace where I don’t have to wear four layers of clothes.
What are some of your upcoming destinations and projects? Is there anywhere you really want to visit that you’ve never been to yet, or an animal you really want to work with?
Barb: Upcoming destinations and projects include the following:
- Cook Islands: Esther Honey Foundation (animal clinic)
- Nepal: Street Dog Care (shelter)
- Bahamas: Operation Potcake (spay/neuter clinic)
- Thailand: Headrock Dogs (shelter)
- Honduras: World Vets (spay/neuter clinic)
As for a destination that I have really wanted to visit, the South Pacific has been calling my name for years. In 2013, I happened to meet a vet who had volunteered at the Cook Islands Esther Honey clinic and highly recommended it. This trip is significant because it will complete my goal of volunteering with dogs on all the continents! For Antarctica, I guess I will have to substitute penguins for dogs.
I plan to focus my future time and effort on volunteering with dogs. I like the physical contact and socializing with them. Also, dog shelters don’t charge a volunteer fee like most wild animals projects do. That frees up more money for airfare.
Would you leave us with some inspiration by sharing a couple of your favorite volunteer travel memories or experiences?
Barb: When I volunteered in Indonesia at Tasikoki, a mixed-wildlife rescue center, it was over the holiday season and a local staff member kindly invited us to his home for a meal. But, shortly before we left the center one of the orangutans got out of its enclosure and we spent several hours encouraging it to return. When we finally got to our destination and meal, I thought to myself that not many people are able to use the excuse that, “I’m late for Christmas dinner because the orangutan escaped.”
Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, is a sanctuary for about thirty-eight injured, abused, and elderly elephants. While there, I got to witness the arrival of a rescued blind elephant. Lucky had been a circus elephant for twenty-plus years and lost her sight due to the bright lights used in the performances, and when she wasn’t performing she was alone and her feet were chained. When her rescue truck arrived at the park, the other elephants were elsewhere grazing. As I watched her tentatively walk out of the truck and onto the grass I heard some new sounds behind me. I turned to look in the direction of the noise and I saw a herd of six elephants trotting towards the new arrival. When they reached Lucky they surrounded her and began touching her with their trunks, including intertwining their trunks; the equivalent of humans hugging and holding hands. Even though Lucky had not been around other elephants before and couldn’t see them, she was relaxed and instinctively knew they were welcoming her to the group. Tears came to my eyes, and everyone else around me also had wet cheeks. To see this beautiful animal, that had spent her life alone and never known freedom, join a family of elephants and roam freely in paradise is a moment in time that I will never forget.