One day at a bakery in Kathmandu, Livingstone discussed her observations with a British woman she’d just met. The woman had been living in Nepal for more than 30 years and told Livingstone about a groundbreaking dog clinic, the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). Shortly after, Livingstone showed up at KAT’s door and offered to volunteer. She wound up spending several weeks at the center, which aims to improve the lives of street dogs through vaccination, injury rehabilitation and spaying/neutering. After dogs are treated, experts at KAT evaluate them for pet potential, and keep those with promise at the shelter for adoption instead of returning them to the streets. “I loved being there,” Livingstone says. “A place like KAT is so rare in Nepal. I wanted to find a way to get more people involved, to let more people know about it.”
An idea formed once Livingstone returned to Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a company that connected standout animal sanctuaries, shelters and conservation programs around the world with interested travelers like her? The vision stayed in the back of her mind even as she took a job as volunteer coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. It was there that Livingstone met veterinarian Heather Reid, who helped bring her idea to fruition. Reid shared Livingstone’s passion for travel and her interest in volunteer work with animals. One step ahead of Livingstone, Reid had been considering what it would take to create international animal-based volunteer experiences for other veterinarians. “My brain practically exploded after talking to Dr. Heather because it was just so obvious,” says Livingstone. “I’m passionate about volunteering and encouraging others to volunteer and travel and stir up their lives, so why not get paid to live my dream while helping other people live theirs?”
In 2011, the two women founded AEI, launching it in March with five trips, including one to KAT, the dog clinic where Livingstone had volunteered in Nepal. Within a couple of months, they had 20 travelers signed up. In June, a volunteer tourism portal, GoVolunteering.com, picked up some of their trips and blasted them out to more than 13,000 subscribers. A few months later, AEI’s client list doubled. “We knew there was a market for this,” Livingstone says, “We were just surprised at how quickly it took off.”
Animal-based organizations from all over the world started contacting AEI to create volunteer travel programs at their locations. But Livingstone has been careful to add trips slowly. One of AEI’s core values is to partner with only the best and most effective organizations; Livingstone or Reid visits each before adding it to the lineup. After one year of operation, AEI offers 26 trips to locations ranging from Canada to Thailand and Australia. Travelers can choose to volunteer with dogs, cats, bats, turtles, monkeys, elephants, parrots, bears, leopards, tigers, crocodiles and kangaroos, among others. “People have been knocking down our door, which is both inspiring and a little overwhelming,” says Livingstone.
AEI travelers can also customize the length of their trip, from two weeks to two months, with longer options available. One client signed up for a full year working with orangutans in Sumatra. Her cost of $4,390 includes accommodations, meals, transportation, travelers’ insurance—everything except airfare. While $4,390 seems like a bargain for a full year abroad, Livingstone recognizes that money is the biggest inhibitor to international travel. She and Reid have devised aggressive fundraising techniques for clients, as well as a scholarship program. “If someone is inspired enough to go on one of our trips, we’re going to do everything in our power to get them there,” says Livingstone.