Even if you’re a passionate pet person, this may sound nuts at first: going on a vacation and helping out at an animal shelter. Hosing out cages, cleaning out cat litter boxes or pouring food into bowls probably doesn’t sound like much of a vacation, but if you start imagining yourself socializing kittens or walking a dog against the backdrop an exotic location in a part of the world that you’ve never been to, you may start to see why it has become something of a trend for tourists to spend a little of their vacation time at an animal shelter.
Of course, most animal shelters are not equipped to have anyone drop by and help out, but there are some that make it easy for people to incorporate helping out a needy pet into their vacation. Here are five of our favorites:
The shelter: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah
Why you may want to go to this area: Southern Utah is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the country, with Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and even the northern rim of the Grand Canyon within driving-distance of the shelter.
Why this shelter should be on your itinerary: There aren’t many animal shelters that can boast of being famous, but this one is. The National Geographic Channel series DogTown filmed at the sanctuary, which works with shelters around the country, and tourists frequently come to the shelter for tours. In fact, you can even stay on the grounds in your own RV or at their cabins and cottages. The sanctuary houses approximately 1,600 dogs, cats and other animals, like birds and even sheep. If you’re willing to help out, volunteer duties include everything, “from walking an enthusiastic dog, to cleaning a rabbit run, to just sitting and talking to a shy cat,” according to the website.
The shelter: Aspen Animal Shelter in Aspen, Colorado
Why you may want to go this area: Between the skiing, the hiking and the mountains, Aspen is another achingly beautiful part of America.
Why this shelter should be on your itinerary: The Aspen Animal Shelter has a rent-a-pet program, so if you miss your dog back at home or think hiking the mountain trails would be more fun with a dog, you can take one with you on your adventure.
Executive director Seth Sachson came up with the idea in the 1990s when he took over the shelter, and it’s been a tremendous success ever since, with celebrities like Bill Clinton and Lyle Lovett taking part in the program by walking dogs while visiting Aspen.
Sachson says that some tourists will take a shelter dog on a hike up Aspen Mountain and then will ride down the gondola together. It’s a wonderful chance for the shelter dog to socialize with people, and of course, every once in awhile, from the rent-a-pet program, they’ll find their forever home.
“We had a retired sled dog who was adopted out to a woman in Florida, and she sent me a photo of the Siberian Husky on her sailboat, enjoying the ocean, and I just love thinking about where he started and where he wound up,” Sachson says.
The shelter: St. John Animal Care Center in Saint John, Virgin Islands
Why you may want to visit the area: Sun, surf… need we say more?
Why this shelter should be on your itinerary: It is a small shelter with an average of 15 dog residents at one time, and it’s the only no-kill shelter on the Virgin Islands. They encourage tourists to come socialize the kittens, or join them on morning dog walks. The morning walks are about 10 to 15 minutes around the block, but they also do Sunday hikes when visitors are interested.
“The hike takes 90 minutes. You travel with water and poop bags for the dogs, and you can see pristine Caribbean water, beautiful plants, deer, donkeys and birds,” says Ryan Moore, the shelter manager. He adds that during the winter, it’s usually around 80 degrees. The summer months are hotter, and so to not tire out the dogs, the hikes tend to be shorter.
The hikes give the dogs some great exercise, Moore says. “Since they live in kennels, it really gets their energy out. The walkers benefit from it, too.”
The shelter: Kauai Humane Society in Lihue, Hawaii
Why you may want to visit the area: Again, no explanation really needed. This is Hawaii.
Why this shelter should be on your itinerary: If you miss your dog or simply think it’d be a nice gesture to give a shelter dog a day of fun, perhaps on the beach or hiking in a state park, then you’ll want to drop by.
Like the Aspen shelter, they’ll let you rent a dog for free to take on your traveling adventures (you will have to give out your credit card information before leaving with the dog, though, and if you don’t bring it back, you’ll be charged $200). And if you do fall for the dog and want to take him home, the shelter will help you with those arrangements as well. There are dogs now living around the country who were once residents of the Kauai Humane Society.
The shelter: Inn By The Sea in Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Why you may want to visit the area: People come here to boat, swim and fish, and the ocean views are breathtaking. Cape Elizabeth’s Portland Headlight is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.
Why this shelter should be on your itinerary: OK, this is a spot for humans, and a very nice one at that, but it still belongs on this list. The Inn by the Sea has been a pet-friendly establishment since it opened in 1994, but in April 2015, the owners took it up a notch when they began working with the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland.
“They give us a dog to foster, love and care for until adopted. Guests on vacation […] walk, play and enjoy the dog while on holiday. Some fall in love and end up giving the dog a permanent home,” says Rauni Kew, a spokeswoman for the inn.
During its first full year, Kew says that the program adopted out 46 dogs. Sometimes locals walking by the inn will end up adopting them, though usually it’s tourists who take home new pets. A few times, two or more guests have wanted to adopt the dog, which gets settled by who goes to the Animal Rescue League and sign the papers first, Kew said. “So far we haven’t had any difficulties, and of course, guests are welcome to go to the refuge and meet other dogs.”
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist in Loveland, Ohio. He and his two daughters live with one dog, three cats, two guinea pigs, one rat and a lot of fish.