Having to handle bull sh*t every morning isn’t considered a good life experience, so of course you would be forgiven for thinking that this was a bad thing. However, along with picking up donkey and pig poop, this was part of my daily chores at The Animal Sanctuary in Matakana, New Zealand.
Each and every morning we would get up, feed the animals, collect poo for compost and then get on with our daily chores either on the land or around the house to fulfil our volunteering / Wwoofing duties. In return, Shawn and Michael lovingly opened up their home to us, gave us very comfortable sleeping quarters and kept us fueled with vegan food.
It was demanding work to volunteer everyday, but overall, fun and eventful. I’m glad to have a break, but I will miss the Animal Sanctuary and it’s many characters dearly.
Lara and I volunteered at the Sanctuary as part of our Wwoofing experience. Wwoofing is allowing us to cheaply travel New Zealand by volunteering on farms and with families. Read my post on Wwoofing to learn more: WWOOFing, a cheap way to see the world!
About the sanctuary and the animals
The Animal Sanctuary is nestled in the hills above the tiny town of Matakana about an hour drive north of Auckland. It is home to a host of once abused and injured animals that you can’t help fall in love with. Set on 32 acres, the Sanctuary has a number of permanent residents including donkeys, rescued battery chickens, a blind duck, ducks that can’t fly, peacocks, a playful bull that thinks he is half the size he is, pigs, goats, hedgehogs, parrots, a native New Zealand owl and transient residents mostly made up of birds and chickens waiting to find a loving home.
The operation is quite extensive with routine feeding and land tending, which requires more than the working hands of Shawn and Michael. So at the time they opened around 10 years ago they started taking volunteers through the Wwoofing program to help shape and run the now well established spot.
It’s hard to pick a favorite amongst the animals but some stand out more than others for their strong personalities.
Sparky the bull has an imposing side (mostly because of his sheer weight and size!), but with a playful puppy demeanour. He was brought into the Sanctuary after being found with his back foot severely severed after being caught in an electric fence wire.
Dulche, the baby goat, can get anything she wants through her utter cuteness, curiosity and love to be around humans. Of course, it means she gets up to mischief and into everything. This includes using pigs as trampolines and slipping through every gap she is not supposed to! She was found up to her neck, close to drowning, in a drainage ditch with no mother in sight.
Solomon and Bartholomew are Jerusalem donkeys who have twice been in abusive situations with the last owner seemingly going crazy and claiming she had to go into hiding because her husband was on the run! These guys look almost happy in their current homes, quite a feat for a donkey! They love to give donkey hugs and Solomon certainly lets you know when it’s time to feed him!
Snow is a cockatoo, sadly her original owner is in prison but luckily Michael somewhat resembled him and Snow didn’t hesitate in taking him on as her new Daddy. She doesn’t talk as much as some but is quite insistent in asking for you to give her a scratch!
Poupee is a Paradise Shell Duck. She actually is no longer a resident at the sanctuary but comes back every few weeks for visits. Michael and Shawn raised and released her. I’ve never known such a friendly duck!
The two pigs Rosie and Jose spend a lot of time grunting and squealing and digging up the earth, but love having their bellies rubbed! They don’t even seem to mind being jumped on by Dulche!
Lurch was a breeder chicken, used to birth even bigger babies for the meat industry. Through her terrible previous conditions she can’t walk properly. Of course, this lends her an quirky charm to stand out amongst some of the others!
The morpork doesn’t have a name that I am aware of and always looks stunned! This native owl is small and quite rare so it was a real treat to be able to get close to such an animal. Sadly it has trouble flying so is currently living in an enclosed garden area. It gets fed very well though!
And how could I possibly forget Benji! Benji is the cutest little dog in the world and seems to be a mixture of a variety of Star Wars characters. I don’t know his full story but I believe at one point he was alone living on a cement block which is incredibly sad considering he just adores human company.
Our work and events that shaped our month
7 days a week we would wake up at 7-7:30. We would eat breakfast, start preparing food and then go out for the morning feed. This generally consisted of us taking the “bottom section” of the Sanctuary, which involved feeding some wild ducks, then feeding and watering the rehab ducks, chickens and a peacock in an area known as the Orchard. Then we would head down the hill to feed the egg laying chickens and collect eggs. We also fed the Kereru, the Native wood pigeon, in the flight pen. For most of our time we were there, we had to feed an injured magpie named Googi.
Afterward, we would pick up poo, a morning chore that wasn’t as bad as it sounds! “Black gold” tends not to stink and is easy to shovel. Then we would report to Michael for our daily chores. These ranged from chopping back trees, cutting gorse, cleaning cages and weeding strawberries. For the most part, these chores ran 7 days a week/3 hours per day, but we were allowed to a few days off on some occasions.
At around 12:30-13:30 we would stop for lunch. At 16:30-17:30 the evening feed would start. This involved us taking the same route as the morning feed but with the addition of feeding a mouse the morpork and a slightly different feed for some of the animals.
All in all, we worked around 6 hours a day/7 days a week. Some days longer and some days a little less. We didn’t get much time off, so admittedly we were pretty tired!
There were quite a few events during our time there.
In the first few days a Possum decided to jump on my head. I was obviously freaked out!
Then Shawn broke her ankle while at a peacock rescue, which may have contributed to us not getting much time off. Originally, Shawn and Michael were going on holiday for ten days and we were going to manage feeding all the animals while they were gone. Sadly, the holiday had to be cancelled!
Then there was a horrible attack on the ex-battery chickens. A turkey that lived with them and 2 chickens were killed and 3 more were missing. A very sad day. It’s assumed that it was a dog attack. We found 2 of the missing chickens, one with horrible bite and shake wounds.One still remains missing. Luckily, Shawn and Michael are quite adept at recovering chickens and the hens are now near recovered and back with their flock after weeks of treatment. The assumed attacker was never found despite having a humane trap set in place. It could have been a neighbors loose dog, a dog from a group of illegal hunters or just a wild dog!
I found this poor hen two days after the attack in the bushes near her home. She was a mess but survived to tell the tale. Her wounds are healing and feathers growing back nicely but other chickens are still picking on her.
Then…. borrowing the car to go out on my birthday, I left the gas cap on the back of the car at the gas station! It’s the fourth time in my life I have lost a cap in this way. I should have learned by now, but something tells me I have a few more to lose before it’s hammered into my head! It was a $28 NZD mistake.
And then bunch of hens arrived from a battery farm. They were a mess with feathers pulled, sore behinds and lumps on the side of some of their heads. Aparently they were in remarkable condition compared to the hens they normally receive straight from the farms!
Note: I learned during my time that hens from Free-Range farms often arrived in just as bad a shape as battery hens. Sure they get a little outdoor space but life for them is still absolute misery!
I think Lara and I worked hard, we often went beyond our time and tried to make sure we did everything to the best of our ability. Of course, we were far from perfect and I can recall a number of occasions where our comprehension of Michael’s instructions was pretty poor! I have not been in a work situation that required taking orders and following instruction for a long time now, so I know it’s something I need to improve on!
Analyzing value as a volunteering / Wwoofing experience
The opportunity to work in a beautiful and fairly remote place for this amount of time, and working closely with these beautiful animals is invaluable. We loved getting to know all the personalities and having the chance to bond a little with each and every one, even the ones that didn’t like us that much!
From a volunteering standpoint, it was hard work mostly because it was EVERY day. General Wwoofing positions are supposed to be 4-5 hours a day, 4-5 days a week. In exchange, the host provides reasonable meals 3 times a day and accommodation.
I estimate that we worked 6 hours a day, 7 days a week. We were fed pretty well for the most part and had some lovely and interesting vegan meals, but sometimes felt a little restricted in what we were allowed to eat from the fridge and garden, especially around lunch times.
Our accommodation was beautiful and comfortable, which enabled us to relax during our downtime. They had a hot tub (which we sadly never used) and a projector with cinema style seating, some gym equipment and a large lounge plus a more private space referred to as ‘the Wwoofers lounge’. We also had use of broadband internet which meant we could both continue contact with the outside world and get some work done to enable us to continue earning a little cash for our further travels.
If I was to compare it to a J.O.B. it doesn’t look too favorable! Say the value of the room was $250NZD per week incl bills (laundry facilities, heat etc), then take the food at around $170 for a week (we would spend less if shopping for ourselves in normal circumstances, but they provided a lot of interesting imported vegan and organic foods). Internet could also be judged at about $20 per week. So that’s about $440 worth given to us. The two of us worked a combined sum of 12 hours a day, which equals 84 hours a week. That only works out to $5.23/hour NZD. As a comparison New Zealand’s current minimum wage is $13.50 per hour before tax.
Of course the experience can’t be measured in a simple monetary value.
Looking back and looking forward….
This was the start of our Wwoofing / Volunteering journey together in New Zealand. The Animal Sanctuary was an invaluable experience and we thank Shawn and Michael greatly for opening their home and being so trusting and friendly with us two foreigners who turned up to help them.
We worked hard and I know it was appreciated, but for our ongoing adventures we will be looking for places with more time off and chores that could be fulfilled in a single block, rather than split in the morning and evening. This would enable us to get our online work done and also get out and about to see the area we are staying in without time restriction.
Next up, we head south to Wellington city. We’ll be staying with a couple who own a small 0.8acre block and need help preparing walls for painting and general gardening. I am really excited as they are well travelled and keen to live organically and sustainably.
I’m finding this life exciting and different. I can’t wait to head off into households and businesses around New Zealand to further my learning about farming, sustainability and tour the real New Zealand, the one off the beaten tourist track.
The Animal Sanctuary was demanding, but I have NO regrets about it: What a great experience.
If you have any questions about our Wwoofing / volunteering experience or have any stories to share yourself I would love to hear from you. Also if you have any general comments or thoughts don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments.
Thanks a million for reading.