|"The Mother and one of her Big Cats" Courtesy of Give Back Getaways, and copyright ST Photography, All Rights Reserved
So You May Know
Sarasota's Incomparable Voluntourism Recipe: The Mother and Her BIG Cats
For those who have been following VolunTourism.org for a number of years, you know that I am both a fan and a contributor to the Ritz Carlton’s Give Back Getaways™ voluntourism program. We often hear so much about how a voluntourist can, and in some cases should, go about selecting a voluntourism program in a given destination; however, little is ever discussed as to how a hotel, resort, tour operator, or other such entity can select an NGO or grassroots organization as a partner. Oftentimes, such a partner is selected as it pertains to benefit - association with a recognized name/brand, for example, or functionality - the entity's abilility to coordinate a voluntary service activity or even some localized touristic activities as well. But what if this partner can do more? Answering this question is most assuredly one area in which Give Back Getaways excels and my recent visit to the Ritz Carlton Sarasota exemplifies exactly this.
Introduction to Big Cat Habitat
Sarasota, Florida, is a circus town, or so you will be told if you ever visit this destination on the southwestern coast of the Sunshine State. You will see references to John Ringling, one of the Ringling Brothers and renowned for their involvement in the circus. Performers of all types have walked the grounds of Sarasota – one of these individuals is a woman by the name of Kay Rosaire. As an eighth generation animal trainer, Kay lived an adventurous life for decades. More recently, however, she has taken her love of animal training and concentrated that passion on the well-being of the animals which thrill us night after night under the Big Tent. She has given them a home to live out their days, having served the needs of curiosity seekers in venues large and small in a lengthy list of destinations – be they domestic or international.
Formalizing her efforts under the auspices of Big Cat Habitat, Kaye has spent the better part of the last decade caring for these creatures which may come to her as retired circus animals, house pets that have outgrown their homes, or animals which have been raised illegally. Several hectares of land provide the terrain for lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, tortoises, monkeys, bears, and even a small herd of goats. One might chuckle at the thought of goats in such an eclectic group, but Kaye is quick to point out that the goats are easily approachable for small children and can assist kids in better understanding the importance of habitat conservation, support of wildlife, and living a more sustainable life in harmony with nature.
Selecting a Partner
|"Bears find sanctuary at Big Cat Habitat, too" Courtesy of Give Back Getaways, and copyright ST Photography, All Rights Reserved
How, you may aski, does a tour operator, hotel/resort, or even a social enterprise go about selecting a partner in a given destination?
There are certainly traditional approaches to this. Some entities seeking a destination partner will focus on a recognized brand. Some will align their selection with a cause or issue that is important to the CEO. And some will simply use a "dart board" approach (or so it would seem that this is the approach they have taken when you analyze their choice). But, there are other things you might want to consider. You are encouraged to include the following on that list of considerations:
If you talk to Kaye or some of the members of the Ritz Carlton Sarasota team, one of the first things they will tell you is that some of the guests who have gone through the Give Back Getaways program at Big Cat Habitat have followed up their day of service with a financial contribution. Kaye told me about what it means to her when someone leaves a financial gift, in particular she mentioned a guest who provided a $5,000 donation on behalf of her cats.
Developing a partnership with an organization which will prove both interesting and relevant to your guests/clients generates an opportunity for them to stay invested in the project, long after they have departed the destination. The unique nature of a project can oftentimes foster this investment and may lead to future visits and/or positive recommendations to friends and family to do likewise.
One of the things we have been looking at in Bolivia is the opportunity for voluntourists to capture data on dinosaur fossils in a place called Toro Toro. As a tour operator, hotel/resort, or social enterprise, you are aware that in each destination there truly are some unique causes/issues that can be addressed. In the case of Kaye Rosaire, not only do you have a unique cause or issue to address - conservation of animals, but you also have unique people to connect your clients/guests to.
Kaye, as an eighth generation animal trainer, can share stories with clients/guests that will literally leave you spellbound. Each animal in her keeping has a story behind it. There is the person who called her to collect the animal. There is the story of the animal itself. And, of course, there are the stories of the animals since their arrival at Big Cat Habitat. These stories are refreshing. They give meaning to voluntourists' interactions, to the service they may provide, and they give voluntourists memories, and stories of their own, to share with friends, family, and even perfect strangers on their plane rides back to their respective home destinations.
|"Entrance to Big Cat Habitat" Courtesy of Give Back Getaways, and copyright ST Photography, All Rights Reserved
How does YOUR story connect with the story behind the cause or issue you wish to support? This question can really spark some thought-provoking responses. In the case of the Ritz Carlton Sarasota, you will discover that the property itself has a direct connection to John Ringling. Extrapolating on this, it makes perfect sense to find a cause or issue that relates to the circus in some way. But it goes even further than this.
The Ritz Carlton logo is a lion's head. One of the first things you will see when you approach the gates at Big Cat Habitat is a lion's head that is almost identical to the Ritz Carlton logo. Lions are one set of creatures cared for by Big Cat Habitat. Interestingly enough, you will even find what is called a "Liger" - a combination lion and tiger - ambling about the grounds of the sanctuary.
[It should also be noted, that of this writing, the Ritz Carlton Sarasota has gone on to adopt one of the lions to support its upkeep on an annual basis.]
When we talk about the potential impact of a voluntourism program, we really want to focus on two elements. The first element is the impact on the cause/issue and the entity behind it. Selecting a small-scale operation, like Big Cat Habitat, can mean that every dollar spent, every volunteer hour provided, has a greater overall impact in the context of the entity.
The second element is in reference to the impact the experience has on the voluntourist. In the case of Big Cat Habitat, the educational impact - learning about the importance of conservation, for example - has long-term implications for the voluntourist. It can impact their future purchasing decisions, among many other things, and can certainly influence what causes and issues they choose to support.
If a tour operator, hotel/resort, or social enterprise really looks at voluntourism strategically, the results can be truly inspiring. This is fully exemplified at the Ritz Carlton Sarasota through its voluntourism partnership with Big Cat Habitat. Each of the items described above has been incorporated into this program - the potential for contribution by guests, the uniqueness of the cause/issue and the people behind it, the relevance to the story of the Ritz Carlton Sarasota and the brand itself, and, of course, the magnitude of the impact upon the cause/issue and participating voluntourists.
Taking even a little time out of your stay at the Ritz Carlton Sarasota to participate in this Give Back Getaway at Big Cat Habitat will alter your appreciation for the relationship between humans and animals. Whether you take the time to hold a goat; talk to a monkey or parrot; stand in awe of lions, tigers, and bears, that are two, three, or even more times larger than yourself; marvel at tortoises that are over the century mark in age; or simply soak in the wisdom of a woman who knows more about these creatures than you could ever hope to know, you will begin to understand why voluntourism can be both meaningful and beneficial when it is thoughtfully approached.
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