How One Woman Changed Her Life Through Bottle Feeding Manatees

Posted on by Sarah Lafontaine

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman

At some point we’ve all re-evaluated our careers, our relationships, and our lives in general. We’ve all wondered what the meaning of life is or how we can get more fulfillment out of our day-to-day existence. It’s scary to take the steps and reinvent ourselves, so we say “One day…” or “When I’m retired.” This was similar for Laura Hillman.

It was 2014 and Laura came to me when I was a Travel Agent selling volunteer vacations around the world. She was looking for a vacation with meaning and had done research online, settling on a two week internship with the Belize Zoo. I sat down with Laura to talk about her experience and how it launched into her spending one year volunteering around the globe.

What prompted your first volunteer trip?

I’m a workaholic so I don’t take vacations, I never have. I was at a point where I had to get out or I was going to end up locked up somewhere (laughing). Not quite that bad, but I was thinking of going to Mexico and doing the whole all-inclusive thing. I was going by myself and what am I going to do? I’ll sit by a pool, I’m going to eat too much, I’m going to drink too much and I’m going to think about what I’m not doing at work. So I decided to try and find something that I could immerse myself in and in doing some searching on volunteer vacations, I came across the Belize Zoo. I thought, “Oh, that might be interesting” because I had a dislike for zoos, I have my own opinions about zoos, and I thought it might be interesting to see the other side of it, and because they’re mainly rescued animals I thought it was ok. So that’s really how that started.

So it’s safe to say it changed your life?

When I got back, there was just no going back to my job. This whole trip was supposed to rejuvenate me [to spend] another 5 years in the restoration industry and it did the exact opposite. [I] couldn’t wait to give my resignation.

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman

Is there one thing that made you decide to take the next year and spend it volunteering globally?

I suppose it’s kind of morbid, but I had friends and family that were dying, young, and I had always thought I would love to travel, “Let me wait until I’m 55.” “Let me wait until I’m 60.” Then I decided that waiting was silly, because I might not be here when I’m 55 or 60. That’s really what did it for me. A few very close people to me went young and quickly and I thought, there’s really no time like the present. It was just time.

Over the last year, where have your travels taken you?

I went back to the Belize Zoo for a month, then I went to WildTracks in Belize which is Manatees, Howler Monkeys and Spider Monkeys. It’s an awesome place! The accommodations are rustic but in saying that all the money goes into the place, everything goes to the rehabilitation of the manatees and monkeys. They do an absolutely fabulous job of it. The area they release them into hadn’t had howlers in 70 years because they were wiped out by hunting and yellow fever. They were reintroduced and I think they’re up to [between 7 and 9] babies now born in the wild. I spent 3 months there.  

Then I went to Thailand and spent 2 months with the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand. I did a month of wildlife rescue and a month of elephants. That was a fabulous program.

From there I went to Tasikoki which is in Northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. I have mixed feelings but [overall] it was a great experience.

[After Indonesia] it was the Dell Cheetah Centre in South Africa, which was great for a month.

After that, it was Glen Afric in South Africa which is an interesting place, it’s not what I would call a wildlife sanctuary, it wasn’t what I’d expected. It also wasn’t where I was supposed to go, but I stayed and it was an interesting place. It’s like living on a game reserve.

After that I went back to WildTracks in Belize for a month, and that’s it, for now.

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman


Do you have one piece of advice for someone who is looking to take the step into volunteering abroad?

Research where you’re going. There are a lot of places that disguise themselves as conservation places, especially in the canned hunting trade in South Africa. You’ll be raising babies to be hunted.

[Also], go with it. It’s gonna be cold showers, and it’s going to be dorm accommodations, and especially for someone who is my age with a bunch of 20 year olds, it can be interesting. You just have to go with it. When you get to a place, give it time. You have to give it time. Your first instinct will be to run. After you’re there for a week, then you feel at home.

Is there one stand-out experience that’s made a big impact on you and where you go next in life?

No, I don’t think just one. All of them are like a big puzzle and every place has had it’s little piece. I think WildTracks is phenomenal, so is Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand.

It was more difficult for me than I thought it would be, especially on the social aspect.

How did you find balance while you were travelling this last year?

I’m a very independent person, so I just did my thing. I didn’t worry about being a part of the crowd, per se. They would go on trips that I wasn’t really interested in [so] I didn’t worry about that. I took my time and I did what I wanted to do and just didn’t worry about that [social] part of it. I was there for the animals, so that’s what my focus went into.

What would make a traveller responsible when they’re going abroad if they’re not participating in a volunteer program?

Look into the destination you’re going to. Don’t ride elephants. If you’re petting tigers or lions or monkeys on the street, question it. We’ve all done it. I’ve had my picture taken with an iguana in Mexico. You know, you look back at it and you realize that it’s not right. There’s plenty of info online. There’s something called the Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts for Animal-Friendly Tourism. Follow those rules, don’t get caught up in the trap and don’t be afraid to say something.

How do you think more people could get interested in volunteering?

I think, especially, for the older crowd, a lot of places need to change up the accommodation a bit. Whether they have a special section, it’s a whole different ball game from when you’re 22 to when you’re in your 50s and 60s.

It’s funny, you know, because we don’t [really] do that in North America. People look at you and are like, “What do you mean, you took a year and travelled?” But in the UK and Australia, it’s like “What do you mean, you DIDN’T take a year and travel?” It’s really something that we should embrace on this side of the world, because it really does make a huge difference to see how other people live, to see what is really going on in the world and to open yourself to all of the wonderful things you can come across.

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman

Photo Credit: Laura Hillman


What is your biggest take-away from the last year?

Things aren’t good out there. They really aren’t. We sit in our lovely homes with our wonderful amenities and we complain about the most trivial things. I learned a lot in South Africa. There is no wild left, just try to grasp that! There is no wild left. It’s all either privately or publically owned. It’s devastating and there’s no coming back from that. We are so fortunate, we are so blessed to live where we live, and we have to take stalk in that and give back. It seems to be changing, little by little. [Real] change is going to hurt, but there is no alternative.

What’s next for you?

I really want to devote some time to writing. I would love to do something with the kabillion of pictures I took. Fundraising possibly. Getting more people out there to do this kind of stuff. There’s so many people out there from all walks of life. If it’s not animals, there are great programs with kids. I think everybody should do it.

One item to pack?

Buffs. They came in so handy. Oh, and good shoes!
Are you looking to make a change? Check out the following programs:

Wildlife Friends Foundation of


Belize Zoo Internship

Tasikoki Indonesia with Kaya Responsible Travel –

Cheetah Re-Introduction with African Impact –