One of the easiest things people can do to reduce stress is pet an animal. Countless research has found this to be true: One study from Tel Aviv University, for example, found that people's anxiety levels dropped when they pet a furry rabbit, but not when they pet a toy rabbit. A similar study found that children had less stress when they petted a friendly dog, versus interacting with a human or a toy dog.
So what to make of this? That people should make even more time for animals, of course. There are multiple volunteer opportunities throughout the world for people to cuddle with and care for some of the most fantastic creatures in the animal kingdom.
For anyone feeling battered by stress, here are five amazing opportunities to cuddle and play with animals worldwide:
How about something aquatic? Anyone who's fascinated by sea life can join the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute's volunteer program, which is held on the coast of Galicia, Spain. Volunteers will receive hands-on experience studying cetaceans both in the laboratory and out on the field, alongside some of the world's leading scientists in the field.
"You will be one of the important people who will leave this centre with a real perspective of bottlenose dolphins and the ability to spread the knowledge about these very often misunderstood animals," the program states.
The great apes are in danger due to issues such as mass deforestation and forest fires. The Matang Wildlife Centre, located in Borneo in Southeast Asia, allows people to help rehabilitate the endangered species through means such as farming (making food for the orangutans), husbandry (feeding them and cleaning their cages) and maintenance (helping keep the environment clean); thegreatprojects.com. The Centre hopes to return many of the Orangutans back to the wild.
Ever been kissed and explored by an elephant's big grey trunk? Make it happen by volunteering at Burm & Emily's Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, volunteers can get close to the majestic 6,000-lb animals by bathing them, feeding them, and cleaning their cages.
The program also offers opportunities to learn about Thai culture, such as cooking classes for Thai desserts and classes on traditional Thai herbal medicine (which is useful knowledge for treating elderly elephants).
Taking care of orphaned animals isn't always easy or fun, warns the Wildtracks Manatee Rehabilitation Centre. And yet, the experience is so rewarding that many volunteers appear to return to Wildtracks year after year. Located in Sarteneja, Belize, Wildtracks has been caring for orphaned manatees since 1999.
When a manatee's mother dies, the baby has little chance of survival, which is what makes Wildtracks' work especially important. The volunteer program includes preparing food for the manatees, feeding them and taking them out for exercise and stimulation.
For safety reasons, volunteers at the Panda Centers in China aren't actually allowed to snuggle with the giant pandas. But program participants have access to viewing windows, allowing them to get closer to the animals than most tourists ever will.
Volunteers get assigned as assistant to a trainer, and participate in activities such as preparing food for the pandas (apples, bread and carrots), chopping bamboo, and cleaning the panda's constructed habitat.