Layne worked as a wildlife rehabilitator and medical intern for several years before becoming a licensed veterinary technician (LVT).
How to Work With Animals and Wildlife
While you may be overwhelmed by the many options you've read about when it comes to choosing a career path to work with wildlife, there are some basic places to start looking. Perhaps you are a high school student looking to begin a career studying or working with animals, or maybe you want to pick up volunteer work that will let you work with wildlife part-time. There are many options to get you started.
Before jumping into career paths like veterinary assisting, veterinary technology, veterinary medicine, marine biology, etc., you will want to start volunteering your time or get an internship at a local organization. This will give you the hands-on experience you are looking for.
Many Species Need Your Help
In my volunteer experience, I have been able to work with the following species prior to any coursework in vet med, biology, etc.
- Raptors (owls, hawks)
- Predatory mammals (foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks)
- Marine mammals (sea lions, elephant seals)
- Native Californian species (squirrels, songbirds, opossums, snakes, hummingbirds, corvids, seabirds)
- Large cats (pumas)
- South American species (tapirs, pios, tucans, macaws, howler monkeys)
What Species Do You Want to Work With?
So, despite all the daunting information I just shared with you, you still want to work with wildlife? Congrats! You are a wildlife lover. The fun starts here.
First, try to think about what species you will want to work with. Are you marine mammal oriented? Are you a birder? Do you like predatory mammals? Perhaps you are interested in raptors?
Rehabilitation vs. Sanctuary Work
Wildlife centers are either going to be focused on a particular species or a variety of species (native fauna). Get online and start googling centers around you. You will find wildlife rehabilitation centers and wildlife sanctuaries. Here is the difference:
- Wildlife rehabilitation centers: Rehabilitate wild animals with the intention of releasing them. These rehabilitation techniques avoid habituation (baby crows, for example, will be fed with the caretaker wearing a visor to avoid habituation). Predatory mammals will be taught to keep a healthy fear of humans despite being fed regularly at the center. Every effort will be made to keep the animals wild.
- Wildlife sanctuary: A sanctuary is a center that is organized to house animals (wildlife) that for one reason or another were rescued from a captive environment (often illegal) and are unable to be released due to safety reasons (both the animal's safety and the public's). This may include centers abroad (exotic species, e.g., green turtles) or native animals that were somehow habituated.
Volunteering at both are equally rewarding. I spent a majority of my time working with predatory mammals at a native wildlife rehabilitation center as well as a marine mammal center. I also had the experience of working at a wildlife sanctuary in South America for once captive wildlife. I enjoyed both thoroughly for different reasons.
I particularly liked the wildlife rehabilitation center because the work was so hands-on. Also, you feel good releasing animals back into the wild. Much of the duties included:
- Basic husbandry
- Educational opportunities (seminars)
- Food prep (learning native animal diets)
- Triage (assessing incoming patients)
- Vaccinations and parasitology
- Enclosure and cage cleaning
Tip: "Cute" and "Wild" Clash
Avoid using the word "cute" while volunteering. We know animals are cute, but refrain from using this term in the wildlife setting to maintain professionalism. This is an unexpressed rule.
Find Opportunities at a Volunteer Center With an Online Search
Get online and Google the species you are most interested in. You will likely find results within your area (also look for opportunities abroad!). Be prepared for the following:
- To submit an application (even for volunteering)
- To attend an orientation and training session
- To sacrifice a weekend (half-day usually)
- To start out cleaning cages/enclosures
Once you establish trust with the center you are working at, you will get more duties and experience "cooler" things from there (although all of it is cool).
Apply to the Center
When applying to the center, you will want to convey your interest (and prospective interests like schooling) even if this will be your first time working with wildlife. Talk about your enthusiasm growing up, or even mention that you grew up with critters in your household, or you were always fascinated with rescuing birds and animals in your backyard. Share your genuine enthusiasm. Animal people recognize animal people.
Hands-On Experience Is Everything
One thing I learned while pursuing my veterinary technology education to become a registered veterinary technician is that hands-on experience is EVERYTHING. Your skills as a wildlife rehabilitator require experience. Yes, you must study and learn everything there is to know (and this often requires continuing education or formalized schooling), but in order to really thrive in this field, you need to work with animals directly.
Wildlife Volunteer Work Is a Great Resume Builder
Wildlife organizations are like family. I've connected with individuals who have worked at the same centers as me miles and miles outside of the state. Being able to list your affiliation to these amazing centers (doing amazing things!) looks great on a college resume. If you are looking to pursue pre-vet studies or something biology or zoology related, volunteering at a wildlife center is a great idea.
Marine Mammal Volunteer Work
What You Should Know About Animal Husbandry
Working with animals is absolutely magical, but a lot of it requires husbandry and physical labor. Not to mention there is poop, pee, parasites, and smells. You will get bit, scratched, and kicked (not always, but likely). This is part of the work.
The more experienced you are about reading wildlife body language, and the better you are at taking precautions and using proper restraint, the safer you will be. Never let someone force you into something that feels unsafe. If they are doing so, they are violating safety regulations.
Always Protect Yourself
This is the number one rule I have for you. Protect yourself:
- Wear Your PPE: Wear proper safety equipment at all times.
- Watch and Observe: Always assess a patient's reactivity before handling.
- Take Training Classes: Take as many classes as you can on animal behavior and low-stress restraint.
- Always Have Backup: Always have backup personnel. Never go into an unsafe situation alone.
- Start Small: Start out with gentle species (songbirds) before moving on to more active species (squirrels).
- Get Vaccinated: Get your rabies vaccination! You can get it covered by insurance if you prove it is necessary for your work—this is especially true if you get an internship! All mammals can carry rabies (rare, but marine mammals can too).
- Study: Learn about infectious diseases. Viruses can be transferred to your house animals (dogs and cats) via dirty shoes, and rabies can be acquired via scratches or even from a deceased animal, parasites can be accidentally ingested if you do not wash your hands.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Layne Holmes
Have Any Questions?
Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on January 05, 2019:
Oh, I'm sure it is rewarding!! You know what they say, if you do a job you love you never work a day in your life!
Layne Holmes (author) from Bend, Oregon on January 04, 2019:
Hi Ellison—It's definitely a competitive field! I think a successful route is going with forestry management, biology, zoology, ecology, or veterinary technology and getting registered. I've seen some people do well with that. It's such an awesome field and super rewarding . . .
Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on January 04, 2019:
This is a cool article. My dad was a park ranger most of his life and from time to time they would do wildlife rehabilitation. It is a very interesting field to me! Though I feel like it would be hard to find a job in it,.