Do you love wildlife and hope to make a career of working with animals? Guess what—there are many types of organizations you can get involved with and experiences that you can pursue to get started working with wildlife! I am a veterinary student at UC Davis and have had amazing experiences working with zebras, hawks, Galapagos giant tortoises, monkeys, harbor seals, and many more. Here, I share a few tips on getting experience with wildlife as a high school and college student.
Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation
There are centers around the U.S. and the world where injured or orphaned wildlife are taken in, given medical care, and released back into the wild, if possible. Often, these animals are the victims of human activity, such as a hawk hit by a car or a duck snared in fishing line. Wildlife centers usually offer educational programs to the local community and care for a collection of animals who survived injuries that rendered them unfit to be returned into the wild. These centers welcome volunteers for everything from animal care to educational programs. If you get really into it, you can even apply for an internship at a wildlife rehab center. The hands-on experience you get at a wildlife rescue can help you get other jobs with wildlife and can also be valuable on a veterinary school application.
If you live near the coast, there may be an Oiled Wildlife Care Network you can get involved in. OWCN trains volunteers to provide aid to animals affected by oil spills, and volunteers have been deployed as far and wide as Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and even South Africa.
Zoos, Aquariums, and Wildlife Sanctuaries
Over the past 50 years, many zoos have evolved from centers of animal entertainment to centers of animal education and conservation. Your local zoo is a great way to gain experience with captive wildlife as a volunteer, an intern in animal care, or a docent with educational programs. Aquariums also have similar opportunities.
In contrast to wildlife rescue operations, sanctuaries are centers where wild animals, who may have been rescued by the sanctuary for a variety of reasons, are kept and cared for until their end of life or until a spot opens up at a zoo. The goal of these centers tends more to be about providing a high quality, dignified life for animals. An example is PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary in California, which rescues big cats, bears, and elephants from circus acts and life as “pets.” Other sanctuaries might have wolves or another species of ecological importance. Check if a wildlife sanctuary near you takes volunteers.
Go to College
If you want to make an impact on the world, the university experience will help you make that happen. You will be exposed to perspectives and issues that will challenge you, inspire you, and make you a more cultured and empathic individual. If you are hoping to work with wildlife, a research university may be your best bet. Many research institutions conduct a myriad of studies on captive and free-ranging wildlife to answer many important questions and strongly encourage students to get involved with research projects. Some of these projects may even involve international work with animals—I know college students who have worked on projects in Africa with gorillas, in South America with sea turtles, and in Italy with feral swine!
International Ecotourism and Voluntourism
International experiences are incredible and, in many cases, life-changing. You will be exposed to ways of life other than your own, invigorating your empathy and your imagination. It could give you ideas about what the world needs. There are many organizations that offer international volunteer experiences with wildlife. Ecology Project International, for one, is fantastic for people who are interested in getting a taste of conservation, research, free-ranging wildlife, local culture, and nature tours all in one trip. If you’re interested in traveling to other countries or working with other types of wildlife, finding programs that combine both is as simple as a Google search.
The earlier you can start to do it, the better off you’ll be. Networking is the formal term for making connections with people who might be able to help you in some way in the future. It is even better if you might be able to help them in some way in the future. For example, striking up a conversation with the person next to you on the plane is a form of being friendly that may lead to a networking opportunity. (If it's appropriate! Don’t disturb people who obviously don’t want to be disturbed, and always make personal safety your first priority.) An important thing to keep in mind is to be authentic.Never talk to someone with the sole goal of gaining something from them—be genuinely interested in them and how you can help them. Sometimes the interaction doesn’t lead to anything, and sometimes you can make a great connection. If it does, exchange emails or numbers! When you build a network, you can essentially make friends across the state, country, or even globe.
When I volunteered at the SeaDoc Society in 2016, I made friends with a University of Georgia veterinary student doing a summer internship there. Lo and behold, eight months later I am headed to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend a veterinary function at the Center for Disease Control. I was able to meet up with my friend for dinner and reconnect! It turns out, she is planning to do a wildlife medicine externship at UC Davis in 2018, and so I told her to let me know if she needs a place to stay, because I’ll likely be able to host her. That is networking right there!
Lastly, if there is someone who inspires you with the work they do, TELL THEM. And tell them about your interests and goals, too. When I was on vacation in Mexico, I met a veterinarian there, so I introduced myself as a UC Davis veterinary student and asked if there was anything I could help her with or observe. A few days later, she called me, and I got to assist with a Cesarean section on a pregnant dog!
To help inspire you further and to give you ideas, here is a list of all the wildlife I’ve worked with and the organizations I worked through:
- Ecology Project International (EPI) – Galapagos giant tortoises
- Oakland Zoo – Zebras, tamarins, anaconda, monitor lizard, pancake tortoises, Taiwanese beauty snake, tons of African birds
- Suisun Marsh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center – Hawks, kestrels, owls, songbirds, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, snakes, turtles
- International Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center – Seagulls, pelicans, cormorants, grebes, coots, murres, ducks, geese, herons, egrets
- SeaDoc Society – Harbor seals
- Wildlife Genetics Research Lab at UC Davis – Coyotes
- California Primate National Research Center – Rhesus macaques
Feel inspired or have suggestions of your own? Let us know in the comments below!
by Neda Othman
Neda is currently a veterinary student at University of California, Davis. On her 18th birthday, she was on a plane flying to Ecuador to participate in the EPI Galapagos program. Since then, her passion for animals and medicine took on a global "one health" perspective. Among many hobbies, Neda enjoys backpacking, DIY projects, thrift shopping, mentoring pre-vets, and cooking. You can reach her through her website.
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