Do you love wildlife and hope to make a career of working with animals? Maybe you want to get a job with WWF. Or with EPI. Guess what—there are many types of organizations you can help can you pursue a career working with wildlife!
The author of this post, Neda Othman, is a former a veterinary student at University of California, Davis. She's had amazing experiences working with zebras, hawks, Galapagos giant tortoises, monkeys, harbor seals, and many more, and shares a few tips on getting experience with wildlife as a high school or college student. This guide will help you in your journey to work at a wildlife sanctuary.
Types of Wildlife Job Positions
There’s a wide variety of career paths within wildlife, we’ve compiled a list of opportunities to learn more about in all career levels.
Wildlife Career Opportunities with EPI:
The Bitterroot Wildlife Internship The Bitterroot Wildlife Internship (BWI) is an intensive, 4-week long internship focused on ecological education, conservation service, and hands-on research at the MPG Ranch in Lolo, Montana.
Research Assistant: The research assistant (RA) is a long-term volunteer job that supports the work and data collection of the different investigations of Pacuare Reserve: sea turtles, Agami heron, jaguars and monkeys, among others.
Volunteer: Traditional volunteering is a great way to live the Pacuare experience and contribute actively to our efforts and projects. One of your most important contributions will be participating in nightly data collection and safeguarding of nesting turtles.
Internships: Our internship in Costa Rica allows you to put what you have learned in the university to the test in an area of outstanding natural beauty. You will contribute to a professional conservation project devoted to developing and preserving inland and marine ecosystems and organic agriculture.
EPI Careers: EPI is a community of highly motivated individuals working to make a collective difference. Learn more about our current job listings.
Careers That Protect Wildlife:
Outdoor Education Instructor
Habitat restoration and ecological monitoring
Mid to senior level:
Entomologist (study of insects)
Herpetologist (study of reptiles and amphibians)
Wildlife Law Enforcement Officer
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. If you're interested in wildlife conservation jobs, this is a great place to start.
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, volunteering with animals, 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.
International Volunteering & Wildlife
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.
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, wildlife 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 high quality, dignified lives 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 other species of ecological importance. Check if a wildlife sanctuary near you takes volunteers.
Get A Degree In A Related Field
If you want to make an impact on the world, the university experience will help you make that happen, especially since many jobs in the field require a bachelor's degree. 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 degree focused on developing hard science skills at 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!
One common way to gain field experience while still in school is by joining wildlife-related clubs, volunteering to assist graduate students with data collection, and keeping your eyes peeled for internship and volunteer positions that work directly with wildlife research and data collection. Even if the area or topic isn’t exactly what you are interested in, any chance to gain skills and experience will put you ahead of the pack when it comes time to graduate and begin your career.
The earlier you can start networking, 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.
"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."
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!
Helpful next steps to working with wildlife:
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:
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
California Primate National Research Center – Rhesus macaques