How to Start a Career Working with Animals · The Wildest

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So, You Want to Work with Animals

On the prowl for a new career path? A director at the Humane Society has some pro tips.

by Lindsay Hamrick, CPDT-KA
April 25, 2022
A woman holding up a treat while shaking a dogs paw.
Christian Müller / Adobe Stock

Were you the kid who put together a PowerPoint presentation to lobby your parents for a puppy? Whether you’ve always known you were meant to work with animals or you’re mid-career and thinking about a change, here are some tips from one animal lover to another:

1. You don’t necessarily need an animal-related degree.

Unless your plan is to be a veterinarian, veterinary technician, biologist, or something similar, careers with animals are rooted more in experience than education. While it can help to have a foundation in animal science, behavior, conservation biology, or public policy, gaining hands-on and relevant experience will help you the most in the long run.

Even though I graduated with a degree in animal science and studied animal behavior in college, it wasn’t until I worked at an animal shelter that I learned how to properly handle cats and dogs. If you can volunteer or intern in your area of interest, it will help you figure out if you’d really enjoy the work and will give future employers confidence that you understand the realities of a job with animals.

While you can make a full-time career out of helping animals, certain jobs still struggle to pay more than minimum wage. Before embarking on a two to four-year degree, explore your interests and make sure a degree is required to do what you love.

2. There are all kinds of careers.

A few decades ago, many jobs working with animals were volunteer-based (think: helping your local shelter or volunteering as a wildlife rehabilitator). Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then. If we want solutions to complex problems like helping pets and their families, addressing climate change, or ending factory farming, we need creative and determined people who are in it for the long haul.

One way to narrow down your focus is to think about the species you most want to help. Are you driven to support pet owners? Working at your local shelter or rescue, as an animal behaviorist, or for a national program to keep pets with their families may be the right fit. You could even deploy with a disaster response team. There is a serious shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians in the U.S. While training can take years, if you have a love of medicine, pets need you more than ever.

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If you’re driven to help wildlife, consider working with native species as a wildlife rehabilitator or with exotic animals at an ethically-run sanctuary where animals are rescued from roadside zoos or the illegal pet trade. And if farm animals are your passion, consider using those culinary skills to help schools add more plant-based options to their menu.

If, like me, you are open to helping all animals, remember that your career doesn’t have to include hands-on work with animals. A skill set in graphic design, lobbying, writing, accounting, information technology, and fundraising can help a broad range of non-profit organizations. Find one that speaks to you. Those with a first career in education or in the legal field have found a natural fit in advocacy and teaching others about the complex issues impacting animals like puppy mills or conservation of endangered species.

3. It’s not all petting puppies and kittens.

It’s not even a little of this. Be realistic about what a career with animals includes by testing it out first. Animal welfare work is incredibly rewarding, but it also touts one of the highest rates of burnout and suicide. There is a tendency to dive in early in a career with animals only to find yourself exhausted and defeated a few years later. If you’re just entering the field, set boundaries between work and your home life early on so you can bring your passion to the job for years to come — and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed.

 4. You can make a real living helping animals.

A popular misconception is that working for animals isn’t a viable career path, but that’s changing. Full-time jobs can come with a livable wage, healthcare benefits, matching 401(k) contributions, two to four weeks or more of vacation and sick time, and in some cases, the ability to work from home. While many entry-level jobs may be volunteer-based or pay minimum wage, there are many opportunities to turn your passion into a career. Don’t give up hope that you can someday leave behind your corporate job and still feed your dog or cat the highest-grade organic food.

Lindsay Hamrick, CPDT-KA

Lindsay Hamrick lives in New Hampshire with her three dogs, chickens, and an assortment of rotating foster animals. She forces her elderly chihuahua, Grandma Baguette, on overnight backpacking trips, can diaper a lamb with one hand, and while she’s a long-time Certified Professional Dog Trainer, 66.7% of her dogs still won’t lay down when asked.

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