Maybe you are in school right now trying to figure out what path to take. Maybe you are older and no longer being fulfilled from your job and looking for something you are passionate about. Maybe your kids are a little older and in school and you want to find ways to give back. What we have learned is that there is no right or wrong way into getting into the conservation field. Everyone, no matter what your background or experience, has the opportunity to make a difference, and you don’t have to have your own television show or live in the jungle to do it.
We did some research and talked to people about being their own wildlife conservationists in whatever capacity that may be, and came up with some advice and steps you can take to get your foot in the door in whichever way works best for you. Whether you are an artist, stay-at-home mom, business owner, or engineer, anyone can make a difference and do great work for conservation all over the world.
Figure out what you are passionate about, and where your talents and skills could be used to the best capacity.
This can come in a ton of different forms. The one we have had the best results with is volunteering. Look into local wildlife rehabs, zoos, animal shelters, even museums or farms and petting zoos. Many businesses and organizations that focus on conservation and wildlife education do not get a lot of financial support and rely on volunteers to help things run. By choosing to volunteer you have the opportunity to get hands-on experience, as well as talk to people who are dedicating their time and lives in the field and see where they got their start and how they are doing now.
With Covid-19 and the times we are in now, volunteering may be a little more difficult to get into, but don’t give up. We also suggest looking into taking some classes and courses on different subjects you think you might be interested in. A lot more subjects are being offered online and remotely, so you can find time to fit it into your schedule you have now.
Don’t feel like you need to fit into one small conservation box. Be open to every opportunity that comes your way no matter what it looks like.
Many people feel like they can only make a difference in conservation if they have a PhD in wildlife biology or are in the field conducting research and radio tracking gorillas. While people like this are important and doing good work, there is so much more involved and needed to make real differences for wildlife. Making a difference in conservation also includes politics, education, awareness, law enforcement, social justice, and local communities. People are needed who have skills in writing, social media, teaching, fundraising, technology, public speaking, connecting with people, and more. You don’t have to be an expert in the phylogeny and evolution of every animal to make a difference. Find what you are good at and find a role in the field that needs those skills. We promise there will be one.
Do your research on facilities and organizations before you jump all in.
While the thought of getting the chance to feed tigers, swim with otters, or pet a sloth might seem alluring and a dream come true, unfortunately there are people out there who care more about making a profit than the care and welfare of the animals they are in charge of. Granted we completely understand that a lot of places aren’t getting the help, funding, and man power they might need to function to the best of their abilities, there is a difference between putting the priorities on getting people to buy experiences, and ensuring the animals are getting the best quality of life. Ask around. Talk to people that may be working or volunteering there now or have in the past, and ask the tough questions. Look into their financials. Don’t support facilities that are importing their animals from overseas to get what is popular now, or breeding wild animals for profit.
Network. Network. And then network some more.
As much as there is work and different kinds of conservation and wildlife organizations all over the world, once you get into the industry, you realize it is a lot smaller than you think. You will also learn quickly that it is getting more and more competitive. Besides building up your resume with classes and experience, one of the best ways to get your foot in the door is to have someone already working in the field to put a good word in for you. While you may feel weird or uncomfortable approaching people or putting yourself out there, we have found that a vast majority of those working with animals and wildlife want to help others succeed. Look into joining or becoming a member of national and local associations like the American Association of Zoo Keepers and the Animal Behavior Management Alliance. They have TONS of resources to help you learn more, as well as put on conferences almost every year where you get the chance to hear from speakers making huge strides in the field along with meeting and connecting with people from all over the world who work in the industry.
Great schools and courses for hands on experience.
If you keep up with our blogs or social media, you have heard us talk about America's Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College in California. The Exotic Animal Training and Management Program was established at Moorpark College in 1974. The program prepares students for a variety of positions in public and private animal parks, zoos and oceanariums and for careers in animal handling and training for the entertainment and wildlife education industries. While if you talk to anyone who has completed the program, they will most likely tell you it was one of the most grueling, but rewarding 22 months of their lives. You get amazing experience through a combination of classroom instruction and actual care, handling, and training of a wide variety of domestic and non-domestic animals (including baboons, lions, macaws, coyotes, beavers, donkeys, snakes, dogs, and so much more). Learn more and how to apply here.
Another great option is Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida. They offer an Associates Degree in Zoo Animal Technology. This program focuses more on getting students hands on training and experience to become a zookeeper, and they are also accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). You get the chance to gain hands-on experience in every aspect of zoo animal management, from daily care, to habitat construction and maintenance, to educating the public on our diverse collection of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Learn more and how to apply here.
Another great place to find some awesome courses and information is the San Diego Zoo Global Academy online page. They offer a huge variety of classes from Animal Care, Animal Welfare, Safe Capture, Interpretation, Zoonotic Diseases, and so much more. Some are free and some come at a small cost, but being put together by professionals and San Diego Zoo, they teach you a lot (and also look great on your resume) .
We can’t stress enough that there is no one specific way to get your foot in the door in this field. While talking to anyone in the industry now, the main things they will tell you are having experience and what is becoming more of a requirement with some places is some sort of degree. It is never too late to start either. Get your foot in the door volunteering, start taking some classes, and join some Facebook groups of people with similar interests (ZooKreepers and Wildlife Guardians are some great places to start). If you can’t make a complete career change, taking a part time gig and just offering a few hours a week to a non-profit organization can still make a huge difference.
If you have any other questions or advice please feel free to leave them in the comments below. We love to hear the experiences from people and want to share as much information and advice we can to support one another in becoming the best wildlife guardians, welfare advocates, and conservationists we can all be.