22nd April 2016
Perhaps a more accurate title for this blog would be “So you want to work with wild animals?” for those are the species I will be focussing on rather than careers involving domesticated animals.
Picture the scene – while checking the Grace’s Rest email inbox first thing in the morning I find another one. I anxiously grit my teeth as I open the unsolicited message already knowing what it will say and with my mind now formulating a suitably delicately worded response. We get a surprising amount of these enquiries; I am talking of course of the speculative job application.
One has to admit that the prospect of working with animals, and getting paid to do so, is an attractive career prospect for many people. It is truly saddening when I have to write a very polite “no opportunities are currently available” reply to every single hopefully applicant. Grace’s Rest is a very small operation and only has one full-time, voluntary, member of staff (me) and one part-timer who helps with fundraising. This is the same for the vast majority of animal rescue centres; we simply do not have the funds to pay for extra staff even if they would be very handy.
Rather than reel off a miserable list of why we cannot have any more paid or voluntary team mates for animal care right now instead I shall provide some pearls of wisdom for those looking to get into the “industry”. Some come from my own experiences prior to opening Grace’s Rest (both positive and negative) whilst others come from my encounters with prospective job applicants.
Firstly, VOLUNTEER! Yes, I bet you’re all fed-up of being told this but volunteering shows that you are committed to and passionate about your future career. It is important to make sure that you are doing the right sort of volunteering too. For instance, helping out at your local children’s centre is great but if you want to work with exotic/wild animals your local wildlife trust might be a better option. Also, do not forget that it might serve you better to vary your volunteering to show of your own personal diversity. For instance, do some fundraising for the establishment you volunteer for, create a petition or hand out leaflets. Believe me that this shows far more passion and a willingness to get stuck in than simply sticking at the same unpaid role for years on end. Plus, you’ll learn a lot more and maybe discover something you like doing even more than working directly with the animals!
Think long and hard as to whether this is the right career for you. The hours are long and the pay (when available) is generally low compared to other careers. You will be bitten, scratched and at some point be covered in mud, filthy water, poop, pee, vomit, blood and all manner of other unmentionable substances. Here is where real volunteering can be Heaven sent because you can “try before you buy”. Remember, these are WILD animals and as such do not take kindly to you being in their personal space. If you are wishing to work in rescue you will be dealing with frightened, sick, injured and traumatised wild creatures whose only desire is to get as far away from you as quickly as possible by any means necessary. They do not want to be cuddled, petted or played with. Sorry guys, those jobs do not exist except for the scam “experiences” offered to gullible paying tourists for their “volunteering” holiday.
Get some formal training before starting out. There are lots of top quality colleges and universities across the country offering excellent qualifications in animal care, welfare, behaviour and ecology with courses available to suit all ability levels. These will give you a great starting point for your career (whatever your age) and will help you to discover your passions within the field as well as your strengths and weaknesses therefore allowing you to make prudent decisions as to the path to choose next. They will also help you to acquire critical thinking and problem solving skills which may sound trivial but when you’re faced with some of the conundrums we have to cope with at Grace’s Rest every day it certainly helps to have a level head and be able to think logically and calmly in an emergency.
Bear in mind that speculative applications are rarely successful. If no vacancies are being advertised it is highly unlikely that there will be any positions available. This is where your knowledge of the company/charity that you are applying to really shows. For instance, if their website says that there are no vacancies and you write to them to ask anyway it is likely to come across that you have not researched the establishment and know very little about it; perhaps that you have canvassed a large number of employers at once rather than reading into and writing to one that you’re a really keen on.
Don’t show off! It’s all well and good to showcase what you consider to be your greatest achievement but there is a time and a place (and a method) to do so. Wording these accomplishments badly can make them come across as plain old bragging instead of something to be proud of. Using phrases such as “I’ve worked with animals others can only dream of” and “I’ve worked with the great apes and big cats in the wild” are classic examples. As cruel as it sounds, such statements can be viewed as fabricated upon first glance. Taking the later as an example perhaps a better wording in an introductory letter would be - “My trip to Sumatra last year opened my eyes to the plight of animals captured for the illegal pet trade”. Now THAT would grab my attention! Please also note previous comment about scam “volunteering” holidays too. *cough cough*
Research the establishment you are applying to. Yes, I’ve mentioned this already but it’s REALLY important. Knowing the aims and objectives of the company you are applying to, their moral/ethical policies and how they operate is the key to success. For instance, if you write to any animal rescue service and talk of nothing but your achievements in the pet trade or how you are a prolific animal breeder they are hardly likely to warm to you.
Be willing to be flexible. Say that there are no vacancies available in animal care but you are offered a fundraising role instead. You might think “What’s the point?! I wanted to work with the animals!” but this could be considered rather short-sighted. Fundraising could be exactly what your chosen establishment needs at that moment. It could mean more to the animal care aspect of their endeavours at that time than having another pair of hands to poop-scoop. You will learn new skills, meet new people and get to be involved with the cause that you are passionate about. Don’t dismiss it immediately; future opportunities WILL come up and then you’re already part of the team and ready to show what you’re made of!
Whilst volunteering and entry-level roles are essential, don’t be taken for a ride. Never let anyone take advantage of you, your skills and your experience in a way that is detrimental to your mental or physical wellbeing. All too often in the animal care sector unscrupulous employers get away with treating their staff terribly simply because they know that should you quit there will be dozens (maybe even hundreds) of other eager workers waiting to take your place. Never suffer in silence, speak out if you are bullied, threatened or harassed at work or are unfairly dismissed.
It’s not all doom and gloom folks. There are opportunities out there to get involved in the world of animal rescue and welfare but they might be slightly different from those you initially dreamed of. With so many people clamouring for a single job role it is inevitable that there will be a lot of disappointed candidates out there. Approach every day with an open mind and a positive outlook and who knows what doors could open up!
If you would like further careers advice please do not hesitate to get in touch with me via our contact form or drop me an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Meet the Owner-Operator, Clare Barnard BSc.(Hons)
Clare is a research scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln where she is studying wildlife conservation and the direct impact of the exotic pet trade on wild animal populations. She will be working from the Laboratory of Evolutionary Ecology of Adaptations. Clare has also been honoured to become part of the Global Amphibian Biodiversity research team.
Clare has almost 20 years professional experience in the husbandry of exotic animals a specialism in the genetics of British herpetofauna. She has worked with wild Adders (Vipera berus) and endangered Natterjack Toads (Epidalea calamita) under Natural England license conditions. Clare has worked as a zookeeper and within private collections including her own. She lives in rural North Warwickshire, on-site at Grace's Rest, with a whole host of animals!