Wildlife Rehabilitation: The Career

Reprinted with permission from Becoming a Wildlife Professional, Scott E Henke and Paul R Krausman, editors (pp 140-142)

Wildlife rehabilitation centers are nonprofit or governmental agencies that provide care to injured, ill, and orphaned wild animals and assist area residents with human/wildlife conflicts. Organizational goals and missions focus on the conservation of species, conflict resolution, public education, the relief of animals’ pain and suffering, and the monitoring of anthropogenic issues (influences of humans on nature), including lead ammunition, rodenticides, and climate change.

Job Description

Wildlife rehabilitators are quick thinkers who work well with people and animals. They have a passion for wildlife, but the job is more far-reaching than feeding and caring for individual animals. Many centers have limited staffs, which require their employees to be jacks-of-all-trades, ranging from construction and maintenance to veterinary nursing and habitat design. On an annual basis, rehabilitators can expect to spend 35% of their time caring for animals, 35% working with the public, 15% handling administrative tasks, and 15% managing the facility. The duties in each of these areas vary seasonally, as do the expected hours worked per week. Spring and summer months see baby animals brought to the centers, with at least 12-hour days of feeding and public education to prevent the kidnapping of young wildlife that do not need assistance. Intakes in summer and, especially, fall involve many immature species venturing out on their own and having accidents with cas, windows, diseases, and poisonings. Winter is traditionally a quieter season, with time to concentrate on records and continuing education, while also caring for a smaller number of juvenile and adult animals that are more critically injured.

One of the most important aspects of this work is interacting with the public. Rehabilitators are ambassadors between wildlife and the public. A conversation with one person is shared with friends and family and will reflect the way they handle wildlife situations in the future. Rehabilitators humanely resolve human/animal conflicts, from squirrels nesting in the attic to woodpeckers that are busy removing termites from the siding of a house and, in the process, damaging that siding. A busy center may get over 100 phone calls on a spring day, which need support from skilled animal caregivers to assess whether an animal is exhibiting natural behavior or if it may need to be admitted. Every animal that stays in the wild and does not need to come into a wildlife rehabilitation center is a success story.

Animal intakes require human interactions and wildlife knowledge. Intake rehabilitators are the public face of the wildlife center. These rehabilitators obtain the necessary history on the animal, gathering information that assists in its diagnosis and care. Often this happens at the center, but in some circumstances this occurs out in the field, where rehabilitators deal with on-site conflict resolution or rescue and capture operations. Members of the public are usually in an emotional state during their initial interactions with a wildlife rehabilitator. They may be scared of the animal, as well as scared for the animal’s welfare. Part of the rehabilitators’ regular job is to counsel these individuals and help them make the best choice for the animal.

The second part of an animal intake is an initial exam and triage. Rehabilitators follow wildlife center protocols, which often includes a quick exam for immediately life-threatening problems, followed by triage care for blood loss, dehydration, and hypothermia. Once the animal has been stabilized, a more thorough examination is completed by a lead wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian.

Additional animal care duties include follow-up treatments, daily rounds and observations, the feeding of young nursing mammals or the hand feeding of altricial birds (young hatchlings), and assisting with veterinary examinations and surgeries. Some interactions have a strong emotional component (e.g., euthanasia, cadaver management). Rehabilitators perform necropsies and ensure the appropriate disposal of deceased animal remains. Rehabilitators also release healthy wildlife into suitable environments.

Many of the tasks rehabilitators do on a daily basis for animals that are in a center’s care are indirect. Entry-level wildlife rehabilitators can expect to spend most of their time preparing food for the animals and cleaning laundry, dishes, and cages. This unglamourous group of tasks is critical for both the animals’ and human health. Rehabilitators also perform cage management, to ensure that these areas are appropriate to an animal’s age and health and provide proper substrates, enrichment, and exercise options for that animal. A surprising amount of time is spent in food acquisition. This can include foraging for wild insects and plants, raising and caring for farmed insects and rodents, and soliciting grocery stores and other companies for donated produce and seeds.

Rehabilitators do extensive research on and planning for each species that enters the center. For example, when faced with a new species, I have spent countless hours reviewing natural history texts, especially volumes that contain accounts of direct observations, and being on the phone with biologists and other wildlife rehabilitators who have prior experience with that species. Such research supplies information about the diet, caging, and release criteria for each animal brought to the center, and this is an essential aspect of the job for wildlife rehabilitators.

Each individual patient has a treatment plan, created in conjunction with the center’s veterinarian. The treatment plan is the culmination of subjective and objective observations, examinations, and laboratory results. Often rehabilitators’ duties include blood and fecal analyses for parasite identification, packed cell volume, white blood cell counts, and differential blood cell counts, while more in-depth work in this area generally is sent out to a lab by the attending veterinarian.

Wildlife rehabilitators often participate in research, either within the center or in conjunction with a university. Topics may include patient case histories, disease identification, parasite loads and identification, release rates, post-release monitoring, and the success rates of new and novel treatments. For examples of such research, see the Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation website.

Administrative aspects of wildlife rehabilitation include keeping records, maintaining organizational health (account balancing, public relations, board and staff relations, and the revision and care of organizational documents, such as bylaws and strategic plans), and managing human resources. Most wildlife centers do not have large staffs. Therefore, administrative tasks often are performed by the people caring for the wildlife. Record keeping is done both for the center's information and for governmental reporting requirements in the United States, wildlife centers are regulated by state departments of natural resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Extensive records are kept on each intake, from data on the citizen who found the animal to the final disposition of the patient. Records must also be kept for controlled drugs licensed to the wildlife center veterinarian, donations received, and staff members. Accounting, budgeting, and fundraising might feel like intrusions, shifting time away from the care of animals, but they are a necessary component in keeping an organization solvent and functioning. Rehabilitators have a responsibility to continue their professional development, in order to maintain an excellent standard of organizational and animal management. Upper-level staff members are also expected to interface with the media and the wildlife center’s board of directors.

Facilities management also is a duty for most wildlife rehabilitators. Expect to do some of the same maintenance work you do at home (e.g., landscaping, maintaining electrical equipment, replacing light bulbs, troubleshooting plumbing, painting). Additionally, you become proficient at basic woodworking while building and repairing cages.

Wildlife rehabilitation is not a 0900-1700 job. The work varies from 4 to 5 hours during the winter to 14-hour days during the summer. Wildlife rehabilitation is an exhilarating and exhausting career choice, requiring total commitment but providing many tangible and intangible rewards. The best ones are to witness a the bird you’ve spent the last five months caring for fly free, or to oversee the release of a beaver that took two years of care before it was independent and ready for the wild.

Background Needed

Successful wildlife rehabilitators have knowledge of and experience in ecology, business, medicine, public policy, and construction. Wildlife rehabilitation is still an emerging field and much can be learned on the ob, but the greater the preparation and the number of skills you have beforehand, the more likely you are to obtain a paid position. Useful hands-on skills include animal handling; knowledge of wild animal behavior; basic wound management; animal rescue techniques; an ability to identify and use basic medical supplies, including common bandage materials, syringes, and needles; experience with basic construction and maintenance tools; expertise in microscopy; an excellent telephone presence; and conflict resolution skills.

As a prospective wildlife rehabilitator, you should not be surprised that the list of required knowledge includes wildlife conservation and medical ethics, natural history, basic pathology, parasitology (especially zoonoses, which are diseases transmitted from animals to humans), anatomy, nutrition, and animal behavior. Often rehabilitation centers are quite small entities, and staff and volunteers must perform multiple tasks. Be prepared to assist with the general management needs of a small nonprofit business, including bookkeeping, fundraising (winter hours maybe be spent submitting numerous grants and planning events to gather support from the local community), human resources, facility maintenance, and all the policies that go with these critical functions. You also will be responsible for understanding and following governmental mandates related to wildlife rehabilitation, at levels ranging from local municipalities to the federal government. For example, the transportation of white-tailed deer between counties might be illegal in one state, to prevent the transmission of chronic wasting disease, or special dispensation might be needed for transport between countries for a Swainson's hawk that missed migration, due to a car accident.

Education Required

At this time, a formal education is not necessary in the wildlife rehabilitation field, but you should expect to need a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree as a veterinary technician for paid positions. States and provinces may also require a specific level of education certification, or the passing of certain exams before issuing a license to rehabilitate wildlife.

Pay Scale

Most wildlife rehabilitators are volunteers. Paid positions do exist, however. The general annual pay range is between $20,000 and $40,000, with senior positions at large facilities having salaries of up to $75,000 per year. The pay scales in wildlife rehabilitation depend on the resources and fundraising ability of each organization.

This description originally appeared in Becoming a Wildlife Professional, Scott E Henke and Paul R Krausman, editors (pp 140-142) and is reprinted here with permission.

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