Passion led us here
Photo by Ian Schneider/Unsplash

Already volunteering at an animal welfare organization? You might like our article on transitioning from volunteer to staffer.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A teacher, doctor, veterinarian or firefighter? Or maybe an actor, writer, athlete, hair stylist or wedding planner?

Personally, I always loved animals but wanted to be an author. I ended up as an advocacy journalist instead, writing stories about and for the animal welfare world. I would bet that you didn’t want (or know the option existed) to be an animal cruelty investigator, a shelter veterinarian, or a social media manager for an animal rescue—but wherever your adult self ended up, the creativity, empathy and motivation that makes so many youngsters want to be doctors and writers and firefighters and actors are exactly what the animal welfare field needs.

Maybe you always aspired to work with animals but life had other plans—or maybe you’re just now discovering your true passion is animals. No matter how you landed on this page, the animal protection movement can use you. It’s just a matter of getting started. Welcome to the jungle.

What kinds of animal welfare careers exist?

Many people think working with animals means petting puppies or bottle-feeding kittens, and while that can be true, much of animal welfare involves behind-the-scenes work as well as hands-on interactions with animals.

 “You can kind of match your skill and your vocation with your avocation for animals,” says Hilary Hager, senior director of volunteer engagement at the Humane Society of the United States. Aspiring or existing lawyers could be animal protection litigators or push for stronger animal protection laws, police officers could be animal cruelty investigators, nurses might enjoy being animal caregivers or shelter veterinarians, the business-minded might be skilled shelter directors, and the outgoing or loquacious might be attracted to roles in volunteer management, fundraising or community outreach.

Both hands-on and behind-the-scenes opportunities abound in the shelter and rescue field alone; expand your job search to the entire animal protection movement—from farm animal sanctuaries to wildlife rehabilitation centers to political advocacy groups to emergency response organizations—and you’ve got graphic designers, scientists, web developers, journalists, teachers, architects, accountants, social media experts, database administrators and more all working toward a better world for animals and the people who love them.

You might be suited to being a shelter veterinarian, spaying and neutering community pets at a low cost and performing community outreach in areas where there are pet care deserts. Or you might enjoy training dogs or horses to ready them for adoption or rehabilitating wild animals before release. You might fight for stronger animal cruelty laws on Capitol Hill or petition your city council to repeal breed ban ordinances. Or head out into the field to help rescue and transport pets from manmade and natural disasters. Or counsel families on which pets might best fit their expectations and lifestyle and how to best care for those pets. Or design attractive, well-ventilated animal shelters that encourage adoptions and minimize the spread of germs.

So what kinds of animals and animal issues are you passionate about? Do you want to work with animals, or for them, or both? Are there any animal welfare organizations that you particularly admire? Do you have any existing strengths, training, experience or education that would make you better suited for one kind of job over another? And are you at the beginning, middle or end of your career?

How can I get started in animal welfare?

“I knew I wanted to work with animals, I just didn’t know how,” says Lindsay Hamrick, director of companion animal policy at the HSUS. A program allowed her to shadow veterinarians during her senior year of high school, and she went on to study animal science and psychology in college, work at an African chimpanzee sanctuary for six months, obtain a master’s in animals and public policy and then become the director of operations at a relatively small New Hampshire shelter. For most people wanting to enter the field, this probably sounds pretty intimidating.

But Hamrick notes that people should weigh the cost of education (i.e., will you be paying student loans until you retire?) against the potential benefits (i.e., how much does specialized education really help in the animal welfare field?). “People come to shelters with a huge range of education and experiences,” she says. “I don’t think anyone should be discouraged.”

Although Hamrick wouldn’t take back her education, and there are certainly some roles that require specialized education (veterinarians, for example), she notes that her hands-on experiences gave her the best grasp of the issues that animals and people who work with animals face. And she also acknowledges that the vast majority of people who work in animal welfare practically fell into it, not knowing that the animal welfare field offered viable careers.

Hager posits that many people are animal lovers who “accidentally” become animal welfare advocates when they volunteer at a shelter, rescue or other animal welfare organization. She started out with a degree in international studies and spent some time in the Peace Corps, which led her to a job in volunteer management at another nonprofit, after which she wound up managing volunteers at an animal shelter and getting a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership.

“So many people I know started out as dog walkers at a shelter, who then went on to get trained as a dog trainer, or parlayed that into an application for vet school, or ended up getting hired as adoption coordinators for the shelter itself,” says Hager. Several HSUS staffers were even hired after attending Animal Care Expo and the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement conferences and handing out resumes. If you’re unsure how exactly you’d like to work with animals, volunteering and networking at an animal-focused nonprofit is a great place to start, even if you’re “just” cleaning kennels, filing paperwork or walking dogs.

Chris Schindler needed to get out of the house as a teenager, which led him to a job cleaning kennels at the local humane society in Washington, D.C., where he quickly decided that he wanted to investigate animal cruelty as a career. From there, he became an animal control officer and then field adviser at what was then the Washington Humane Society, then joined the Humane Society of the United States’ dogfighting and puppy mills investigations teams, and finally returned to D.C. to oversee dozens of animal control and humane law enforcement officers, animal cruelty investigators and various program managers as vice president of field services at the Humane Rescue Alliance.

“I got my GED at 17, and I never went to college, or did any higher education. I never really felt like I was at home in that type of work,” Schindler says, adding that he bought his first ever suit at Target for his interview with the HSUS. “My work ethic and willingness to buckle down helped me create my own career path.”

Elijah Brice-Middleton holds a bachelor’s in behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology but first worked in the financial technology industry before getting hired at his local animal shelter. He’s now the director of Plainfield Area Humane Society in New Jersey and working on a master’s in animal shelter management. He doesn’t consider specialized education necessary “in the strictest sense,” but suggests higher education for those seeking leadership roles in addition to the hands-on experience needed for anyone seeking a shelter operations role like handling animal intakes or managing foster programs.

“I always had plans to get a master’s or Ph.D. but it wasn't until I worked at the shelter that I knew specifically what [field],” Brice-Middleton says. “After dealing with surrenders, cruelties and neglect cases, I was hooked.”

 “There’s a plethora of outside experience that would be applicable to animal welfare positions,” he adds. “I got experience working both within and outside of the animal welfare field. Outside of the field, I got experience in finance, PR and research. Within the field, I worked in various shelter departments getting experience in management, admissions, adoptions, volunteer management, foster, marketing, community outreach. I was getting all of the experience I needed from both my professional and academic career to get to my current position as director.”

“[The Humane Rescue Alliance] gets 20,000 calls a year. You really have to learn from responding in the field and interfacing with people and the public,” says Schindler. Even after 23 years in the field, “I don’t know everything. Nobody does. So we all have to keep learning from each other.”

How can I apply for and get a job in animal welfare?

You’ve made it this far, and you obviously love animals; but are you aware that helping animals more often than not means successfully interacting with people? One of the first things Brice-Middleton looks for in applicants is “an understanding that we are in the business of helping people just as much as animals.”

As many communities absorb the spay/neuter message, Brice-Middleton says that the future of animal welfare will be animal organizations serving as resource centers for their communities and behavioral rehabilitation centers for special-needs animals that might once—when we as a society were simply overwhelmed with homeless animals—have been euthanized. Hager says that many animal organizations are now able to turn from the “three-alarm fire” of extreme pet overpopulation to more nuanced issues, like people and pets living in poverty with little access to pet care services, both nationally and internationally; people and animals facing climate change and natural disasters; and systemic animal cruelty like animal testing, puppy mills or factory farming.

But the hands-on work will always exist, says Hager, and if you’ve got your heart set on it: Once again, it’s important to volunteer. “When I look at a resume and I see that people have been volunteering, my position is that they’ve been taking this really seriously, this isn’t just that they saw an open position. They’re rooted in this, and they understand what they’re potentially getting into,” she says. “They care enough about it that they have been of service, and even after they saw how challenging it can be, they still decided this is where they want to be.” Adds Brice-Middleton: “Above all, I want to see passion and knowledge of best practices.”

Schindler says he looks for animal handling experience—you can teach people animal handling techniques, but true animal handling skill can’t be taught, he says, noting that you can’t be afraid when you’re out in the field alone—and motivation and passion for the work. He often promotes from within the shelter and recently promoted a front desk associate to animal control officer. He says those interested in working in the field can join animal control officers for “ridealongs,” which can help people get a better idea of what the job requires.

Hager says that programs like the HSUS’s district leader program can also give volunteers a holistic overview of the issues facing animals and help them hone in on the issues they’re most passionate about. “Sometimes the challenge is even knowing—you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “We really view that program as a training program, but also an incubator for the next generation of leaders in the field. Hopefully, if we do it right, we’re giving people the skills they need to take action [for animals], with or without the HSUS.”

For those in the prime of their careers, Hager notes that every nonprofit has a board of directors—she herself serves on the board of a nonprofit on top of her full-time job with the HSUS. Whether you’re a finance guru, an expert mediator or an entrepreneur, “it’s a way for people to leverage their expertise and their connections in the community and to benefit an organization and help strengthen the organization and move it forward,” she says, adding that many volunteer centers and recruiting sites list board openings. “It’s cool to know that you can help the organization get where it needs to go.”

 “Now the animal protection/animal welfare world is so vast, really the challenge is just figuring out what you want to do,” adds Hamrick.

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