8 Cool Wildlife Jobs That Let You Help Protect Endangered Animals
By Laura Slauson
| Last Updated
Many great wildlife jobs provide the opportunity to study or protect animals in their natural habitats. For animal lovers like you, these jobs can be some of the most rewarding occupations available. After all, what could be more fulfilling than helping wild creatures, especially since a growing number of species face extinction?
Now is a great time to get started. Here's why: A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report states that, from 1970 to 2020, wildlife populations will have likely decreased by 67 percent.1 Across the planet, over one thousand mammal species are considered to be endangered, threatened, or vulnerable.2 Those numbers might seem overwhelming. But many careers offer the chance to make a positive impact through protecting wildlife.
Research jobs, for example, can provide opportunities to find out why certain species are at risk of extinction and help develop strategies to reverse the trends. In rehabilitation positions, you can rescue and treat individual animals. And in many wildlife management jobs, you can help ensure that wildlife and people are able to safely share the outdoors.
This article lists eight rewarding jobs that involve helping wildlife. You'll also learn how to gain experience by volunteering (and what you should look for in a volunteer job).
- Careers in wildlife: 8 great jobs
- Getting started in wildlife careers: Pros and cons of volunteering
Careers in Wildlife: 8 Great Jobs
Wildlife conservation jobs are far more diverse than you might realize. Think about it: The world is home to thousands of species of wild animals. And those animals need many different kinds of help in order to continue flourishing on a changing planet. So one of the many cool things about animal conservation jobs is the wide variety of opportunities.
The following list of wildlife jobs features careers that all involve helping threatened species in some capacity. However, it's important to realize that it's actually quite rare to work in close contact with wild animals. And most wild animals don't want any human contact. (After all, being undomesticated is exactly what makes these animals wild.) But each of these jobs can empower you to use your training to make a positive difference on their behalf.
Keep in mind that the educational requirements vary. Generally speaking, in order to work with wildlife, you need a degree in a subject like biology, ecology, wildlife management, or environmental studies. But many other majors can help you acquire useful skills. And a degree isn't always necessary, depending on what you want to do. So be sure to explore several types of programs offered by colleges, universities, and vocational schools.
Unless otherwise indicated, the salaries in this article are based on national estimates from May 2018.3
1. Wildlife Veterinarian
Not all veterinarians work with household pets. Some specialize in treating wild animals. For example, imagine helping ducks who have been harmed in an oil spill or caring for an injured raccoon at a rehabilitation facility. That's the kind of rewarding work you can do as a wildlife vet.
Just keep in mind that this field is relatively small. In all of North America, only about 40 vets specialize in treating free-ranging wildlife (as opposed to wildlife that is kept in zoos).4 That's partly because, unlike household pets, wild animals don't have owners who can schedule appointments and pay their medical bills. Wildlife vets typically work for federal, state, or tribal governments.
As well, it takes a lot of commitment to become a wildlife veterinarian. First, you need to earn a bachelor's degree. This first degree doesn't have to be in a specific subject, but many of the prerequisite courses for veterinary medical school focus on life sciences such as biology and chemistry.
After acquiring your bachelor's degree, you need to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree at a veterinary medical school. Admission to vet school can be competitive. But having some paid or volunteer experience that involves working with animals can give you an edge when you apply.
Some veterinary medical schools offer courses specifically about wildlife medicine or animal conservation. So when you're applying to vet schools, be sure to check out the courses available at each one.
You can also work toward a master's degree in wildlife medicine after earning your DVM. So after finishing vet school, you become a wildlife specialist by completing additional training that is focused on wild animals.
- Average salary—$92,550 for all veterinarians in federal, state, and local government
2. Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife biology is one specialty under the broader umbrella of zoology. The word "zoology" is a combination of the ancient Greek terms for animal and knowledge. So, just as the word implies, a zoologist is a person who studies animals. A wildlife biologist studies wildlife.
Within the field of wildlife biology, it's possible to focus on studying specific types of wildlife. Here are a few specialities:
- Entomology—The study of insects
- Ornithology—The study of birds
- Marine biology—The study of sea life
- Herpetology—The study of reptiles and amphibians
- Primatology—The study of primates such as lemurs, apes, and monkeys
Within each specialty, wildlife biologists study different aspects of animal health and behavior. They also frequently study how the environment influences wildlife.
Basically, a lot of the work is focused on research. So becoming a wildlife biologist is a good career move if you want to find new ways to solve problems that are faced by animal populations. Some of the responsibilities of a wildlife biologist are:
- Creating studies centered on specific animal populations or ecosystems
- Collecting data and samples as part of those studies
- Monitoring and managing wildlife populations
- Researching the ways that human activities can affect wildlife
- Developing programs that help prevent wildlife from impacting human activities
As animal species struggle to adapt to the effects of climate change and the growing human population, there is a demand for wildlife biologists to explore new ways to help animals adapt. And that demand is leading to job opportunities. In fact, about 1,900 new job openings are expected to become available in this field every year from 2016 to 2026.5
To be a wildlife biologist, you need a degree in a subject such as zoology, wildlife biology, or a related subject like environmental science. A bachelor's degree is often a good starting point for entry-level wildlife jobs. But to do more complex research, you often need at least a master's degree.
While in high school, make sure you take science courses like biology and chemistry. Also, many wildlife biologists use geographic information systems (GIS) to keep track of the animals they study in the wild, so computer courses are useful.
Working conditions vary, depending on your specialty. In some wildlife biologist jobs, you could spend one day at a desk analyzing statistics and the next day outside in the field, recording observations. And depending on the migration patterns of the animals you study, some tasks can be seasonal. (Wildlife jobs usually have to adapt to animals' schedules, not the other way around.)
- Average salary—$67,760 (Wildlife biologists, like most zoologists, make good money as they advance in their careers. The highest-earning wildlife biologists make more than $102,830 annually.)
3. Wildlife Forensic Scientist
Unfortunately, wild animals can be the victims of crimes. And someone has to investigate those crimes to ensure they don't happen again.
Since animals can't speak for themselves, forensic evidence can make or break a criminal investigation. And that's exactly what wildlife forensic scientists do: They gather evidence and analyze it in order to help with animal crime investigations. For example, they may analyze blood or hair samples from an animal that was killed, or they might examine an item made of leather to make sure it's not from a protected species.
As a wildlife forensic scientist (also known as a wildlife forensic technician), you may not work directly with wildlife very often. But you can play a vital role in ensuring that animals stay safe. Some of the crimes that wildlife forensic scientists help investigate include:
- Poaching (i.e., not obeying the hunting and fishing laws that are in place to protect certain species)
- The smuggling of animals or animal parts
- Environmental damage that affects wildlife
- Animal cruelty
To become a wildlife forensic technician, you need to have a least a bachelor's degree in a subject like forensic science. Although it's not mandatory, you can become certified through the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS). Certification shows the courts and potential employers that you have met certain standards in the field. SWFS also coordinates a student program which connects students to mentors in order to perform forensics research.
- Average salary—$62,490 for all forensic science technicians
4. Conservation Officer
Conservation officers act as law enforcement for the protection of fish and wildlife. Jobs in this field involve working to make sure that wild animals and people can safely share parks and other outdoor spaces. Some other job titles used to describe this career include:
- Conservation warden
- Environmental police officer
- Fish and game warden
- Game warden
- Natural resources officer
- Wildlife enforcement officer
- Wildlife officer
The exact duties can vary by location. Typically, some of them include:
- Enforcing hunting and fishing laws
- Helping with investigations into crimes such as drug trafficking or assaults that take place in state or national parks
- Educating others about sharing the outdoors
- Patrolling assigned areas
- Keeping invasive species under control
- Enforcing the regulations of the Endangered Species Act
- Relocating dangerous animals (for example, if they are seen in a campground)
- Performing search and rescue operations
In some states, conservation officers are required to carry guns. And all conservation offers should love the outdoors, since they spend many hours patrolling natural parks and other outdoor areas.
It's possible to become a conservation officer with an associate degree, but many employers like to hire people with bachelor's degrees. Some majors that can act as good entry-level preparation for this career include:
Be sure to check the requirements for working as a conservation officer in your area. Many states have their own training programs that officers must complete after they are hired. And federal conservation officers must complete the federal government's training program before they can work in the field.
This work can be physically demanding, so you may have to pass a physical fitness test. Some states have minimum age requirements, and in all states, you will have to complete a criminal record check.
- Average salary—$59,260
5. Wildlife Technician
Wildlife technicians support the work of wildlife biologists. They often do the fieldwork that is required for research projects. That means they can spend a lot of time outdoors. If you like hands-on work, you could thrive in this active job that provides opportunities to contribute in tangible ways to animal welfare.
A big part of the job is gathering data. So you could perform tasks such as observing herds of animals, tagging them so they can be tracked, or collecting soil samples (or even blood or stool samples).
You become a wildlife technician by first obtaining an associate or bachelor's degree in biology or a similar field.
- Average salary—$48,060 for all biological technicians (How much a wildlife technician makes depends a lot on where he or she works. In general, the federal government is the top-paying employer for this field.5)
6. Wildlife Rehabilitator
Wildlife rehabilitators treat wild animals who have been injured or orphaned. The end goal of their work is to release those animals back into the wild. As you can probably imagine, the satisfaction of helping animals safely return to their natural environments makes this one of the most rewarding jobs in wildlife conservation.
How can you get involved in this fulfilling work? To become a wildlife rehabilitator, you must have a license or permit from your state and the federal government. That's an important requirement because it's illegal to have certain species of wildlife in your care without having the proper credentials. So be sure to research the requirements in your area by contacting either the closest rehabilitation association or your state's wildlife agency.
The education needed to become a wildlife rehabilitator depends on the regulations in your area. But many rehabilitation centers prefer to hire people with a degree.
You won't find many degree programs specifically in wildlife rehabilitation. But you can find many related programs. The best fit for you may depend on your goals and the regulations in your area. Examples of possible majors that may include courses in rehabilitation work include:
Many rehabilitation centers offer their own training. As well, training in a veterinary technology program can help you acquire the hands-on skills that wildlife rehabilitators often need.
How much a wildlife rehabilitator makes depends a lot on the organization he or she works for. On one end of the spectrum, some wildlife rehabilitators work independently and may not be paid at all. (In fact, it's illegal to charge for wildlife rehabilitation.) As well, many independent rehabilitators have to buy their own equipment despite not being paid for their work. But they do this important job simply because they love animals and want to help them.
Other rehabilitators work for government agencies, humane societies, or other non-profit organizations. Many of these organizations rely on donations to fund their activities and pay their staff.
Although wildlife rehabilitation jobs are certainly rewarding, they can also be challenging. As a wildlife rehabilitator, you can be exposed to diseases or sustain injuries from scratches or bites. (Many wild animals are understandably afraid when they are injured and can lash out at the people trying to help them.)
You may also be expected to work nights and weekends. (Injured animals don't book appointments during set office hours.) And, of course, this kind of work can be emotionally challenging since you frequently work with animals who are in pain or can't be cured.
- Average salary—$46,2956 (This is for paid positions, but many rehabilitators work for free, on a volunteer basis.)
7. Wildlife Photographer
Would you like to capture the beauty of wildlife in photos? Wildlife photography is one way to share your love for animals with others. In fact, wildlife photography is increasingly being recognized for its potential role in animal conservation. That's because sharing striking photos can help raise public awareness of species that are hovering on the edge of extinction.
Consider the National Geographic book The Photo Ark. It contains photographer Joel Sartore's photos of over 12,000 species of animals, focusing on species that are threatened by extinction. The result is a wake-up call to protect those at-risk animals.
Of course, having the ability to take top-notch photos like those is essential for any wildlife photographer. Getting formal photography training can perfect your skills and teach you about current trends.
But there's a lot more to wildlife photography than going for a hike and expecting an animal to appear at just the right moment. Despite what it often looks like on Instagram, wild animals don't "pose" on command, so you need to be patient in order to get the perfect shot.
That's why, in addition to having amazing photography skills, wildlife photographers must know about the behavioral patterns of the species they photograph. And they must be able to work in often-uncomfortable conditions.
They also have to be good at the business side of photography. After all, this field can be competitive, and it's very rare to find a permanent, full-time position. That's why many wildlife photographers work on a freelance basis. How much money freelance wildlife photographers make depends on how many photos they sell.
In order to generate an income as a freelancer, you have to market your photos and knowledge by doing things like:
- Selling your photos at craft fairs or farmers' markets
- Creating a great website to showcase your work and actively promoting the site through social media
- Offering workshops to teach others about photography
- Giving talks on wildlife photography
- Approaching commercial purchasers of wildlife photography such as book publishers, ad firms, and greeting card or calendar companies
- Selling photos to professional stock photo agencies
But here's the most important tip for success in this career: Take a lot of photos! (Consider the sage advice of the late photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.")
- Average salary—$42,770 for all photographers
8. Advocate or Administrator for Wildlife Conservation
What if science isn't your strongest subject, but you still want to dedicate your career to protecting wildlife? Working for a wildlife or environmental organization that shares your goals is one way to make this happen.
Whether you are lobbying the government for new laws that protect wildlife, writing content for social media campaigns, or working as an administrative assistant at a rehabilitation center, you can make a difference. After all, many organizations need a variety of different professionals to keep all aspects of wildlife protection activities running smoothly.
So if you want to help wild animals, always remember that they can't advocate for themselves. But professionals like environmental accountants and environmental lawyers can help protect them. Simply put, people in many occupations can work on behalf of wildlife. And conservation jobs aren't just performed in labs or the great outdoors; they are also performed in offices. You just need to find the best fit for your skills, interests, and education.
- Average salary for administrative assistants—$42,320
- Average salary for public relations specialists—$68,440
- Average salary for lawyers—$144,230
Getting Started in Wildlife Careers: Pros and Cons of Volunteering
Here's one reality you can't ignore: Jobs with wildlife connections aren't as widely available as the people who want them. After all, this is rewarding, challenging work with a noble purpose. But since it's usually done on a non-profit basis, it doesn't necessarily receive a lot of funding. So the number of job openings is often smaller than the number of people seeking them. It's a competitive vocational sector.
What does this mean for you? In order to get a job in wildlife conservation, you should gain as much relevant education and experience as possible.
Volunteering is a great way to get some experience and help animals in need. But do your due diligence. Not all organizations that offer volunteer opportunities are ethical. And it's a sad truth that the animals in some rescue facilities and sanctuaries don't live in very good conditions.
That said, you can find many great sanctuaries around the world. Just be aware of what you're getting into.
For example, working with injured or abandoned animals takes specific skills and knowledge. And many volunteers don't have the required education to do this safely. (In fact, too much exposure to inexperienced humans can hurt, not help, animals.)
So be wary of volunteer organizations that promise a lot of hands-on time with wildlife. For example, in many places overseas, elephants are killed if they regularly destroy farm crops. So you're likely to be more helpful if you build fences to protect those crops from elephants than if you're riding the elephants. (Although riding elephants can hurt the animals' spines, some organizations continue to include that activity in their wildlife volunteer programs.)
Many wildlife volunteers get a foot in the door by doing data collection, public education, or maintenance and cleaning. Even though tasks like sweeping the grounds might not seem glamorous, you can make valuable contributions by providing this kind of support.
How can you get started? You don't need any specific type of education to volunteer at a wildlife facility. (But typically, in order to do paid work at a wildlife sanctuary, you need a degree that is related to your job responsibilities.) One starting point for finding positions is the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. They maintain a database of sanctuaries that meet certain standards of animal care.
Before committing to any volunteer opportunity, ask questions like:
- If a facility houses endangered animals, how did the animals get there? Make sure they were obtained legally. (Ask if a facility is aligned with conservation organizations to get further insight.)
- If you have to pay money to volunteer, where does the money go? It's not unusual to have to pay for a volunteer position. Just make sure the money can be accounted for in a way that makes sense to you.
- How does the organization work with local residents? This is particularly important for international wildlife jobs, even as a volunteer. Are you taking away jobs that could be done by residents for a paycheck?
- Can you talk with previous volunteers? Hearing about others' experiences can give you insights into how the facility is run.
Take the Next Step Toward a Fulfilling Future
Wildlife jobs can provide plenty of opportunities to make a positive difference. But you'll need the right expertise to get started. The skills-focused training offered by vocational colleges, trade schools, and technical institutes can help you prepare for all kinds of rewarding careers. Just enter your zip code into the search tool below to find training programs near you!
1 WWF, Living Planet Report 2016, website last visited on June 6, 2019.
2 Center for Biological Diversity, "The Extinction Crisis," website last visited on June 6, 2019.
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on June 6, 2019.
4 dvm360, "More than rehabilitation: A conversation with a free-ranging wildlife veterinarian," website last visited on February 10, 2020.
5 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, website last visited on June 6, 2019.
6 ZipRecruiter, website last visited on June 6, 2019.