Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Volunteer

Insider Info

Volunteering for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organizations is a great way to launch a career in animal care. These organizations are dedicated to helping injured, orphaned, sick or displaced wildlife, including raccoons, bobcats, bears, deer, coyotes and other animals. These organizations then release the animals back in to the wild. Many also provide educational services to the general public.

Robyn Graboski is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and heads a center for wildlife care. The animal shelter, incubators and a small lab are located in the basement of her family home, where she volunteers.

"We have 20 people who come in on a regular basis to get the animals fed and cared for. These volunteers clean cages, administer medication, [and] do whatever needs to be done. There are another 20 to 30 people that help with transport, collecting newspapers, supplies, fund-raising and education," says Graboski.

"People studying pre-veterinary medicine, or majoring in various wildlife sciences, want to gain practical experience with animals to help them with their careers," says Graboski, who also recruits help at volunteer fairs.

The Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society (O.W.L.) rehabilitates and releases birds of prey -- owls, falcons, eagles and hawks. "We only handle raptors because it's not wise to mix birds of prey with other creatures that the raptors might regard as dinner," says Colleen Stranix, senior supervisor at O.W.L. The wildlife society has over 20 non-releasable birds of prey that are used in its educational programs. All non-releasable birds have permanent injuries or impairments that would make it impossible for them to be released.

"Our volunteers do everything," says Stranix. "They clean cages, medicate the birds, provide food and water, look after the facilities and the gardens, participate in capture missions, answer telephones, run guided tours, and generally do anything else that needs to be done. We also have volunteers who provide educational workshops and perform speaking engagements to help educate the public."

Ted Williams is the volunteer education coordinator and a board member of O.W.L. During the past three years, he has put in about 4,000 volunteer hours for O.W.L. "Volunteering for O.W.L. is extremely rewarding," he says. "Not only am I learning a lot about these birds that I wouldn't have otherwise known, but I'm able to contribute and help. Without volunteers, wildlife rehabilitation would be a sad situation. All organizations that work in rehab rely heavily on volunteers."

Volunteers at O.W.L. work three- or four-hour shifts. However, they may work as few or as many shifts a week as they wish. Some opt to work in other capacities and don't directly handle the birds. O.W.L. volunteers must be at least 13 years of age, and are often recruited through word-of-mouth recommendations.

"All volunteers are given extensive training," says Stranix. "We're careful to ensure that they have the skills necessary to handle the birds safely. Birds of prey will attack human beings if they feel threatened. Looking after our volunteers is a top priority. Our organization depends on them, and we do everything possible to look after their needs and their safety."

One rainy day, Graboski collected a few volunteers and went to a local golf course to rescue a goose with a broken leg. The rescuers piled in to golf carts and headed down the fairway to a pond harboring a flock of geese. The geese promptly dove in to the pond and swam away. The crew located a small boat that had a pole for navigation, but no oars.

Soaking wet and blinded by rain, the volunteers used the pole to move across the pond. The geese were nowhere in sight. The crew headed back to their starting point, where they discovered the geese back on land. Since it was molting season, the birds were unable to fly, but they used their wings to run very quickly.

"We caught up with the injured goose, which was lagging behind the rest of the flock," says Graboski. "We threw a blanket over it and took it to the veterinarian who pinned the leg. The rescue mission took us an hour and a half!"

O.W.L. volunteers were called one night by the sheriff in Point Roberts, Washington -- near the United States-Canada border -- to rescue a baby eagle trapped in a private home. "This bird has a big huge beak. You'll need to put [the bird] in a box to protect yourself, " said the woman who'd reported the bird.

But the beak wasn't the only issue. O.W.L. had to obtain authorization from both U.S. and Canada customs to bring the infant bird across the border. Dressed for safety in long leather gloves and a cap, volunteers collected the net and drove the rescue wagon across the border -- only to discover that the trapped bird was actually a baby robin!

On another occasion, a call reported a bald eagle on a person's porch. "The eagle has a huge beak, giant toenails, and a white head and tail," said the caller. Stranix sent out her most experienced volunteer and an assistant to capture the bird. After an hour's drive, the volunteers arrived to discover a pigeon!

How to Get Involved

No experience is necessary, but volunteers must be willing to do grungy work. "The bulk of what we need help with is just getting the cages clean so these animals are kept in proper environments," says Graboski. Volunteers commit to two hours per week at her center, and usually stay for a year or two.

"Their experience here looks good on a resume," she says. "I've often written letters of recommendation for students who are going in to internships, grad schools, or applying for work with wildlife organizations. I also have an e-mail list and keep my volunteers informed about job opportunities, internship information, conferences and workshops."

Contact your local animal society to find an animal rehabilitation center near you. Remember, you may have to start by cleaning cages -- it takes time to develop the skills needed to handle wild animals.


National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association

National Wildlife Refuge Association


International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council
Learn more about wildlife rehabilitation

Urban Wildlife Rescue
Read about this Colorado-based nonprofit

Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation
Learn about this wildlife nonprofit in Texas

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