If you delight in seeing a herd of wild deer or look to the skies to try to identify birds flying overhead, you may find great satisfaction in volunteering with a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Wildlife rehabilitators are people who hold licenses and / or permits as required by the state in which they operate and, sometimes by the federal government. They care for wild animals who are sick, injured, orphaned, or otherwise displaced or in distress with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. These individuals are often employed by wildlife rehabilitation centers, which specialize in treating such animals, and which often rely on volunteers for a variety of roles. Here’s how to volunteer to save wild animals—and what you can expect when doing so.
Find a local wildlife rehabilitation center
The first step is to contact your local wildlife rehabilitation center. The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association has published a map of facilities or you can contact your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. You can also search for various centers on social media and follow them for updates.
Understand the role
It’s a good idea to get familiar with what’s involved before volunteering to help wildlife. One of the big misconceptions is that wildlife rehab includes lots of interaction with the animals. While they may need to be handled for medical care or feeding, most centers try to interact with the animals as little as possible to prevent them from associating humans as a “friend or food source,” says Tracey Bloodworth, director of development and communications at Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford, New Jersey. “They wouldn't fear people in the wild, and they could actually go up to people, ask for food, and then that will create issues not just for them, but a ripple effect in the ecosystem,” she adds.
Being a volunteer in wildlife rehabilitation often includes answering phones or doing administrative work, as well as a lot of cleaning, Bloodworth says. “There's a lot of dishes. There's a lot of prep work. And lots and lots of cleanup—and lots of laundry,” she says. Depending on the state and the individual facility, individuals may need to undergo a background check, especially if children ever visit the center.
Get ready to commit
Wildlife rehabilitation centers usually need volunteers most during “baby season,” which typically runs from April to September, Bloodworth says. Once the volunteer undergoes training and meets other requirements, Cedar Run asks volunteers to commit to a specific four-hour shift weekly for six months. That helps the center ensure it has the people it needs to care for the animals. “We might have up to 500 animals in care on one day, so we need to make sure that those animals are fed and cared for and cleaned properly,” Bloodworth says.
Learn about local wildlife
Another way to enhance your volunteer experience is to learn about the wildlife you’re likely to encounter through volunteering. Rehab centers may be limited to handling certain species based on their licenses, but they may also get involved in emergency situations. For example, while Cedar Run isn’t licensed to treat bears, they may be called upon to coordinate transportation to a licensed facility if an injured bear is in the area. In other words, no two days are the same when volunteering with wildlife.