They say when it comes to your career, that you should do what you love. But if what you love is saving animals, many think they’ll just have to come up with another plan; After all, at the end of the day there are bills and rent to be paid and in an industry where volunteer—not paying—opportunities are available, prospects for making a full-time living sound grim.
Yet some still do. From attorneys to executive directors to graphic designers to writers, and many other jobs in between, many people do make a living out of helping animals. So what does it take to make that dream come true? We asked professionals in some of the top animal-centered non-profits to share their best career advice. Spoiler alert: You’ll have to do some volunteering first.
Kevin Schneider, Executive Director for the Nonhuman Rights Project
After getting a law degree with a specialization in environmental and land use law and serving as his school’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapter’s president, Schneider started at the Nonhuman Rights Project as a volunteer, which he considers to be the best way in—as long as you’re dedicated and reliable.
“Go somewhere, be serious, show up and say what you’re going to do,” he advises. “There are people who come and go and some people are enthusiastic in the beginning but other things come up and it falls to the wayside. Put yourself second and with time people come to trust you and will come to you and ask for your help.”
And while in his case having a law degree was important for getting the job he wanted advocating for animals, he argues following a specific track is not crucial if you know how to blend your skills with your goals.
“I definitely think that more and more academic tracks and disciplines integrate animal issues in a variety of ways. With more student groups and online activism, on the whole it’s getting easier for people to get engaged and have a community and it’s really important, I think, to have folks to support you. It’s always relationships with every line of work and it’s the same with animal rights.”
Patty Hegwood, Director Volunteer & Visitor Experience at Best Friends Animal Society
“My advice to anyone seeking to marry their passion with purpose in this most worthy professional sphere of working with animals is to take personal inventory and then seek a fit for those skills,” says Hegwood, who also notes that over the last 25 years the animal welfare industry has grown to incorporate a myriad of professional opportunities. “Be flexible, be patient, you may not get what you want immediately, you may have to start in an area that is not your exact area of choosing. You have to understand that this is your start point and then you can reinvent yourself and grow, building on your institutional knowledge and opportunity to contribute on a variety of levels. This profession is ever evolving and in need of bright, connected, purpose-driven individuals to continue the momentum created by the early pioneers in animal welfare.”
And if those starting steps involve less glamorous jobs that sound insignificant in the whole “saving the world” plan, Hegwood suggests patience and hard work.
“No job is too small or menial when approaching a life focused on the care and welfare of animals. When you apply your passion and maintain your flexibility, the world is yours and the animals will benefit.”
Becky Robinson, President and Founder of Alley Cat Allies
“Don’t expect to be hired for a job just because you ‘love’ animals,” says Robinson. “Passion, compassion and drive are essential. But, real skills are needed and you’ll have to find the best avenues to educate yourself. Working for and with animals is a profession — not a ‘job.’ Organizations need people with knowledge of technology, program management, fundraising, operations, legislation, and more.”
To get that knowledge, Robinson suggests taking online courses like the Animal Shelter Management Certificate course or following more advanced programs like the Masters in Animals and Public Policy (MAPP) offered at Tufts University, which “is a graduate degree program that focuses on human-animal relationships and their implications for policy and community action.” Volunteering is also a good way to acquire work experience so getting involved on a local level, no matter what the end goal is career-wise, is essential. (The Alley Cat Allies’ website has a page where you can search and find all animal organizations in your area to do just that).
Robinson, who initially had a career in social work, also reminds people that advocacy is extremely important for having a career helping animals, after all, that is how she started hers. After accidentally running into a neighborhood full of feral cats, with the help of a few friends she started a movement to help cats, both feral and domesticated.
“I would encourage someone interested in making a full-time career out of helping animals to start advocating, and pass that knowledge on to others. That’s how we have spread and expanded Trap-Neuter-Return in this country over the past quarter-century—by word of mouth and advocacy.”
Holly McNulty, Human Resources Director at the Farm Sanctuary
“It is always great for employers to see passion for the mission and enthusiasm to help out in any way that is needed, however I find that our most successful employees and volunteers are those who have chosen an area of focus that is matched to their skills, strengths, and what they enjoy to do on a day to day basis,” says McNulty. If there are organizations in your community, consider volunteering first to get a feel for their work environment. There is a place for everyone to make a difference – so choosing an opportunity that fits you best will be most likely to be successful for the long term.”
McNulty also notes that it’s important to remember that doing what you love, while very fulfilling, is not free of headaches like every other job.
“It is also important to have realistic expectations – it is extremely rewarding to commit your daily work to making a difference for animals, but important to remember that this does not eliminate the normal challenges and stress that any workplace might experience. Lastly, I would say don’t be discouraged if it takes longer than you hope to make the transition, or if you try non-profit work and find it isn’t a good fit. Every individual can make a significant positive impact helping animals in their day to day life, regardless of where their paycheck comes from.”
Mike Wolf, Investigations Manager at Compassion Over Killing
“I would recommend starting with the Animal Rights National Conference,” suggest Wolf. “Take a look at their website, attend the conference, as well as the Taking Action for Animals and any other animal advocacy related conferences you find. Take a look at all the speakers—what organizations are they from? Look at all of the exhibitors to see who else may be there, but might not be speaking. Visit the websites of all of those groups to get an understanding of who they are. Are they the type of organization you might want to work for? If so, start a Favorites folder of all of those organizations’ job pages, and check them all on a weekly basis to see what new opportunities may arise.”
To figure out which organizations might be the best fit for your goals and personality, Wolf suggests asking yourself questions like “What kind of animals do I want to help? Wild animals, pets, farmed animals?” and practical ones like “Am I willing to relocate?” to help you consider whether you should look for local or national opportunities. After those decisions are made, patience, he says, is crucial.
“It may take some time, but if you are determined and committed enough, it will be worth it. You won’t mind waiting a year, for example, once the right opportunity comes up and you can spend the rest of your life doing what you love. During that time, go volunteer at the local shelter or sanctuary.”
Lindsay Rajt, Stewardship Manager for the PETA Foundation
According to Rajt, who’s been with PETA for over 10 years, the key to working in animal rights is not necessarily about what you learn in school but how great you are at what you do and how passionate you are about animals.
“A lot of students ask me what courses they need to take to work at PETA but if you really want to work with non profits, pursue what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at,” she says. “So if you’re a graphic artist, don’t go into animal law. At PETA we have so many departments. We have folks who design our campaigns, we have people who pay our bills, translate, proofread. Whatever people are good at, pursue that and find a way to apply that.”
And to show how dedicated you are to the cause, she says, volunteer no matter what your day job is.
“Volunteer with an animal advocacy organization or if you’re in school, get an internship. It’s a great way to get to know the organization and find out where you’ll flourish plus it’s a foot in the door and it’s very helpful.”
Crystal Schaeffer, MA Ed., MA IPCR, Outreach Director for the American Anti-Vivisection Society
“I believe the best way to launch a career in animal advocacy is through volunteering and internships,” says Schaeffer. “In the corporate world, there are many different companies with many employment opportunities. However, there are far fewer nonprofit animal organizations, so there’s more competition for jobs. When you volunteer or do an internship with an organization, you have a little bit of an advantage because the group already knows you, has seen your work, etc. If a person is qualified, it’s sometimes easier to hire from within. Additionally, you can gain valuable experience working for a nonprofit, and that always looks good on a resume, regardless of whether or not the organization knows you.”
If you already know you want to work for animals before you get a degree, Schaeffer suggests pairing those goals with the education that will help you get the best skills to achieve them.
“If you like to protest, table, and tell others about how they can help animals, you might want to think about getting a degree in communications. If you’re interested in government and the law, consider a degree in public policy. Interested in the science behind alternatives and testing, go for a degree in chemistry or microbiology. Remember also, that nonprofits have a lot of the same needs as corporations and need accountants, marketing and PR people, etc.”
Photo Credit: ThinkStock Photos