Volunteering is the most effective method of experiencing the tasks of an animal caretaker. Most shelters, rescue centers, and sanctuaries, and some zoos, aquariums, and labs rely on volunteers to fill their staff. Opportunities as a volunteer may include the ability to work directly with animals in some or all of the capacities of a paid animal caretaker.
There is always a concern, sometimes justified, that an organization will never pay someone whose services they have gotten for free. You may not be able to get paid employment from the same organization for which you volunteered. But many organizations recognize the benefit of hiring prior volunteers: They get someone who already knows the institution, the system, and the preferred caretaking methods.
Volunteering also provides a line on your resume that demonstrates that you bring experience to your first paying job. It gives you references who can vouch for your skills with animals, your reliability, and your dedication to the field. Thus, you should treat any volunteer position with the same professionalism that you would a paid job.
Other avenues for exploration are interviewing people already in the position, or finding a paid position in a facility where animal caretakers work so you can see them in action. You may also begin by providing a pet walking or sitting service in your neighborhood, but be sure to only take on the number and kinds of animals you know you can handle successfully.
Animal caretakers, also referred to by several other names depending on their specialty, perform the daily duties of animal care, which include feeding, grooming, cleaning, exercising, examining, and nurturing the individuals in their care. These caretakers have titles such as animal shelter workers, grooms, veterinary assistants, wildlife assistants, animal shelter attendants, laboratory animal technicians, laboratory animal technologists, and kennel technicians.
Animal caretakers are employed in kennels, stables, pet stores, boarding facilities, walking services, shelters, sanctuaries, rescue centers, zoos, aquariums, veterinary facilities, and animal experimentation labs. They may also be employed by the federal government, state or local parks that have educational centers with live animals, the Department of Agriculture in programs such as quarantine centers for animals coming into the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratories.
Almost every one of these employers expects the animal caretaker to provide the daily maintenance routine for animals. The caretaker may be responsible for one animal or one species, or may be required to handle many animals and many species. A veterinary assistant is likely to encounter dogs and cats, with the occasional bird or reptile. A wildlife shelter worker works with the local wild population, so for much of the United States that means working with raccoons, skunks, porcupines, hunting birds, songbirds, the occasional predator such as coyote or fox, and perhaps large animals such as bear, elk, moose, or deer.
Caretakers are responsible for some or all of the following tasks: selecting, mixing, and measuring out the appropriate food; providing water; cleaning the animal and the enclosure; changing bedding and groundcover if used; moving the animals from night facilities to day facilities or exercise spaces or different quarters; sterilizing facilities and equipment not in use; recording and filing statistics, medical reports, or lab reports on each animal; and providing general attention and affection to animals that need human contact.
The animal caretaker learns to recognize signs of illness such as lack of appetite, fatigue, skin sores, and changed behavior. They check the animals they can physically approach or handle for lumps, sores, fat, texture of the skin, fur, or feathers, and condition of the mouth. Since most animals do not exhibit signs of illness until they are very ill, it is important that the caretaker who sees the animal most regularly note any small change in the animal's physical or mental state.
The caretaker also maintains the animal's living quarters. For most animals in their care, this will be an enclosure of some type. The enclosure has to be safe and secure. The animal should not be able to injure itself within the enclosure, be able to escape, or have outside animals able to get into the enclosure. Small holes in an enclosure wall would not threaten a coyote, but small holes that a snake can pass through could threaten a rabbit. Horses can injure themselves in their stables, and in addition are vulnerable to a multitude of pasture injuries.
The quarters need to be the right size for the animal. If they are too large, the animal will feel threatened by the amount of open space, feeling it cannot protect the area adequately. Inappropriately small enclosures can be just as damaging. If the animal cannot get sufficient exercise within the enclosure, it will also suffer both psychologically and physically.
Caretakers set up and oversee enrichment activities that provide the animal with something to keep it engaged and occupied while in its home. For even the smallest rodent, enrichment activities are required. Most of us are familiar with enrichment toys for our pets. These are balls and squeaky toys for dogs and cats, bells and different foot surfaces for birds, and tunnels and rolling wheels for hamsters and gerbils. Wild animals require the same stimulation. Animal caretakers hide food in containers that require ingenuity and tools to open (ideal for a raccoon), or ropes and inner tubes for animals such as primates to swing on and play with.
Animals that can be exercised are taken to specially designed areas and worked. For hunting birds this may mean flying on a creance (tether); for dogs it may mean a game of fetch in the yard. Horses may be lunged (run around) or hacked (ridden); they may also simply be turned out in a field to exercise, but some form of training is useful to keep them in optimal riding condition. Domestic animal shelters, vet offices, kennels, boarding facilities, and dog-walking services work predominantly with domesticated dogs and cats, and perhaps horses at boarding centers. Exercise often consists of walks or free runs within an enclosed space. The animal caretaker for these employers often works with a rotating population of animals, some of whom may be in their care only for a few hours or days, although some animals may be cared for over longer periods. Caretakers at sanctuaries, quarantines, laboratories, and such may care for the same animals for months or years.
It is also an unpleasant side of the job that in almost every facility, the caretaker will have to deal with the death of an animal in his or her care. For veterinary offices, shelters, and wildlife facilities of any type, animal deaths are a part of everyone's experience. Shelters may choose to euthanize (kill) animals that are beyond medical treatment, deemed unadoptable, or unmaintainable because of their condition or the facilities' inability to house them. But even for places without a euthanasia policy, any center working with older, injured, sick, or rescued animals is going to lose the battle to save some of them. For the animal caretaker, this may mean losing an animal that just came in that morning, or losing an animal that he or she fed nearly every day for years. It can be as painful as losing one's own pet.
As an animal caretaker gains experience working with the animals, the responsibilities may increase. Caretakers may begin to perform tasks that either senior caretakers were performing or medical specialists were doing. This can include administering drugs; clipping nails, beaks, and wing feathers; banding wild animals with identification tags; and training the animal.
There are numerous clerical tasks that may also be part of the animal caretakers' routine. Beyond the medical reports made on the animals, animal caretakers may be required to screen people looking to take an animal home and write status reports or care plans. The animal caretaker may be responsible for communicating to an animal's owner the status of the animal in his or her care. Other clerical and administrative tasks may be required, depending on the facilities, the specific job, and the employer. But for most animal caretakers, the day is usually spent looking after the well-being of the animals.