Volunteering at a wildlife rescue

Published on 05/09/2021

As you may know, I volunteer at a wildlife rescue. I have been doing so for about two years now, and I’m so happy because it has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s been very different from how I imagined it, but still very fulfilling. This article reflects my personal experiences.

How I got my volunteer position

In reality, it’s not very difficult to get a volunteer position somewhere. But how you get it will differ depending on your location and the organization itself. Before I moved to Florida I lived in a place where there were no rescues at all available within a few hours drive (other than dog and cat rescues, but since I’m allergic to cats it’s not a great option for me), so it wasn’t something I could pursue. There was a farm sanctuary I would have loved to volunteer at, but it was a three hour drive away.

What I ended up doing while living there was that I applied for virtual volunteer opportunities. I helped a local rescue with data entering and some design. A few other rescues I helped with various graphic and web design needs they had. I knew I wanted to volunteer, so I made sure that I actually did, in whatever way I could. I ended up with some really good connections, some of which I still keep in touch with and help out to this day!

When I got to Florida and realized that there were not one, but multiple different animal rescues and sanctuaries here, I immediately did some research into the organizations. I applied for several places, some of which I unfortunately didn’t hear back from at all. The process was different for each place, some had long and complex forms I had to fill out, while others were simpler and allowed me to come visit beforehand. Some in more populated areas had a lot of interest and volunteers, and thus getting a free spot was difficult. Then there’s the aspect of what type of animals you want to work with; one place was specifically for sea birds, a few for all kinds of wildlife, and some for rescued farm animals. I (obviously) ended up at a wildlife rescue, because I liked the variety.

Previous experience and training

Before my time at the rescue, I had NO experience with wild animals. I grew up with lots of pets, and some farm animals, but never really got to handle or get used to wild animals (other than the time my friend and I brought home a fawn we found, sorry mama deer. But don’t worry, we got yelled at by my mom and took it back).

My experience growing up with animals and having seen a lot (dogs giving births and taking care of puppies, freak accidents, sickness, outliving a pet, etc.) definitely helped me. It made me feel slightly more comfortable. But the difference was that these were WILD animals, and that was new to me. I didn’t feel very confident in what I was doing and I was scared to handle them.

My first couple of months were spent together with a seasoned volunteer, and she taught me a lot of what I now know. She is so nice, and made my first few weeks at the rescue really enjoyable! Most of my training was just doing what she was doing, learning where things are, and what animals eat and need what. That stuff still changes, and will vary from individual to individual based on their needs. Slowly but surely I started getting more and more knowledgeable and independent, and was eventually able to start coming on my own day and work on my own. Well, never all by myself, the owners are always there and able to help.

Expectations vs. Reality

Now, since it’s been a while, I can’t remember exactly what my expectations were. But I’m sure something along the lines of adorable animals, cuddles, and large plots of land where the animals roam. And while some of those things can be true, it was a harsh reality check when I went to visit.

Most rescues and non-profit organizations are up to 100% funded by donations and grants (which they have to apply for). There are very rarely state or government funding available to them. This means that they have very limited resources, and are often using older, used equipment. With some luck they get donated new items, but a lot of the stuff they really need are big ticket items.

If it’s a well-established rescue, like the one I volunteer at, they probably get A LOT of animals. Wildlife Inc takes about 4,000 calls a year about animals in need. This means that they are busy, VERY busy. They commonly don’t have resources to hire people and thus rely on volunteers. So don’t be surprised if the rescue is crowded and probably a bit messy. This will obviously be different from each place, but they don’t have a lot of money and are usually founded by people just wanting to do some good. In my experience (granted, I’ve only volunteered at one rescue and I’ve visited two farm sanctuaries), they outgrow their space very fast and that’s why it gets crowded quick. Finding the money for a new location is hard, and the logistics of getting new facilities built, and actually moving the whole operation are even harder.

So, when I started at the rescue I learned and realized these things, and got used to how it all works. Because no matter what it looks like (or how it smells), the most important thing is the well-being of the animals we care for. They may live in small quarters while there, but if the rescue didn’t take them in they for sure wouldn’t make it. The goal is always to release the animals back into the wild once they are old enough, or rehabilitated, and healthy.

Pros and cons

It’s a very fulfilling thing to volunteer, and going there once a week makes me really feel like I’m making a difference. I’m a part of this organization that does everything they can to take in and care for all animals that come through the door. There are so many different animals, and animals I had never seen in real life before. I get to experience things most people never do, and see wild animals up close and personal. I learn a lot about the animals, and start to figure out how to best care for and feed the different species. While the animals are babies we handle them quite a lot due to having to feed them, and occasionally I’ll just sit with one of them and pet them for a while (if they are calm and safe). Some babies come in alone, which gives you a good opportunity to cuddle with them a little extra to make them feel less lonely and scared. Those moments are so precious to me. When the animals get older, we handle them considerably less (if at all) to get them used to being independent for when they need to be released.

One thing I think I (intentionally?) forgot about is that they are all, in fact, animals. Which means that they can be wild, scared, mean (yes, I’ve been bit and scratched numerous times), escape-prone (I don’t even want to think about the amount of times I’ve had to crawl around on the floor to find and catch an escapee), and that they pee and poop. These are all things that I have had to deal with during my volunteer time. I can’t even begin to list all the times I’ve opened an incubator full or opossums or baby birds and been smacked in the face with a horrible stench. Guys, they pee and poop a lot. So, if you think that volunteering at an animal rescue will be a sterile and clean experience, you will be very disappointed. I’ve been peed and pooped on so many times. It sometimes feel like they hold it, and then decide to go just as you pick them up. Then there’s the smaller babies, the ones that can’t relieve “go” by themselves. In the wild their mom would stimulate them, but since she’s no longer around that falls on us at the rescue. Basically you use some cloth or paper towel damp with warm water and rub their genitals until they go. It’ll feel so wrong and strange the first few times, and you just have to come to terms with that you will get it on your hands. But if we don’t do this they will get severely backed up which could make them sick, and in worst case even die.

Then, of course, there are experiences that I never really thought of before volunteering. The animals that don’t make it, or have to be put down due to severe injuries. It’s heart-breaking, you work so hard to save them and sometimes you just can’t. The first few times are especially tough, especially if you’re a bit sensitive (like me). Remember, it’s okay to cry if you need to. It’s a whole new experience for us, and it IS very sad. We volunteer at the rescue to help animals, so of course it’s normal for us to feel sad if one dies. It will get easier, and you’ll know that everyone is doing everything they can to prevent it from happening.

There are a lot of factors to why an animal doesn’t make it. If the animal has been hurt the injuries might be too severe, or it might have internal injuries. It could also be a case of baby animals having been on their own for too long (living without food), or exposed to the elements for too long (their body temperature being very low), before coming to us. And, of course, babies that are taken from their natural environment and having to live without their mom are much harder to care for. The odds are stacked against them for sure. Some babies we get are newborns, pinkies without fur, eyes are closed, and in worst case scenario the mouth hasn’t even opened (which means there’s no way for us to feed them).

When we find a perished animal, or have to put an animal down, they get placed in a freezer. Some smaller animals, such as small birds or rodents, can later be fed to the larger carnivorous animals we have (such as birds of prey, or bobcats, etc.). That way it can still be somewhat of a “circle of life” scenario. But the other ones are usually donated for educational and scientific purposes.


There are many opportunities to volunteer at any given rescue. There are some volunteers that are drivers who go and pickup animals when whoever called is unable to come to us with them. They also help with catching animals that are more dangerous or in a hard-to-reach spot.

Then there are virtual volunteers (in some cases), they can help with things such as social media and website updating. In my case, since I’m a graphic and web designer, I’ve been growing into that role as well. I help them with their website and their marketing/social media graphics.

Then there are those who come to the rescue one or several times a week and help hands on with the animals. This is what I do, and always wanted to do. Where I volunteer, we usually get to help feed and care for the babies. Sometimes I get to help with some of the older animals as well, if it’s the case of just putting a dish into their cage or something simple like that. There are some animals that are more dangerous, or individuals that might be “meaner”, and in those cases the owners or volunteers with specific experience or education have to handle them. The safety of the volunteers is very important!

Sometimes an organization will have good use of a photographer, especially for documenting releasing animals back into the wild. Those are the most important moments, and are very appreciated by volunteers and social media followers alike. Good photography is always great to have for marketing purposes.

All organizations have their own needs for volunteers, and if you’re interested just reach out and tell them what you have to offer. For example, if you’re a great writer I’m sure they could benefit from someone writing articles for a blog or social media, or even someone writing grant applications. There’s also a lot of opportunity in clerical work, which takes a lot of time from the owners and turns their attention away from the animals. Each organization usually have their specific needs listed on their website or volunteer application. But, like I mentioned, feel free to reach out and let them know how you think you can be of service to them.

My final thoughts

It’s a roller coaster, for sure. With ups and downs, with slow periods and sometimes completely insane and stressful periods. There are a lot of emotions, and at least in my case I have grown really fond of the organization and the people there. I’ve become more and more involved with their work. I just want to help in every single way I can (are you surprised that I donate 20% of my shop sales to charity? And that I chose Wildlife Inc as my first one?).

I’m sure I’ve forgotten several things I wanted to mention in this article, but it’s also turned out a lot longer than I thought. I realize that I’m very passionate about the rescue and what I do there. If this is something you’re interested in, I DEFINITELY recommend that you do some research and find a few places to apply to. A good website to start checking out (that I have used successfully) is VolunteerMatch.

Once you find a few places, take time to get to know the people there, visit their locations, and make sure it’s something you want to do. It can be overwhelming, and maybe you’re more cut out for one type of volunteering over another. Make sure you and the organization are on the same page about what you will be doing!

I hope this article has been helpful, and that I’ve provided a little insight. This is my perspective of volunteering at a wildlife rescue, and it will be different for everyone. But if this is something you are going to pursue I wish you the best of luck! Feel free to comment below or shoot me a message on any social media channel if you have any questions or want any advice!

Thanks for reading.