What does a career in wildlife rehabilitation look like?

Three Bobcat alumni share what it’s like working in the professional field of wildlife rehabilitation, and the journeys it took to get them where they are today

On the Lees-McRae campus, wildlife rehabilitation may look like long hours spent feeding baby birds in the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (MWRC), large intakes of baby possums at the start of spring, and extensive interaction with ambassador animals to build their trust, but what does the professional world of wildlife rehabilitation look like, and how well-prepared for this field are Lees-McRae graduates?

Savannah Trantham ’08 graduated from Lees-McRae with a bachelor's degree in Biology and a concentration in Wildlife Rehabilitation. She is now the Executive Director and co-founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife rehabilitation nonprofit in Buncombe County, North Carolina that provides care for injured and orphaned wildlife.

“When I came to Lees-McRae I was already working in the zoo and aquarium field. I was working at a local nature center here in Asheville, the WNC Nature Center, and I was already a licensed rehabilitator,” Trantham said. “I already held a small mammal license for wildlife rehabilitation, so what I was really looking to do with the program was to advance my skill sets and put me in a position to open other doors and opportunities as, hopefully, a professional wildlife rehabilitator.”

While Trantham was already working in the field, she said the time she spent earning her degree at Lees-McRae gave her a cutting edge, helping her advance within the world of wildlife rehabilitation until she eventually co-founded Appalachian Wild in 2014.

While the refuge is licensed to provide care for all species, they specialize in reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, a decision that Trantham said was made to fill a gap in the wildlife rehabilitation field at that time, and eventually became the driving force behind the long process of founding the refuge.

Trantham said she recognized the need for specialized care for reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals when she worked as a rehabber at WNC Nature Center before earning her degree but wasn’t sure what she could do to help until she came to Lees-McRae.

“As somebody who was directly in all of that, that frontline person, there was this very obvious need that we had to do something,” Trantham said. “Once I had the opportunity to experience time there at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and really see that there was a way this could happen, a way we could do this, and then coming back and watching the need grow every year, I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do something, somebody has to step up and do something.’”

Time at MWRC as a student was also a transformative experience for Yaritza Acosta ’12, who earned her bachelor's degree in Biology with a Pre-Veterinary track and a minor in Wildlife Rehabilitation.

“Before I found Wildlife Rehabilitation, I wanted to be an exotic zoo vet, but now that I'm working in this field, I definitely want to be a wildlife vet,” Acosta said. “When I found Wildlife Rehab it kind of opened my eyes up to the idea that not only domesticated animals need help, and the impact that humans have on the environment and the animals in it.”

Acosta now works as the rehab manager at Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, a rehab center in Miami, Florida focusing on the care of brown pelicans, seabirds, and other wildlife native to the area. Acosta has been working with Pelican Harbor for 10 years, starting as a volunteer before moving to part-time and now full-time rehabilitation work.

“When I first came down here, I started as a volunteer, but at the time, the rehab manager was a graduate of Lees-McRae also. She knew me, and she knew my background and that I worked with Nina,” Acosta said. “At first, I was doing a lot of education and outreach things, and then began helping in the clinic hands-on with the animals. I got the manager position a couple years after that and have been the rehab manager the past five or six years. I still help with very minimal educational things, but now I'm mostly managing the clinic. I work hands-on in the clinic full-time, manage the clinic, build staff schedules, work with the vets, order supplies, those kinds of things.”

While Acosta is passionate about her career as a wildlife rehabber, her ultimate goal is to attend vet school to become a wildlife veterinarian. She said the skills and knowledge she learned while at Lees-McRae, paired with the extensive real-world experience she has gained at Pelican Harbor have made her more confident in her abilities, and more prepared to succeed when she does attend vet school.

“I definitely am more of an outgoing person now. I was very, cripplingly, introverted when I started at Lees-McRae, but just being on campus, being with friends, and being able to be more comfortable with myself and open to people really impacted me and I definitely carried that after graduation,” Acosta said. “Everything I learned from Nina at the Wildlife Center, like being able to talk to people in public for education— that was something I definitely was not good at— but after being there, now it's something I'm competent at and can do easily.”

A feeling of preparedness is a common occurrence for graduates of the Wildlife Biology program and related majors, and it was no different for Morgan Hester ’16. Hester double majored, earning bachelor’s degrees in Wildlife Biology, with a concentration in Wildlife Rehabilitation, and Psychology.

While this pairing may not seem an obvious one, Hester said she has found her Psychology degree extremely useful when paired alongside her wildlife rehabilitation skills in her position as a full-time rehabber at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) in Sanibel, Florida.

Hester said her interest in psychology was first piqued when she took a class that compared behavior and developmental stages between humans and animals. After taking another course called “Psychology in the Workplace,” she began to see the value that studying psychology could have on her career in wildlife rehabilitation, and she was hooked.

“After that I thought psychology was super cool, and it helped me a lot with giving presentations, and helping with tours, and just working with other people,” Hester said. “It worked really well, and it has helped me a lot. I still refer to all those classes that I took back in the day. I've since taken management courses and it's all the same stuff that I learned at Lees-McRae.”

Her understanding of human psychology made her an effective part of the student team at MWRC, particularly when it came to giving educational presentations and working with the public. Hester said the long hours she put in giving these presentations and working in the center gave her a leg-up when she began searching for career opportunities post-grad.

“That automatically put me a step above everybody else just because I had that experience of working with animals while going to school. The things I was learning in classes I was able to then demonstrate and get better with my techniques in a real-life setting, even before coming to a job,” Hester said. “The May Wildlife Center was wonderful. I worked alongside Dr. Amber McNamara and Nina Fischesser, and they were wonderful. They taught me everything that I needed to know prior to coming here, and everything that I've done since I can thank them for.”

Now as a certified wildlife rehabilitator in the field for over five years, Hester said she still falls back on the strong foundation and long-lasting relationships she built during her time in the Lees-McRae Wildlife Biology program.

According to Hester, Acosta, and Trantham, building and maintaining these connections is essential to working in the wildlife rehabilitation field, and they recommend that students in the Wildlife Biology program at Lees-McRae take advantage of this time to get a head start on networking in the industry.

“Make the effort to get involved, make the effort to do the volunteer work, to do the internships. Take the part-time jobs that are out there, even if it's not exactly what you want to do. The animal care field is a very small world, so there's a lot of connections that happen,” Trantham said. “Even if people are doing a part-time husbandry job somewhere, or an internship somewhere, there's a really good chance that somebody who works alongside them is connected to somebody that they're going to apply to at the next organization.”

Hester echoed that sentiment, noting that connections between rehabbers are often essential to the job.

It's such a small community that I feel like I know the majority of the people in wildlife rehab, which is really awesome to think about, even if they're in another state or another country,” Hester said. “I know somebody in New Zealand, so it's just really cool.”

According to these Bobcat rehabbers, when rehabbers collaborate regardless of state, country, specialization, or interests, they can come together to achieve their common goals and make a significant contribution to the animals they love.

“We’re making a difference in these animals' lives, whether it be on a species level or just an individual level. We are out there helping them whatever way we can,” Acosta said. “It is hard to work in this field, but it is also rewarding. Surround yourself with those people that can help lift you up, and guide you, and mentor you, and kind of help show you the way. Work hard and keep positive about the future.”

By Maya JarrellAugust 24, 2022