I love animals. How do I pursue my interest without joining the kids in the petting zoo?
June 25, 2012 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Like most kids, I loved animals growing up. Unlike most kids, though, I never grew out of it! My passion has remained with me into my 30s. I still squat down on the sidewalk to watch an interesting bug walk by and stare at the ubiquitous squirrels outside. I want to know everything about all kinds of animals, interact with as many as possible and observe them in all environments.

My career is not animal-related, so my interest is not being satisfied there. Whenever I come across an animal-related activity or event, it's always geared toward ages 10 and younger (and, yes, I have attended some of these activities anyway, but as you can guess, they are very superficial and don't actually share that much info. Plus I'm getting bruises from elbowing the six-year-olds out of the way when we battle to see who gets to pet the lizard first. Just kidding). And even when I go to zoos or aquariums, everything in general is geared towards kids. Are there any "adult" ways to pursue an interest in animals besides becoming a zookeeper or a docent? I'd like to make this a real hobby I spend time on where I can learn, learn, learn (hopefully in a hands-on way).

If it matters, I live in a huge U.S. city so I can't quite raise animals on my own or have easy access to rural activities.
posted by dede to Pets & Animals (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Bird watching?

I'm sure there are zoologists/entomologists who study urban animal populations (I'm specifically thinking of someone who studied rat population dynamics by putting radioactive tracers in the refuse they'd eat). Get in contact with some of these scientists and offer to do field work pro bono?
posted by phrontist at 3:30 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, most zoos have volunteer programs; I'm near Philadelphia, so here's Philadelphia Zoo as an example. I'm sure natural history museums and aquariums have the same sort of programs, and I bet the schedules are flexible.

You could always do secondary research (i.e., read journals) and write a blog, or edit Wikipedia.
posted by supercres at 3:30 PM on June 25, 2012

It kind of depends on what animals you find most interesting. For hands-on stuff, just off the top of my head, there's raising and possibly even breeding reptiles, amphibians, insects and small mammals, not to mention keeping fresh or saltwater aquaria. Birds can also be kept, and there's also birding, as phrontist mentioned. There's wildlife photography, hiking, and animal rehabilitation, too.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:33 PM on June 25, 2012

Look for a local "natural history society"? Link is to one in my community
posted by KokuRyu at 3:34 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: I have just started getting into beekeeping, and it is totally scratching this itch for me! And yes, you can totally do it in a large city- I live in NYC and there's a thriving beekeeping community here. I've been learning so much, and the chance to observe wild animals at work every week is so satisfying. There's a lot to know, but it's easy to get started if you look for a local beekeeping group and ask them for help. PM me for more info if you want...
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:36 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well you pretty much described my relationship with animals (minus the crazy asthma that prevented me from owning any pets, wee!) and what I have done to satiate this obsession is to read lots and lots of books about animals. I also love going to the zoo, and it feels slightly more grown-up probably because I get to parrot to all my friends the weird facts I have stored in my brain about certain types of animals. I have also volunteered at the animal shelter (that was mostly to play with dogs though) and spent time trying to photograph wildlife. But honestly, the way I have most learned about animals was in books. Specifically Zoobooks and wikipedia.
posted by ruhroh at 3:37 PM on June 25, 2012

I'm sure your local Humane Society could use volunteers to walk dogs / interact with the animals so they get all the TLC they need to integrate into a home when they're adopted.
posted by tivalasvegas at 3:37 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If there's a wildlife center with an animal rescue near you (ie, the kind of place that people take critters like snakes/lizards/birds/racoons/possums that have wandered into their yard/house to get nursed back to health and hopefully released back into the wild), that would be a great place to volunteer.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 3:53 PM on June 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Even in a big city you surely have some access to rural areas - maybe not something you can get to every week, but once a month or so. I live in a big city and occasionally take the train out to go kayaking or hiking. I've gotten to see some really interesting wildlife that way.
posted by bunderful at 3:55 PM on June 25, 2012

I recommend a garden and good shoes. The garden to bring animals to you, and the shoes to get you off concrete and on dirt. Observe animals where they are. Go where they live (parks) or create a habitat. Once you're on real dirt, in a quiet place, sit still. That's the best way to learn about animals.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:55 PM on June 25, 2012

Sign up for your volunteering gig of choice as soon as you can. I used to do volunteer coordination at a science museum, and used to volunteer at a wildlife rehab, so I can tell you that there is usually a waiting list. Everyone wants to be with the animals.

I love bugs, too!
posted by Coatlicue at 4:04 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: If you're in the US your local Cooperative Extension office may well offer a Master Naturalist program, even in a city. I took a couple of their courses a few years ago and they were wonderful. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about local fauna, flora, and ecosystems. And I even earned some cool badges.
posted by mareli at 4:06 PM on June 25, 2012

I love animals! Reading scientific journals is great to stay in the loop - some seriously awesome animal stories. Today: The Mosquito! [1] [2] [3]

And having a partner who works with animals (even tiny ones) and sneaks you in the lab at night to show you the neat new study subjects helps too.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:19 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Although I definitely do have a strong intellectual interest in animals (I keep up with articles in Nature and read a lot of other stuff), I'm looking for something more hands-on with interaction or observation of real animals.

If I had a yard, I would totally grow a garden and try to create my own little "ecosystem" (my friend has a free range tortoise in her yard who keeps the grass short--how awesome is that?!), but I live in an apartment with no outdoor space.

Volunteering at a zoo or other wildlife facility sounds appealing, but whenever I look into it it's never really feasible. To actually get to work with the animals, they tend to require many hours on weekdays and other "certification"-type requirements that I just don't have the time to get.

I have taken a beekeeping class that I thought was fascinating. Any other one-off "class" suggestions like that would be great!
posted by dede at 4:48 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: Insect collecting! I had no idea such a hobby existed until I took a class, but it is so much fun! Once you start to learn the different orders and families, you'll never look at them the same way again. And there are so many different kinds of insects in the world, you'll never "run out" of insects to find.

Also, search for citizen science type groups in your area. Illinois has dragonfly and butterfly monitoring networks, where you volunteer to visit a nature area 6/+ times per summer and log the number and species of insects you find. No experience is required--you pretty much teach yourself as you go, but the organizers are experts available for ID help. Chicago also has a bird collision monitoring group that rescues/salvages migratory birds that get caught downtown. There may be something similar near you as well.
posted by gueneverey at 4:52 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is there a vet school near you? While I was in vet school, we had volunteers who sat with the cows or horses in the spring when they gave birth. All the volunteers loved it.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 5:27 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a graduate student in monkey chasing; when I'm not in the field and am instead languishing in a lab, I like to have a webcam on some animal open on a portion of my computer screen, or on the computer behind me while I'm working. I was watching these eagles, but they're nearly fledged; I also like the marmoset cam here, and there are many other nature cameras for a variety of animals and habitats (a list here and here, also Africam, . It's fun to observe them here - I use some of these for students taking my human evolution class during the primate section of the course.

I also have been working on getting into birding. Birders are kind of intense, but I like being able to go out onto the bike path by my apartment and look for interesting waterfowl, and I often find mammals and turtles and frogs along the way! Are you willing to share your big city? We might be able to give you more specific ideas.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:36 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of great suggestions here. In addition to those already mentioned (birdwatching! beekeeping classes! volunteering for a wildlife rehab!) I might mention a few more. Depending on your location, natural history museums and/or conservation groups occasionally offer biological census days where they look for groups of volunteers to go out to a designated area to find and catalogue as many species as possible for ecological study. The museum near me has an upcoming one for nocturnal insects and I am PISSED AS HELL that I have other obligations and have to miss out. I've also been taking horseback riding lessons and enjoying the heck out of it. Nature centers offer beginner's birding classes fairly regularly, often even lending out binoculars and guidebooks. Conservation centers and aquariums almost all have behind the scenes tours that you can take to learn about the husbandry of their animals. Snorkeling is a life changer when it comes to really understanding what life beneath the sea looks like. National parks offer hands-on vacations where you can help collect information on populations of animals such as wolves or elk. There are lots of great opportunities out there, you just have to dig around a little!
posted by troublewithwolves at 7:13 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In the past I've worked for a company who brings animals to children's birthday parties and events - my cousin and sister-in-law still do too, from time to time. I really liked it.

The animals lived with the owner of the company and main caregiver. He'd consider the event, and assign the animals based on their health and habits and personality. Once I knew who I'd be bringing, I'd quickly read up on the basic questions and facts that I'd likely be asked about the animals I'd have, and then learn a bit of the actual animal's history. Because kids' birthday parties and other likely events take place on weekends mostly, it fits around a regular work schedule. It's a small business without a huge profit margin, so many of these operators can't afford a large staff and it didn't pay much. But it's great occasional work, and you get the fun of the cool animals without the majority of the responsibility.

I'm me-mailing links to you for the two posts on a now-defunct blog I wrote about it a long time ago. Maybe there's a similar company there near you that could use your help?
posted by peagood at 7:16 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out your local Audubon society -- they might have birding trips both in your local area as well as father away. It is amazing what an experienced birder can see.

Also, if you are at all interested in the water, snorkeling or scuba diving opens up a whole new world of animals and their behavior.
posted by elmay at 7:20 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: TN has a 'certified naturalist' program that I've been drooling over for a little while now. Maybe something similar exists in your area?
posted by jquinby at 8:28 PM on June 25, 2012

Could you get into Wildlife Rescue? I don't know the requirements in the US, but it is very rewarding and a lot of smaller animals/birds don't need as much space and you'd think for a lot of the smaller animals/birds/reptiles. Also this is often more needed in urban environments as animals have a lot harder time of it in the cities.

I'd also suggest keeping pets. There are a lot of very interesting animals that can be kept as pets in apartments. Insects and reptiles all make fascinating pets and there are a lot of groups that meet that love to collect/keep these animals so you can meet all sorts of other people with your interests and get good advice on how to set up your cages.

I worked as a tour guide at a penguin colony for a while. Best most interesting job ever, I got to watch wild animal behaviour every night and to teach children about the world around them and watch them be as fascinated as I was. Zoos or city farms often have volunteer guides.
posted by wwax at 9:36 PM on June 25, 2012

I recommend some adventurous photography. I've recently gotten into moth photography (as a supplement to birdwatching due to my schedule) which occasionally also includes:

Moth rescue!
aka why-are-you-sitting-in-this-well-traveled-path-you-dumb-ass?

Frog/Toad photography!
Lying on the ground just after it rains so people ask you if you're "okay", to which the correct response is, "Yes, this frog is posing perfectly, thank you."

Attempted mammalian photography!
Currently results in:
- The fox staying just out of my camera's range and barking at me
- Almost peeing myself in terror at suddenly screeching dumpsters/bushes/shadows running RIGHT BY MY FEET

Night Beach Photography!
Attempting to take pictures of speedy ghost-white crabs at night is like having 6 cups of coffee and trying to shoot game zombies while you're in the house alone in the laundry room with your ear pressed against the washing machine; in other words, somewhat creepy and difficult to hear people/crabs sneaking up behind you.

And you can identify your finds afterwards! I recommend joining Flickr groups, and bookmarking as many bug i.d. sites as possible (since not every site has every bug).

Dangers/annoyances include:
- Cops asking you why you're hanging out by the bright lights of the gas station with a camera at 2 AM
- Strange men hitting on you (because if you're female and odd, you must also be socially inept and desperately want sex from anyone with a penis)
- Strange/Drunk/High/Sleepless people who also wander around at night and are interested in telling you their life story/telling you you're doing your hobby wrong/following you around
- Rabid animals
- Mosquitoes

I recommend a decent camera, a flashlight, a knife, and a good pair of running shoes. Travel light. Be aware of your surroundings and stick to either fairly public areas (gas stations, your apartment building) or the-middle-of-nowhere. You'll mostly be encountering the ugly, strange, and unloved of the animal and insect world, but it's worth it. To me anyway, heh.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:46 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I am loving the possibilities I would never have thought of on my own--the naturalist programs, assisting at veterinary schools, helping out with hired animals at parties...awesome.
posted by dede at 10:13 PM on June 25, 2012

Humane Society!! They love volunteers, and the animals can use a break from being cooped up.

Check for stables in your area--maybe with carriage horses, police horses, etc. If you can, take a few riding lessons and then offer to groom horses, clean stalls and pens, and generally work around. Usually stables have tons of work and are more willing to have a volunteer adult doing things than a teenaged girl with all that baggage and liability.

We have a raptor research center near Boise--are there any research stations or specialist animal clinics near you? Sign up for basic college zoology, biology, botany, and micro biology classes. What about paleontology? Dig around for on-line stuff. There are tons of equine webinars that you could watch on everything from breeding and foaling to parasite control to feeding for optimum performance.

Do you have a natural history museum or zoo you could call and ask about resources for hands-on work? How about gardening with a co-op and studying the bugs and worms while you garner fresh veggies? Put an ad up for dog walking or pet sitting? Offer to clean fish tanks?
posted by BlueHorse at 10:24 PM on June 25, 2012

A lot of UK cities have 'city farms', which have livestock and a petting zoo and are staffed by volunteers. Have you any of these near you?
posted by mippy at 3:59 AM on June 26, 2012

In this area, we have a wonderful animal shelter that accepts all levels of volunteers, also the Raptor Trust which rescues injured birds of all kinds but specializes in raptors. They are looking for volunteers as well, and will train you. If you like cats, Alley Cat Allies has trap, neuter and return programs around the country for feral cats, also find homes for those that can be socialized.
posted by mermayd at 4:08 AM on June 26, 2012

Best answer: My wife and I just got back from 2 weeks of volunteering at the world's only Sloth Sanctuary, in Costa Rica. It's obviously a bit far afield, but the experience was amazing. And regarding your point about how zoo volunteer programs often don't let you really interact with the animals directly, within a day of arriving, you're actually feeding the adult sloths and helping the babies perfect their climbing skills on the jungle gym. If you don't know much about them, sloths are incredibly cool animals, and the folks who run the sanctuary are pretty amazing and inspiring. I can give you more details via memail if you want to hear more.
posted by Ziggurat at 8:35 AM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend educating yourself a little bit so that you can enjoy your interactions with animals a little bit more. By that I mean pick up a wildlife guide for your state, browse through it and try to identify the species around you. Once you feel more confident going without a book, it's so rewarding to go on nature hikes or a walk around the neighborhood and hey, there's a scarlet tanager/beaver den/paper wasp nest! COOL!
posted by gumtree at 9:48 AM on June 26, 2012

Oh! I'd also suggest learning about the evolution of whatever animal you are interested in, and the animals you see on a day-to-day basis. Not only does it give you a deeper appreciation for the behaviors you're seeing (especially if you're observing animals in an urban context, where they're adapted for something else but have acclimated to an urban environment), but it can also be a handy source of interesting tidbits. "Did you know ... it looks like birds' knees grow backwards, but that's actually their ankle joint?!?" and so forth. Usually, wikipedia's a good place to start for evolutionary relationships, and you can get lost on a journey discovering what squirrel ancestors were up to 13 million years ago, or something. Depending on where you are located, there may be explorable fossil outcrops in your vicinity as well!
posted by ChuraChura at 11:25 AM on June 26, 2012

Get a space in a community garden and grow a bird/butterfly/bee/nature garden that supports urban wildlife throughout the year. Invite nature-loving pals to help you keep it spectacular. Harvest nothing -- everything is grown for wildlife.

Get a good net so you can capture, observe, and release bugs. (Do no harm. No horrifying pins and boards.)

Get a good jeweler's loupe for looking at bugs. (Also great for inspecting plants you grow.)

Get good binoculars for looking at birds. (Maybe with a digital camera attachment.)

If you can do it safely (not get birds crashing into windows), set up feeders at your apartment so you can get a little wildlife at home.

Keep a journal of what you see.
posted by pracowity at 2:06 AM on June 27, 2012

A couple of people have already mentioned raptors - here in the San Francisco area, we have the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, where volunteers count raptors every day for 3-4 months. Some volunteers also band birds.

If you'd like to tell us what city you're in, we might be able to come up with some suggestions near you.
posted by kristi at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2012

The links on the LA Audubon site will give you an idea of some of the wildlife groups that are active in a large American city.
posted by pracowity at 10:14 AM on June 27, 2012

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