It's a dream shared by many experienced professionals who feel stalled in their career at midlife: to shed their corporate skin and find a job in close contact with animals. As opposed to playing for the Yankees or with the E Street Band, this dream is attainable. All it takes is some confidence, a DIY spirit, and a willingness to sacrifice pay for satisfaction.
In addition to the expected professions (pet-sitters, veterinary techs, sanctuary attendants), some jobs tap skills you might already have (lawyers, PR pros, grant writers and photographers, take note) and a few are unconventional (pet loss counselors, pet clothing designers/manufacturers, anyone who can throw a rollicking pet birthday party). And while a career changer who manages to earn $50,000 in such a job should feel fortunate, those who do this work can't speak highly enough of the rewards.
"The biggest difference between my current profession and my previous one is that I get to enjoy personal success and satisfaction every day," says Steve Mulder, who quit being a D.C. lobbyist to open a Zoom Room dog training franchise in Rockville, Maryland. Patricia Johnson, a former operatic soprano who now works as a wildlife rehabilitator, agrees: "One of the rewards comes from knowing that my work could have implications for hundreds of years. Saving just one turtle could be what prevents, or at least slows, the extirpation of a turtle population." Other boosters claim health benefits (lowered blood pressure, decreased incidence of loneliness/depression) and lifestyle bonuses (flexible hours, peace of mind) too.
From Aerospace to Afghan Hounds
Patti Moran used to have an HR job at a company that manufactures airplane seats. But when an economic downturn caused clients to cut back on their contracts, Moran accepted a voluntary severance package.
Inspiration struck during a conversation with a friend who had traveled to attend a wedding. When Moran asked what arrangements she'd made for her dog's care, the woman enthused about "the neatest thing": a businesswoman who billed herself as a pet-sitter. "The light bulb went right on," Moran recalls.
She opened Crazy 'Bout Critters Professional Pet Sitters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and, when other pet-lovers pressed her for advice on getting into the business, wrote Pet Sitting For Profit, now in its eighth printing. A few years later, she founded the National Association of Pet Sitters and, later her current business, an educational organization for pet-sitters she called Pet Sitters International. Offering a certification program and reduced rates on liability insurance, PSI now has 7,000 members.
For anyone tempted to follow her example, Moran says go for it. "Immediate gratification! The pets let you know they are glad you are there," she says. "It's something different every day."
At the same time, she acknowledges that the job of pet-sitter isn't as simple as get-dog watch-dog return-dog. "What do you do if a client gives you the wrong key to his door? What do you do if you walk into a home and find the cat dead on the couch?" Moran says.
From Mortgages to Mutts
Before she founded Lost Our Home Pet Foundation, Jodi Polanski worked in the mortgage industry. After attending a motivational seminar, she started looking for ways to marry her current work with her love of animals; unfortunately, she didn't have to look very far. When the mortgage crisis hit, stories abounded of animals that had been abandoned in foreclosed homes. Polanski founded a rescue to save and sustain these animals.
Two years after the Phoenix-based Lost Our Home opened its doors, Polanski's side project had blossomed into a full-time job—and she was still working in the mortgage industry. After applying for an operational grant, Polanski took the leap and quit her mortgage job. "It was the point of no going back," she recalls.
She doesn't regret the decision, even on the days when supporting 210 pets and six employees (some full-time, some part-time) gets overwhelming. Her advice to anyone who would pursue a similar path is this: Be prepared to do it all. A typical day for Polanski includes strategic planning and rallying donors, and scooping litter boxes and calling the garbage company to find out why the dumpster hasn't been emptied. She's on call 24/7 for emergencies.
Polanski suggests that people try volunteering first, to see if they like the work and get a foot in the door. "Most animal welfare jobs are given to volunteers," she says.
Despite growing up in New York City, Maggie Howell was always an animal lover. She set her sights on veterinary medicine in college, but realized quickly it wasn't for her. "I had no interest in medicine, just the critters," she says. After graduation, she put her desire to work with animals aside and took a job with a Wall Street firm ("you know, to figure things out and pay back some loans").
Several years in, Howell quit her job and, on a whim, applied to a zoo school across the country. There, she became fascinated with wolves. When she was ready to move back to the East Coast, Howell learned about the Wolf Conservation Center, a nonprofit education organization in Westchester County, New York. "I made them hire me," she says.
Fast-forward a few years, and Howell is the center's executive director. Her tasks include blogging, fundraising and advocacy, but she enjoys the nontraditional ones just as much. "Taking care of the wolves on the grounds, clipping vines off the fence of a wolf enclosure–I love that," she says.
While Howell emphasizes that she doesn't "want to be responsible for anybody losing his job," she says that a professional leap of faith like the one she took is often necessary. She recommends taking a class or two before a career shift, and warns of long hours and low pay. At the same time, Howell says the rewards outweigh the challenges. "It's a mission, not just a job."