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FROM WILDLIFE VOLUNTEER TO PHD: LAURA’S JOURNEY

After Laura Thomas-Walters volunteered with Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), she was able to get onto a BSc in Animal Science without any science qualifications. She went on to do a PhD in behaviour change for the wildlife trade, and now works as Deputy Director of the Experiments Team in the Yale Program in Climate Change Communication! Here she shares a reflection on her experience with us and how it influenced her career.

At the time I applied for a volunteer placement at LWT I was 18 and considering dropping out of university. I was in my first year of a Religious Studies degree, and pretty miserable. The best part of my day was feeding the ducks on campus and I realised I didn’t care about debating whether or not football is a religion, or what the correct definition of God is. What I really wanted was to work with animals. So when I discovered I could transfer to a degree in Animal Science, I was delighted. There was just one problem – I didn’t have any of the science qualifications needed to get onto the course.

I asked if evidence of experience working with animals could make up for the lack of sciences, and they agreed. So I started Googling legitimate and ethical volunteer experiences (no riding elephants or petting tigers!), and the Born Free Foundation recommended LWT. I signed up for five weeks, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

My best memory from the placement is visiting a national park where a lot of the animals are released. We made flatbread from scratch on a fire under the most amazing stars, and I saw a pregnant giraffe. I also enjoyed talking to the Director of Communications who helped me realise the importance of human behaviour in conservation.

Not only did I come back far more confident and fit (and comfortable with animal poo), the experience cemented a deep interest in conservation. During my degree I went on to volunteer in the primate department of Howletts Wild Animal Park, which had several release programmes. I did a PhD in the wildlife trade, working to persuade people to stop buying things like rhino horns or elephant ivory. And now I’m the Deputy Director of the Experiments Team in the Yale Program in Climate Change Communication. 

My advice for anyone considering a placement is definitely go for it! You never know where it may lead you.