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Animal Caretakers


The concept of raising, caring for, and medically assisting nonfarm or nonworking animals is relatively new. The only animals, with few exceptions, that were kept by people were worked, such as plow-pulling oxen, or eaten, such as cattle, poultry, and pigs. The few examples of animals kept for pets are scattered accounts through history. The Egyptians kept cats as long ago as 3000 B.C.; cats were probably household pets, but perhaps they were also for religious purposes. Until immunizations and pest control became common, though, keeping animals in the house was unwise for health reasons.

Over the thousands of years that people have kept animals, they have learned how to care for them in captivity. Successful early farmers understood that animals needed them to provide food, shelter, and a healthy environment in which to live. From these early efforts, people have learned more specific methods of providing for animals' needs. But the idea to use these skills on animals that provide no labor or food was not accepted until nearly the 20th century.

The first institution that specifically focused on the humane treatment of animals was the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in England in 1824. In the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in 1866. Nine days after the ASPCA was founded, the New York state legislature passed an anti-cruelty law. The ASPCA was granted the legal right to enforce it. But changes in animal treatment and rights were gradual throughout the first part of the 20th century. During the boom of the ecology movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, public attention became focused on the rights and the needs of wildlife and domestic animals.

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring brought attention to the plight of hunting birds, and their rapidly deteriorating numbers. Pesticides such as DDT were dramatically reducing the population in the wild. To save birds such as the bald eagle, massive ecological intervention was required to clean up the environment, but breeding programs, shelters, and rescue centers were needed to save individual birds to keep the population high enough to allow recovery.

Animals used in medical and chemical experimentation were also gaining advocates who helped create laws to protect them and began to develop standards by which animals could be used in labs. As the public saw films and still pictures of the substandard or even abusive treatment of animals, particularly primates, in labs, they began to review treatment of animals elsewhere. Zoos, circuses, parks, and other institutions were used to replacing their animals with ones pulled from the wild. These institutions were soon under criticism about their pillaging of wild populations for healthy animals that wouldn't survive long in their care.

The institutions responded by improving facilities, nutrition, breeding programs, vaccination programs, and other forms of assistance that kept their animals healthier longer. Part of that improvement was increased staff. Also, as public interest in wildlife increased, there was an increase in the pool of volunteers that these institutions could draw on for labor.

With the push to conserve and protect species and maintain the populations in captivity and in the wild, programs such as re-release programs for injured animals, rescue programs for threatened populations, zoo breeding programs, pet breeding and care programs, and sanctuary land for wild populations became much more prevalent. Many of these programs began and continue to be staffed by advocates, volunteers, and professionals who can all be called animal caretakers.

The horse industry provides a consistent source of work in this field. In some areas, such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, and California, horses are a huge industry. Horses, though legally considered farm animals, occupy a strange middle ground between pets and livestock. Some, such as carriage horses or cow horses, are working animals. Others, such as dressage horses, polo ponies, and hunter/jumpers, are valued for their athletic potential, and can, at least in theory, be trained and then sold for a higher price, or bred and their offspring sold for a tidy profit. Yet others are strictly pleasure and companion animals.