A job with the RSPCA can involve abseiling, white-water rafting and orienteering - not just desk work, writes Clare Dwyer Hogg

Abseiling off a cliff before leaping into a power-boat and whizzing away from danger is run of the mill stuff for James Bond. For us normal folks, however, there's little chance of finding a job that gives us the chance to do that. Unless - wait for it - you choose a career in animal welfare - the RSPCA for instance.

Instead of soft-focus images of fluffy cats, Andrex-style puppies, happy cows and fields full of frolicking lambs, it's a bit more rock'n'roll. Or so a documentary following the lives of trainee RSPCA inspectors hopes to show. Airing in January, RSPCA: Have you got what it takes? reveals the rather surprising training that it seems trainee inspectors have to undertake.

"Here in Essex it's unlikely I'll be doing much abseiling," admits an RSPCA inspector, Helen Archer, who features in the documentary. "But inspectors somewhere like Wales will do things like that much more." She stops. "I've had to get the boat out a couple of times to do swan rescues, and you need to have the skills on hand to do something like that."

Archer, filmed all the way through the process, had done some research, but wasn't fully prepared for the training. "It was so different to what I expected," she says. "It was absolutely fantastic. I thought it would be a lot of desk-learning, but while there's a lot to be learnt, especially about legal issues, you're out and about a lot." And not necessarily on solid ground, either. "I went abseiling, orienteering, learnt how to do a water rescue on the white-water rapids, and then went to Southampton for a week power-boating. We were speeding up and down - it was brilliant!"

For Archer, the excitement was enhanced because applying to the RSPCA was a chance to start a new career. "I fell into being an estate agent after university," she explains, "and was living in central London. I'd wanted to apply for a while, but didn't think I had the qualifications - I thought they'd be asking for more of an animal and science background - but it was what I've always wanted, so I gave it a go."

Although the RSPCA is all about saving animals, many of the first points of contact - by necessity - have to be with the humans. People-skills, rather than animal-related qualifications, are therefore essential. Qualifications - GCSE or equivalent in English and a science - are to be bolstered by evidence of good interpersonal skills, a driving licence, and being physically fit (practice swimming 50 metres fully clothed before you apply).

And, because inspectors work by themselves, the self-defence lessons they get are also pretty vital. There is every chance that inspectors will come into contact with aggression: they are, after all, charged with investigating allegations of cruelty to animals, rescuing animals in danger, and bringing to court the perpetrators. The six-month training course is intense - only 20 applicants from more than 2,000 are chosen each year to participate. The pay reflects this, beginning at £16,969 (plus accommodation allowance) for a trainee, going up to £18,855 plus accommodation allowance on graduating, and increasing incrementally with experience.

There are, of course, careers within the RSPCA that require official qualifications - to be a veterinary surgeon, for instance, you need the appropriate degree - but this should not be prohibitive. For many roles in this career field, experience with animals is desirable but not essential. And while inspector is the role the public most often see, behind the scenes there is a range of roles that do not have stringent educational demands. To be an animal collection officer, for instance, mandatory requirements are a driving licence and three years' experience driving. It's hard work and aptitude on the job, though, that earns you the relevant qualifications. That the applicants have the ability to treat animals with care and ease - sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances - is essential. Any animal could be waiting for the collection officer when they arrive, from snakes to poisonous spiders to goats, and the officer must remain unfazed enough to remove them from the premises and take them to a safer place. In extreme cases, officers must be prepared for the fact that some animals are in too severe a condition to be saved, and that they must carry out euthanasia. Being squeamish is not on the job description. What is, is consistency, the confidence to work on your own, and the organisational skills to plan your time well.

Once you've conquered these essential skills, the animal world is, ahem, your oyster. "It's the best thing I've ever done," enthuses Walker. "It's such an interesting job. And when we do manage to remove an animal from neglect or abuse, and see the transformation as we look after it, I can walk away thinking I've made a difference. There's no other job like it."

'RSPCA: Have You Got What It Takes', Animal Planet channel, 23 January at 8pm

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