An excellent way to do this is to observe the animals you're portraying in person. One good place for this is the zoo, which most people should have access to, though it may mean a day trip to another city. If the zoo is a good one, you should be able to observe the animal in an environment similar to their natural one, which should give you some insights.
An even better way to do it is to find a conservation site near you. This one is harder to come by, but extremely gratifying if you can find it. This year, I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit two such places, and will hopefully visit another in the spring or summer. Most exciting about that future visit is that they have a black leopard, which is an animal I'll be writing about in my next novel. I can't wait!!
The two sites I've gotten to visit were The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center and The Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, both of which are wonderful places that obviously care about their animals (one has all wolves and wolf-dogs, while the other also has foxes and coyotes). The place I went yesterday, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, actually allowed us several hours of visiting in the pens with the wolves. It was an amazing experience, and one I hope to repeat in the not-too-distant future. There is nothing like personal interaction to really get the feeling for an animal, especially one as misunderstood and maligned as wolves.
Another benefit to visiting one of these places is that you get to support the very animals you are writing about. Many of these places rely on donations, alone, such as the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation I visited. The owner, Mark Johnson, gives three hour tours (yes, every time I say it I hear Gilligan's Island theme music) where you get to interact with his wolves completely free. He never asked us for a donation, even. He is entirely dedicated to his wolves and they, in turn, are well cared for and loved. This is the type of place I like to support, and I'm glad that I'm able to do so while also getting the experience of a lifetime and possible research for future stories. Some photos will be posted at the end of this post.
I know that I am very lucky to live in a place that offers the kind of access I have to places where I can study wildlife. If you aren't in an area like this one, you can observe similar animals in person, such as cats or dogs. Though they aren't the same, they have similarities that can be conducive to your descriptions. Watch how they move, how they eat, how they react to things. Though they are domesticated, they still have much in common with their untamed brethren.
Lastly, there are animal documentaries galore! If you can't visit or observe animals in person, check out documentaries and do your research on their habits. You will still be able to watch them, and in fact, will more often get to see them in their wild settings, which is great information to have.
This may all seem like a lot of work, but I assure you that it's worth it to really get the correct characterizations down. Of course, if your shifter or were acts and moves like a hairy human, I suppose research isn't all that necessary, other than observing hairy humans in their natural habitats. If your character is supposed to take on an animal's attributes, your writing will truly come alive when you present them in vivid living color.
The following photos are from the wolves of Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation:
Thanks for looking! As always, all photos are mine alone, and cannot be used or copied without my permission.
Aren't they gorgeous?! Have you had the opportunity to visit rescued wild animals at a conservation center? How do you research your animal characters?
May you find your Muse.