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Working with Wild Animals: Career Options & Education Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to work with wild animals. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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Animal trainers, zoo veterinarians and zookeepers are all professionals who work with wild animals. Most animal trainers and zookeepers have an associate's or bachelor's degree and learn through on-the-job training. Veterinarians are required to be a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and have their veterinary license.

Essential Information

For individuals who enjoy working with wild animals, there are a variety of job options, such as zookeeper, zoo veterinarian and animal trainer. Each career entails a different set of skills, duties and training, but they all offer the opportunity to interact with creatures that most people only get to learn about from afar.

Career Zookeeper Zoo Veterinarian Animal Trainer
Education Requirements Associate's or bachelor's degree Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree Associate's or bachelor's degree
Other Requirements On-the-job training State license On-the-job training
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 11% for all animal care and service workers 9% for all veterinarians 11%
Median Annual Wage $31,239 (2016)** $88,490 for all veterinarians (2015)* $26,610 (2015)*

Sources: *U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

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Job Options Working with Wild Animals

Zookeepers and Aquarists

Zookeepers and aquarists care for wild animals in zoos and aquariums, which includes preparing and feeding food, keeping animals mentally and physically active, cleaning habitats and monitoring animals for any problems. They may also train animals, usually to make it easier to provide medical care, as well as give talks to educate the public about the animals under their charge.

While there are not always specific education requirements for zookeepers and aquarists, employers may look upon job applicants with bachelor's degrees much more favorably. Many colleges offer bachelor's degrees in biology, zoology or animal science. For students who would like a shorter educational path, some schools offer associate degree programs in zookeeping. Experience working with animals may often be considered for applicants without an educational background in the field.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that employment growth for animal care and service workers, which includes zookeepers, is projected to be 11% from 2014 to 2024. In October 2016, PayScale.com reported that the median annual salary for zookeepers was $31,239.

Zoo Veterinarians

Like regular veterinarians, zoo veterinarians maintain the health of animals at the zoo by diagnosing and treating illnesses, prescribing special diets and performing surgery or other emergency procedures when necessary. Unlike their counterparts, zoo veterinarians are exposed to a greater variety of animal species and may often have to deal with new problems.

After graduating from college or earning an equivalent amount of school credit, zoo veterinarians must attend four years of veterinary school to receive their Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and pass a veterinary licensing exam before being able to practice in a state. While in veterinary school, they may take such courses as small animal radiology, zoonotic diseases and veterinary ethics. Although not required, some veterinarians also choose to participate in an internship or residency program, especially if considering board certification in a specialty area, such as exotic-animal medicine.

Job growth for veterinarians, which includes those working in zoos, is expected to be 9% from 2014 to 2024. Job opportunities in large animal practices are projected to be best in this field. The BLS reported in May 2015 that the median annual wage for veterinarians was $88,490.

Wild Animal Trainers

Although zookeepers and aquarists may sometimes train animals, a wild animal trainer spends more of the time training animals, teaching them tricks to entertain the public, as well as to facilitate medical procedures. Usually working at zoos, aquariums and marine parks, wild animal trainers may also have some duties that overlap with those of zookeepers and aquarists, such as feeding animals and maintaining animal habitats.

As with zookeepers and aquarists, wild animal trainers do not have specific education requirements, but experience with animals is a common job requirement. Aspiring trainers may consider earning a bachelor's degree in an animal-related science. For a more career-specific education, students may also consider programs with exotic animal training or exotic animal care concentrations.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, animal trainers could see a 11% percent job growth rate from 2014 to 2024. The BLS stated in May 2015 that the median annual salary for animal trainers was $26,610.

Zookeepers look after the physical needs of wild animals in zoos; zoo veterinarians perform checkups on the animals in the zoo, diagnose illnesses, monitor their diet and tend to the health needs of those animals. Wild animal trainers teach animals behaviors that can be used for entertainment or to help staff treat the animal when needed. Veterinarians need a doctoral degree and license, and although it's possible to become an animal trainer or zookeeper without formal postsecondary education, most of these professionals have an associate's or bachelor's degree.

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