Careers with Exotic Animals, Aquatic Life, and Birds

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Everyone has been to the zoo at one time or another and almost everyone has made a return trip with their children or grandchildren. In North America alone, more than 120 million people visit zoological parks every year, which seems to suggest that zoos are very popular places. We all love to see animals that are not part of our daily landscape. We can leisurely watch the big apes or the giraffes or the antelopes for hours and keep coming back for more.

But modern, professionally run zoos have more to do with educating people to the need for wildlife conservation than with entertainment. Much of the natural habitat of exotic animals is being destroyed, and in the process, entire species have become threatened, endangered, or extinct. Sometimes the zoo is the only place where an exotic species still exists.

And that is what a zoo is all about maintaining animals for conservation. Zoos may house mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians. Because of the variety of animals and their many needs, zoos provide abundant opportunities for the person who wants to work in one. Currently there are 11,000 full-time employees in North American zoos.

Working in a Zoo

Although the animals in a zoo may be exotic, the actual work is not always glamorous. You need to be committed to conserving animal species through caring for individual animals to be an effective zoo worker. This kind of commitment requires long days of work, sometimes seven days a week, because the animals need 'round-the-clock care. And what are the rewards? Seeing well-cared-for animals that might otherwise not exist is often reward enough.

Since there are so few professionally operated zoos in North America, the competition for jobs is intense. But the jobs and the duties involved are wide-ranging enough that you might find one that matches your skills and interest.

Zoos require many different people and talents to operate smoothly. Most zoos have people working in the following positions: director, assistant director, curator, scientist, zookeeper, zoologist, gardener, public relations specialist, and clerical worker. Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, personnel specialists, operations managers, and business managers are also often needed. Many of these jobs are strictly administrative or are performed within the confines of the office. Others deal directly with the animals.

Many zoos also publish their own magazines and generate informational brochures, packets, and pamphlets, usually through their education or public-relations departments. Writers, editors, artists, and illustrators are needed to put these together. Guidebooks, maps, and information about specific animals have to be available for visitors. Zoos with gift shops need people with retail experience.

Those who work directly with animals need a college degree, preferably in biology or zoology. Managers often need an advanced degree in animal sciences or business. In addition, you may have to take a written or oral examination to qualify for any zoo job in animal husbandry or administration.

Zoo Director

As director of the zoo, you would function as the chief operating officer responsible for implementing policy and procedures for daily operations, in addition to mapping out any future growth and development needs. You would also serve as spokesperson for the institution. Often the director has an assistant director to help carry out these responsibilities.


There is often a general curator who is responsible for the whole animal collection. There also may be several other curators responsible for specific departments within the zoo. These positions may include curator of mammals, or birds, or fish; curator of exhibits; curator of education; or curator of research. As curator of mammals, for instance, you would be in charge of just that collection and would supervise all staff who work with mammals.

As the curator of exhibits, you would be responsible for the creation of permanent and special exhibitions. One of the most important functions of any zoo is to educate the public, and those programs are the responsibility of the curator of education. The curator of research manages all research programs and works closely with local colleges and universities.

Veterinarian and Zoologist

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians are also employed at zoos. The veterinarian is responsible for the general health care of the whole animal collection. Veterinarians keep detailed medical records of the animals in their care. Veterinary technicians assist the veterinarian in these responsibilities.

Zoologists oversee the future development of the animal collection. If any permits or licenses are needed to own certain animals, the zoologist obtains them.

Other Support Positions

All zoos need people who supervise and maintain the building and all its physical equipment. These are the operations managers, who usually have a staff of skilled workers under their supervision. Gardeners or horticulturists are responsible for the grounds, especially the animal habitats.

Most zoos have a public relations department that strives to get the good word out to the public about the institution and its purpose. Business managers, necessary for most of today's zoos, are in charge of finances. They pay all the bills, buy necessary equipment, issue paychecks to employees, and make investments. Personnel or human resource departments advertise to fill available positions and interview, screen, and evaluate applicants. A registrar may be employed to keep records on all the animals. Each of these departments also has a staff of clerical workers, including secretaries, word-processing or computer operators, and file clerks.


All these positions just mentioned are there to support the conservation of the animals and the vital work of the zookeepers. Zookeepers are the people who actually care for the animals on a day-to-day basis. The head zookeeper usually manages a specific department and is responsible for the staff of that department. Some zookeepers specialize in one particular type of animal, such as apes, or they serve as close associates of the veterinarian.

But the basic duty of the zookeeper is the daily care and maintenance of the animals. This means cleaning their living quarters and feeding them the proper diet. Since zoos house exotic animals, much can be learned about them by carefully observing their habits, behavior, and preferences. Behavioral changes, however slight, may mean that something is wrong with the animal. The zookeeper is the one who may spot that change first.

Zookeepers need good communication skills. Because they are the people who work most closely with the animals and often know the most about them, they are called upon to explain the animals' routines, diet, and habits to visitors. Educating the public to the importance of conserving animal species is one of the primary responsibilities of the zoo, and the public relies on the zookeeper to be a general authority on animals.

Many zoo animals are very large and their health care and feeding entails hard, strenuous labor. The zookeeper has to be an educated professional on whom the animals can rely for their wellbeing and maintenance. Because of the possibility of sustaining injury inflicted by animals, the job can be seen as hazardous.

As with anyone who has to take care of animals, you may have to occasionally count on working weekends and holidays, because the animals' needs cannot be shut off at five P.M. Wages for zookeepers are not always high, so your dedication to the animals' health and maintenance will have to motivate you to do this kind of work.

Even with these so-called disadvantages, zoo-keeping jobs are difficult to get. As mentioned, the small number of professionally operated zoos in the country and the large number of people applying for the available positions make for a stiff job market. The rewards of zoo-keeping are compelling enough-maintaining quality care for wild animals, including endangered species- that many people want to do this work.

Becoming a Zookeeper

If you want to become a zookeeper, you will need at least a high-school diploma. Many zoos, however, now prefer applicants with college degrees, especially in biology or zoology. Having biology in your high-school curriculum will be helpful going into any animal work, but especially so for going into zoo-keeping. Any additional courses in animal science would put you ahead of the competition when it comes to applying for the job.

If you think you might like to work in a zoo, you should consider performing volunteer work during your summer break from school, or on your vacation or weekends if you are presently employed. The more contact you have with animals and the people who work with animals, the easier your decision will be. And there is usually room for reliable, committed, and dedicated volunteer workers at most zoos.

Professional Organizations

Eventually you may want to join a professional organization. The American Association of Zoo Keepers promotes quality animal care and a professional attitude to active members of a dedicated team in the United States and Canada. The association publishes Animal Keepers' Forum monthly and provides members with conferences and individual chapters with specific activities. It also makes networking possible for members to exchange their experiences in animal care and treatment and other zoo-related matters.

The American Association of Zoo Veterinarians is a professional group that focuses on those who are involved in captive animal medicine. The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums is the umbrella group for employees of zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks, and oceanariums. So in addition to your education and training, membership in a professional organization is strongly recommended in order to keep up with new ideas, meet other professional people, and share ideas.

Many members find the regularly scheduled meetings and conferences to be a highlight of their educational experience and professional growth. Here animal caretakers gather under one roof, both formally and informally, to discuss and debate specific topics. Here you will find out that no matter how big or small your zoo may be, similar problems and challenges exist everywhere, and that through exchanging information you can discover solutions.

Employment Outlook

All in all, zookeepers and zoo support staff can find many rewards in their work, from preserving endangered species and maintaining a quality life for the animals to educating the public about conservation and maintaining the grounds and gardens. Observing the behavior, habits, and social patterns of an exotic animal and knowing that you are significantly helping to maintain the life of the only member of that species often more than makes up for the long hours and often strenuous work.

The future looks bright for both men and women who choose a career in zoos and wildlife parks. If you are well prepared educationally and have some experience with animals, are willing to continue your professional growth and development, are reliable and cooperative, and above all, have compassion for animals, you have made the correct career choice and should find a great deal of career satisfaction.

Working in an Aquarium

Like zoos, aquariums need both scientifically trained professionals to deal directly with animals and a large support staff" to back up their efforts. Aquariums typically have an administrative and clerical staff, educational and research departments, operations managers, veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and aquarists (aquarium keepers) and aquatic biologists.

Administrative and Support Positions

The top administrative person is the director who has overall responsibility for the smooth functioning of the facility. An assistant director may also be on the staff.

Various curators, personnel specialists, public-relations specialists, and various clerical personnel are needed to staff the offices of an aquarium. A business manager and staff would round out the administrative end of the facility and a librarian may also be employed at some aquariums. Researchers may use an aquarium's library for their specialized studies of such topics as predator/prey relationships or population dynamics.

Operations managers and various technical workers, in addition to veterinarians and veterinary technicians who work alongside the aquarists and aquatic biologists, actually perform the daily tasks of maintaining the various species of marine life.

As with zoos, the top administrative positions require a college degree, preferably in an animal science. Experience with aquatic life forms is also necessary, along with excellent communications skills. Public-relations personnel need at least some formal training in writing, and a degree in public relations will help them even further. Personnel managers must be current on all hiring procedures and laws, and the business manager needs proficiency in financial, purchasing, and budgetary skills.

Educational Requirements

Anyone working in the field of animal husbandry should have a college degree, either in biology or zoology, chemistry or physics. A degree is becoming more and more important for career advancement; in addition, it provides you with the knowledge you need for the job.

Some larger aquariums offer classes to elementary and high school students. It is not unusual for a large aquarium to have up to 100,000 school children per year visit the facility for educational programs and to see the realistic habitat exhibits. Some aquariums may even sponsor biology field trips for high school students to the Bahamas. There they will go on snorkeling expeditions to identify and collect specimens to bring back to the aquarium. Sometimes special-interest groups such as the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society will offer ecology camps, field days, and lectures for those who are thinking about getting into aquarium or zoological work.

If you are still in high school, you should take your general education curriculum very seriously, putting an emphasis on English, mathematics, and science. If you are still in college, it's a good idea to start your serious scientific course work by your junior year. You will have to be ready to specialize by the time you reach graduate school. When you select a college or graduate school, be sure to talk to a career counselor or aquarist for the best advice on curriculum or requirements.

Becoming an Aquarist

Although it is preferable to have a college degree in order to become an aquarist, it may be possible under certain circum-stances to work your way up through the ranks. If you are presently employed in another field, but think you might like to work in an aquarium, you can always begin by working as a volunteer, just to get a feel for the job. Volunteers can help out in a variety of ways from feeding the fish to teaching basic skills to high school students. The more jobs you tackle as a volunteer, the more information you will have to make your career change. As a college student, you might want to serve as an intern and gain valuable experience while earning college credit.

Another way to enter aquarium work is by way of a hobby. Anybody who owns a tank full of tropical fish will undoubtedly know about the care and feeding of their fish and about filtration, diet, and breeding. Some may even work in pet shops specializing in fish. From there, it's a relatively easy transition to move from the small tanks of the shop to the huge tanks of the aquarium.

People who are currently working as aquarists can continue their formal education by taking night courses to get an undergraduate or graduate degree. Many aquariums offer at least partial tuition reimbursement for these courses. They also continue to learn on the job and by reading trade journals and new books in their field. Membership in professional organizations and attendance at workshops and seminars also is part of their ongoing education.

Employment Outlook

The aquarium, just like the zoo, is now primarily an educational and research facility with a need for highly skilled professionals at every level. Aquariums, like zoos, exist to conserve all manner of aquatic life, to maintain their health and well being, and to educate the public to their needs. The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums is the largest professional organization that sets the standards for those who work in aquariums and oceanariums. Through its work, the status of these workers has been consistently upgraded.

Just as in zoos, aquarium work is often strenuous and the hours may be long. Reliability, dedication, good physical health and strength, and love and compassion for health of the animals in your care are the most important qualities of an aquarium worker.

Salaries awarded by both zoos and aquariums are probably not going to make you rich, but most offer benefits as incentives. Basic salaries are generally higher in larger cities or larger facilities, which would also probably have more room for advancement.

An Aquarium Curator

Allen Feldman is assistant curator of fish at the New Jersey Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey. He had previously worked at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, as an aquarist and aquatic biologist. He has a master's degree in aquatic biology.

Although Allen always thought he wanted to major in biology, he certainly did not head straight for his goal. In college, he studied without focus for two years, not really getting a good science background. But he did become proficient in English, including writing, which he recommends for any aspiring aquatic biologist or administrator, since writing reports and protocols is part of the job.

In his last two years as an undergraduate, Allen finally took mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry. After college he spent two-and-a-half years in an immunology laboratory. But that kind of work did not satisfy him, so he took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture performing qualitative and quantitative analyses on condiments. By that time, he really knew that he wanted to work with animals in some capacity.

He had also, over the years, become an animal hobbyist, keeping fish tanks at home and watching birds on weekends. He started sending his resume to various zoos and aquariums and got back the usual number of rejections-except from the Shedd Aquarium. His degree, as well as his previous laboratory work, helped him get his first job at an aquarium. He worked for a year and a half as an aquarist before being promoted to aquatic biologist.

As an aquatic biologist he had more authority and was in a better position to become an assistant curator-which is exactly what happened. But before he got the promotion, he coordinated major projects, such as moving fish from tank to tank as they grew and needed more space. He was also responsible for overseeing the total needs of the fish in his care. This work entailed diagnostic work and bacterial study, proper use of antibiotics for diseased animals, estimating compatibility of different fish, and quarantine procedures. Since the tank is where the fish carry on all their activities, from eating to eliminating waste, they are prone to disease both from toxins and from stress.

Allen was also responsible for providing basic nutritional and dietary requirements to every species, for husbandry, and for chemical analysis of the water. Since little is known about the nutritional requirements of some of the more exotic fish, it sometimes became necessary to perform research in this area. Allen was also concerned with any problems with the tanks, filtration system, and pumps.

In many aquariums, both managerial and technical skills are necessary at this position's level, for even though you are supervising other aquarists, you are also probably spending about 90 percent of your time directly with the fish. Only ten percent of your time may actually involve coordinating and scheduling programs and dealing with personnel problems.

One of the major problems aquarists have with their jobs is that they feel they are not regarded with the same respect that other scientists get. Allen and others contend that aquarists are not just tank cleaners, but rather animal behaviorists and conservationists. In the past, there was less respect for the animals, too. Earlier in this century, according to Allen, many aquariums collected randomly and indiscriminately. But today the aquarist and aquatic biologist are becoming more and more professional in their work as collectors and educators. Today's aquarists collect only those animals that are needed to complete their facility's collection or to save an endangered species. They can then breed that species in captivity in order to preserve future generations.

Although the pay for aquarium workers is not high and the workers do not always get the respect they deserve, Allen thinks that there are some distinct advantages to the work. Most aquarists and aquatic biologists really love what they do. They work cooperatively as members of a highly motivated and dedicated team and get real job satisfaction from their work. In a way, they get to be biology students forever, because they never stop learning from their aquatic charges.

Aquarists and aquatic biologists do get to travel throughout the country for meetings and lectures where they exchange ideas and information with others. Allen has also been on some scuba-diving and collecting trips to the Bahamas and Puerto Rico and on a troubleshooting mission to the Dominican Republic.

Allen thinks it is an advantage to work for an employer that has no dress code except shorts and jeans and gym shoes. Aquariums also often have generous vacation and holiday schedules and free medical insurance. And although you may not become a millionaire as an aquarium employee, Allen thinks that you are really rich when you are doing what you love to do. He loves his work, enjoys going to work each day, and hopes to continue in his career for a long time to come.

He also believes that now is a very good time for people to seek work in aquariums because so many new aquariums are opening, because professional organizations are upgrading the status of aquarists and aquatic biologists, and because new knowledge and information is constantly being brought forth to make the work even more challenging. Try it as a volunteer-maybe you'll like it as much as he does.

Working as an Ornithologist

Ornithology, the scientific study of birds, offers many careers that cover a variety of aspects of bird life, such as behavior, ecology, anatomy and physiology, veterinary science, wildlife management, and conservation. As with other animal-related fields, career possibilities are offered in management, field work, teaching, and research. It is a highly competitive field, so education and training will be your key into a career in ornithology.

Education and Training

At the very least, you will need a bachelor's degree to become an ornithologist; to attain the top positions in the field, a Ph.D. is required. Note that course work and emphasis vary between schools. Before you choose which school to attend or which courses to take, confer with a professor or career counselor to ensure that your academic choices are heading you in the right direction.

In college, you should certainly study biology, zoology, mathematics, physical sciences, and biochemistry. You should develop your communications skills, obtaining knowledge of a foreign language as well as a mastery of spoken and written English. Any research work, writing for publication and recommendations from your instructors will help you get accepted at a top-quality graduate school.

It is in graduate school where you will begin to specialize in a specific aspect of ornithology or animal science. You will branch out into independent research and perhaps assist in teaching laboratory courses. Your choice of graduate schools is crucial to the development of your career.

An advanced degree in zoology from an institution well known as a center of ornithology, ecology, or wildlife management will put you ahead of the competition when looking for a job. You also want to match your school to your particular interests, such as systematics (the science of classification of living organisms) or biology. Sometimes the best way to find out about a school, besides reading the catalog and talking to counselors is to actually visit the school and talk to faculty and students. Graduate work may last four to five years for a Ph.D. and most counselors advise that you try to publish articles in scientific journals during that time.

A comprehensive listing of U.S. and Canadian colleges and graduate schools for ornithologists can be found in volume I of The College Blue Book. You can probably find it in your public library; it will be a good starting point for your research into the correct choice of school.

As with most jobs that offer direct work with animals, you should gain practical experience with birds before you decide to become an ornithologist. Many budding ornithologists start out as bird watchers. You may want to join a local bird-watching club where you can meet other people with the same interests. Or you may decide to work as a volunteer at a university, national park, wildlife refuge, bird sanctuary, zoo, or museum. As a volunteer, you might be asked to band particular species in the field, gather data, or do research. Any kind of hands-on training you can obtain, in combination with your education, will put you in a very good position for employment.

Job Opportunities for Ornithologists

Since the competition for ornithological jobs is keen, you might consider a related field where jobs are more plentiful. Such fields would include toxicology, wildlife management, paleontology, physiology, and endocrinology. But if you decide that you want to become an ornithologist, and have gone through the rigors of graduate work at a top school where you earned your master's degree or Ph.D. and published articles, there are a number of careers available to you.

Many ornithologists serve as teachers at educational institutions while others work for state or federal agencies. Museums and research organizations also employ professional ornithologists. Some ornithologists work as administrators while others combine teaching and research skills. Just as an aquarist or veterinary technician will not always make a lot of money in their careers, the tradeoffs for you as well as them seem to be a deep sense of job satisfaction and personal fulfillment. Your work may also provide you with flexible hours and sometimes international travel as incentives.


Teaching at a college or university is a career choice of many of the more than 2,000 people working in North America in some aspect of ornithology. At the larger universities, research may be a large part of your work. The career track at a university usually begins with the title of assistant professor leading to associate professor and to full professor, usually required of any teacher/researcher. Your base pay may be supplemented by lecturing, consulting, and grants.

In addition to having your Ph.D. in zoology, biology, or ornithology, you will be required to have highly developed communications skills and a generally solid educational background. You will be interviewed extensively and may have to give seminars on your research before being hired as an entry-level instructor.

Museums and Zoos

If you choose museum work, you may specialize in research, become a curator, or engage in field work all over the world. Or you may work in the education department or help put together exhibits and publications. Curators are in charge of the collections, but there are only a few positions as ornithological curator available in this country.

With a master's degree, you may work in the ornithology department of a museum as a collection manager, technician, or as a preparator. Mastery of the computer is becoming increasingly more important for the creation of databases on the museum's collections.

Zoos also employ ornithologists as curators and keepers, but these positions are rare. Curators at zoos usually need just a bachelor's degree and some previous experience with captive animals.

Federal and State Agencies

Federal and state agencies also employ ornithologists, especially those with some background in ecology. Jobs are available through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the National Forest Service. Most of the jobs offered by the federal government involve wildlife management, conservation, and the preservation of endangered species. State fish and game agencies have recently been developing studies on threatened and endangered species, so professionally trained field ornithologists will be needed for these positions.

The Private Sector

Private-sector organizations also employ ornithologists as administrators, policymakers, and researchers, often to run sanctuaries. These organizations include the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Wildlife Federation, which publishes the Conservation Directory. This directory is a fund of knowledge for private conservation organizations.

Ornithologist positions in private companies are starting to open up. These jobs may include conducting natural history tours or setting up conservation and environmental policies for the company.

In Canada

If you choose to work as an ornithologist in Canada, your chances for employment are even slimmer than they are in the United States. The reason is simple--Canada has a smaller population and thus fewer jobs. A limited number of teaching jobs are available at universities. Provincial wildlife agencies hire some wildlife managers. Museum jobs are few. Since Canada is a bilingual country, knowledge of both French and English is helpful for any senior position. Otherwise, the qualifications are more or less equivalent to those for similar positions in the U.S.

Seasonal work can be found with the Canadian Wildlife Service, but the number of permanent positions is limited. Private companies also hire few ornithologists, but administrative and fundraising positions are available in environmental consulting firms and similar organizations.

Whichever career path you choose to take, you have to prepare carefully in order to be ready to compete for the limited number of jobs available in education, research, museums, and field work, both here and in Canada. If you are fully qualified, however, and have previous experience with birds, either as a volunteer or amateur bird watcher, your chances for permanent employment with a secure future are assured.
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