Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Animal-Related Careers

©1997 Melissa Kaplan


Are you too young/old?
My own experience

Careers with Animals

Representative Salaries
Making it work for you



You love animals, you enjoy working with them, but you aren't sure what exactly you want to do with them...or what you can do with them.

Fortunately, there are many ways in which you can combine your interest in animals with a paying job. Not necessarily a job that will have you rolling in the green stuff, but hey! someone will be paying you to do what you love to do anyway, so there are definite benefits!

The following are some of the careers that involve working with animals. There are other careers that are not listed, but which are as part of some of these jobs. For example, a biologist may specialize in birds (ornithology), fish (ichthyology), reptiles and amphibians (herpetology), and so on.

All of these jobs require high school education. Many require additional education, anywhere from two to eight years, depending upon how far you want to go. The jobs related to the sciences, such as veterinary medicine and biology, require courses in organic chemistry, physics and calculus. These courses can often be taken at the high school level which will prepare you for the college level classes.

As each college and university's requirements may be different, and the programs you want to go into may have additional requirements, it is best to contact the universities and colleges you are interested in, and order a copy of their course catalogs. You can also contact the department (biology, veterinary medicine, etc.) within that institution to see if they have any undergraduate prerequisites


Are you too young to start thinking about this...or too old?
The answer is a resounding "No!"

If you are not yet at a level in school where you can choose course electives that will put you on the path to meeting the university undergraduate prerequisites, you can still feed your thirst for animal-related knowledge and experience by tying your interest into what ever choices you do have. Have to come up with a science fair project? A topic for a term paper or essay? A creative story? Read a certain number of books and write book reports? Use these opportunities to not only do the assignment, but make the assignment live for you by working in your animal interests.

I've had mail from middle and high school students who were researching reports on reptiles in general, in a species in particular, or in a particular function, like prey capture or hearing. I also hear from students who explore a question they've had through a science fair project, such as the effects of diet on iguanas, or color receptivity/response in frogs.

I also hear from adults who are contemplating going back to school to study biology or veterinary medicine. While the number of older students in universities is increasing, it is still a scary prospect. Especially if, like me, you were not so hot taking tests and things way back when. I found that, for myself and in talking with other older students, if you are doing it because you really want to, not because it is expected of you or because you have to, it's a lot easier than it seems. Coupled with the very real desire that motivates your return to school is the fact that you probably are more self-disciplined than you were 18


My own experience...
In 1989 I had an opportunity to leave my very non-animal job and pursue my long-time dream of working with animals. I started with a behavioral observation course at UCLA which evolved into working as a volunteer for the L.A. Zoo Research Department doing animal behavior observations (California condor, king vulture, giant eland, ostrich, and capuchines). I had wanted to, but was unable to, get away to volunteer at the Valdez oil spill, but had vowed that I would at the next one. Well, in January 1990, I got my chance, as British Petroleum's American Trader ran up on its own anchor due to out-of-date coast guard charts. The resulting spill devastated both public beaches and protected wetlands, and gave me the odd experience of being the only person for miles on a Southern California beach as I trudged the sands for days looking for oiled sea birds.

When the volume of birds in the rescue/rehab facility grew to such an extent that they ran out of available vet tech, pre-vet and vet volunteers, and even human nurses, they opened it up to other volunteers. Because of my experience with behavior observation (and the fact that I could stay all day!), I was assigned to the hospital area, where the sickest birds were being treated. I ended up being there daily, helping to hold birds, give injections, developed and maintained charts, trained and supervised feeding and hydrating teams. One day they asked if I would work for them, and so actually hired me (heck! I woulda paid them!) and invited me to be a part of their emergency oil spill response team. Needless to say, no arm twisting was necessary. The woman who hired me, by the way, was a veterinarian - a recent one. She had decided to follow her own dream of becoming a vet, starting vet school in her late 30s, and had recently passed her state board exam.

I decided I wanted to learn more. I enrolled in the veterinary technician program at the local junior college. Even though they focused on cats and dogs, I was able to, along with special courses in wildlife rehabilitation taken elsewhere, start working at a major wildlife rehab/sanctuary facility in Los Angeles, where I got lots of experience working with even more birds, as well as a wide variety of mammals.

Along with all school, the zoo, and rehabbing, I started teaching as well. A few months after the American Trader spill work was over, I ran into one of the other team members. She has a wildlife education program that goes into schools and museums. I started working for her as an in-class instructor, working with even more types of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

All of this was rather serendipitous - one thing led to another, but what I was doing was taking advantage of the moment, and the opportunities and contacts they afforded, and ran with them into areas I had long been interested in but never thought I'd get a second chance at (my first chance went by the way side when I started, at age 19, what was supposed to be a temporary summer job, at which I ended up staying for 15 years)!

Serendipity reared its little head again, in the form of a debilitating illness, likely triggered by the work at the oil spills. Among other things, I became so severely allergic to mammals and birds, I had to quit the spills, school, the zoo, the wildlife rehab, and the wildlife education. So I slowly redirected my interests in behavior, and then captive care, towards reptiles, as I realized how poor the existing information was on them. I missed teaching, but could still write, so I started thinking about writing as a form of teaching. This, and reading another educator's animal-related master's thesis, started me thinking about going to school for my masters.

When I returned to school 17 years after getting my B.A. degree, I decided to go into Environmental Education (two-thirds education, one third environmental sciences), rather than Biology, as I did not want to have to take now, with impaired cognitive function, what I successfully managed to avoid almost two decades before when my brain was fully functioning: organic chemistry, calculus and physics. There were only three schools in California at that time that had EE programs, but only one where I could breathe the air and not have to commute for hours. As they say, however, timing is everything: the EE program was tabled due to budget cuts the year I was accepted to Sonoma State University.

That left me with Education for my master's. As I was not a credentialed teacher nor particularly wanted to be one, I was left with a single choice: Curriculum, Teaching and Learning. This was not a major drawback as I wanted to expand into curriculum development, and learning about learning is just as important as learning about teaching.

So, how did I tie this in with my interests in animal behavior and ecology? Whenever possible, I wrote or created on related topics. For one of my learning and curriculum classes, I created an extended unit on evolution and adaptation. For another I wrote a unit on owls, and did an annotated bibliography on children's books on the environment and reptiles. For one research class, I did a literature review of the research on the efficacy of outdoor environmental education programs. For another research class, I did a presentation on a thesis proposal: the use of live animals in education, which included bringing in a dozen reptiles to demonstrate their effect and impact. In a seminar on child and adolescent literature, I used the class requirement to read and write about 30 books with other students as an opportunity to read books I hadn't read before, and to introduce the other students, all of whom were teachers ranging from K-12, to books on the environment and reptiles and amphibians. (I departed from my usual mode on the final project: I did an author study of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Then again, given the positively Seussian appearance of so many reptiles, perhaps this wasn't so far off the mark after all!)

My thesis is where I've been able to really go with my own interests. My thesis is that teachers do not do any better a job at selecting and keeping classroom reptiles than the general public does, because they use the same books and pet stores for their information. I did a research project (sent questionnaires to teachers with classroom reptiles), site visits (and found that most were not doing the great job they thought they were), a literature review (herpetocultural and pet reptile literature) which included a survey of my county library system's herp books, and my curriculum project: a 300 page Reptiles: A Teacher's Guide to their Selection and Care in the Classroom handbook (well, okay, a desk or lap book!).


Animal Career Categories
These are some of the fields and jobs that involve animal experience and training.

Preventive Medicine (small animal, large animal, exotic, wildlife rehabilitation, research (private industry, university and government), military, zoo):

  • Research Veterinarian
  • Veterinarian
  • Veterinary Technician

Care and Conservation of Wildlife:

  • Biologist
  • Conservation Officer
  • Cooperative Extension Agent
  • Ecologist
  • Educator
  • Environmental Management
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Forestry/Park Ranger
  • Interpretive Naturalist
  • Natural Resources Management
  • Wildlife Rehabilitator


  • Animal behavior
  • Outreach programs
  • Therapy and Psychology

Zoos (training varies, ranging from exotic animal caretaking to biology:

  • Director
  • Supervisor
  • Keeper
  • Habitat Specialist
  • Research

Animal Training:

  • Trainer (large, small and exotics) for work, show and entertainment industry, and obedience training
  • Volunteer (may require special training or previous work experience):
  • SPCA
  • Camps
  • 4-H
  • Field Research
  • Future Farmers
  • Humane Societies
  • Nature Centers
  • Parks
  • Wildlife Rehabilitation Facilities
  • Zoos

General areas of study and work:

  • Agriculture & Natural Resources
  • Education
  • Environmental Sciences
  • Fisheries & Wildlife Sciences
  • Law (Animal Welfare, Environmental)
  • Psychology
  • Science Technology
  • Veterinary Medicine


Representative Jobs/Salary Ranges
Salaries change through the years, and may be different in different geographical locations; a forester in Michigan may not make the same salary as a forester in Florida. The salaries listed include the minimum starting salary, and an average salary reflecting many years of work in the field (as of sources dated 1994 and earlier). If you are interested in more current salary data, head over to the Career Development Center at your local junior college and look through the resource materials there. (Note: these salary ranges stem from data collected in the mid 1990's. You can find updated information through the career center of your high school, junior or vocational college, or online at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.)

  • Agriculture Product Sales Representative ($1000-5800)
  • Animal Breeder ($1900-4400)
  • Animal Caretaker or Keeper ($1400-3400)
  • Animal Trainer ($minimum wage-3000)
  • Anthropologists ($1200-4200)
  • Biologists ($1500-4900)
  • Biomedical Engineer ($2200-6600)
  • Environmental Analyst/Ecologist ($2200-4300)
  • Environmental Lawyer ($1800-6000)
  • Farm and Ranch Hand ($1100-2000)
  • Fish and Wildlife Specialists ($1600-4000)
  • Foresters ($1200-5000)
  • Forestry Technician ($775-3100)
  • Guide Dog Trainer ($minimum wage-3000)
  • Marine Biologist ($3700-5000)
  • Oceanographer ($3900-5000)
  • Park Ranger ($1200-5600)
  • Secondary School Science Teacher ($1900-4000)
  • Wildlife Specialist ($1600-3100)
  • Veterinarian ($1900-8000)
  • Veterinary Pathologist ($1900-6000)


Making it work for you

So many possibilities! Unfortunately, given the education and on-the-job experience many of the above jobs require, few of us will be lucky enough to make major job changes more than a couple of times in our lives. Here are some suggestions to make the best use of the time you are in school, whether you are in middle or high school, entering college right from high school, entering college after several years of working, or returning to college for a post-graduate study.

Identify your goals, strengths and weaknesses.

Identify your campus "help" resources to build on your strengths and work on overcoming your weaknesses. Many schools have resources for the returning student.

Build a study plan, including when and how much you'll need to study to meet your goals. If you have a family and job, this may make carving out study time more difficult, but not impossible.

Go to class regularly. Often there is more communicated in class, in lectures, formal and informal discussion, than you will find in your books. Such discussions may help clarify things that might otherwise be confusing when just reading them out of a book. Regular attendance also helps your grade!

Sit in the front row and keep your on actively on your learning goals, and those of the instructor and the course. It also helps keep you awake if you've come from work.

Take good notes, and make it easier to identify question areas. If your handwriting is lousy, consider getting a laptop or notebook computer on which to type your notes in class instead of handwriting them.

Actively develop questions about course content to clarify your understanding. (Tutoring and helping others also helps you to better understand and expand your knowledge.)

Participate in class discussions to try out your own understanding of concepts and to raise questions of importance to you. Many teachers base their grades on class participation, so this is another way to help boost your grade if you aren't able to make every class or score the grades you'd hoped on assignments.

Study with a partner, going over key points, clarifying areas of question or misunderstanding, discussing points that may come up on the exam (or in real life!).

Build a study plan for tests.

Don't miss quizzes or tests. And don't miss class.

Hand in neat, legible assignments on time. (Not only will your teacher appreciate it, so will you when you refer back to your papers later on.)

Explore the school and community resources available to you to help in your studies and finding jobs in your area of interest.

And, finally, have fun!

Working with animals requires patience, warmth and respect for all living things. It may also entail taking classes that don't exactly thrill you, but are necessary just the same (either for the job you eventually hope to hold, or just because the school says you have to take it to graduate). Aptitude is just as important as attitude. When you are doing what you want - it isn't work!

The following drawn from a handout I found at the local junior college career center. The advice is sound, regardless of the educational and career choices you must make.

  • Identify your inner needs and what you want from a career.
  • Evaluate your skills as well as your physical and mental limitations.
  • Research beyond the image of the job.
  • Be aware of how others affect or influence you (do what you want to do; separate your ambitions from those of others).
  • Set definite goals for yourself - a plan of achievement!
  • Explore a field of interest to you - locate and read occupationally-oriented books, literature, job descriptions, professional journals, etc.
  • Talk with people in the field - conduct informational interviews (see your school career center for information on how to conduct this type of interview).
  • Look at negative as well as positive aspects of a job - can you live with them?
  • Explore more than one option - dig deeper.
  • Evaluate the career or career field that best matches your interests, abilities and personal characteristics.
  • Obtain the educational and special training as needed for the career of your choice (research and evaluate schools to make the best choice).
  • Obtain a part-time job or volunteer for work to get a feel for the field.
  • Believe in yourself! 80% of what gets you a good job is your mental attitude and how you project yourself - your self confidence.

When you select and plan for the appropriate career goal, it will enable you to bring out your best qualities. You'll have a sense of purpose! This will serve as a vehicle to bring out in yourself the things you want to bring out, and to strive towards your career goal.

American Veterinary Medical Association
International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council
National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association
Veterinary/Animal Health Technician Programs
Zoo Keeping As A Career (AAZK)
Zoo Keeping Careers
Zoo Keeper Training/Teaching Zoos: EATM (CA), SFCC (FL)

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Brief Autobiography: Melissa Kaplan
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Women Soon to Be Majority of Veterinarians
Veterinary Medical and Veterinary Technician/Animal Health Technician Schools

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