What You Didn’t Know About Working as an Animal Care Specialist

Author: Claire Greene, Career Advice

Yes, that’s right, I work with animals. As my career.

I work as an Animal Care Specialist for a company that brings animal exhibits to different zoos and aquariums throughout the country. By working first hand in the animal industry, I see the differences between what people think being a zookeeper is like, and the reality of the career path. Here are some things you may not have known about the animal industry.

Less training, more scrubbing
The average full-time zookeeper usually spends an hour or less actually training and doing enrichment activities with the animals. So what fills up the other seven hours? You got it… cleaning.We get on our hands and knees and scrub and scrub and scrub until there is nothing else to scrub…. and then we go find something else to scrub. To be an animal care specialist, you have to be willing to get extremely dirty, and work hard to keep the place as clean and sanitary as possible.

They are paid very little for their work
If you are one of the select, fortunate ones to get a regular, full-time job as a zookeeper, prepare to live on an average salary of about $20,000/year. That’s right, we barely get paid enough to live off.It is for this reason that most zookeepers have a second job. Also, if a zookeeper is lucky enough to work full-time, that means that second job has to be a night job. So, it is more likely than you think that your waitress at TGI Friday’s was the host of the dolphin show you saw earlier that day.

The degree isn’t as important as hands on experience
If you look at my education history, you would see that I actually have a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and a Master’s in Business Administration. I was highly discouraged from pursuing a degree in the field that I truly wanted to go into, and decided to go with a safe bet. I was always great at math, so I decided to major in accounting. After I graduated I realized that it wasn’t what I truly wanted to do.

So how did I end up with a full-time animal care job? Volunteering. So much volunteering. I started volunteering as a docent at Mystic Aquarium in 2013. I eventually got hired in the guest services department, where I worked for three years.I was later offered a full-time, unpaid internship position in the reptile claire-3department, which I then worked in for six months. Once that position ended, I went back into the guest services department. I would volunteer with Living Exhibits in the summer months, when they brought in the seasonal birds of the outback exhibit.

If I had a guest services shift that didn’t start until later, I would go in early to help with the birds. If I had a shift that ended early, I would stay later to work with the birds. I also secured one full day a week that I dedicated solely to working with the Living Exihbits animal care specialists, and I would spend two nights a week as a dog trainer’s assistant – and I’d help teach dog training classes. I actually still do that to this day.

Essentially, I’ve earned my position not because I have a degree in it, but because I dedicated over three years of my life to working hard for free and proving that I was willing to put in the necessary effort to make the animals’ lives better.

There is nothing we would rather do
Overall, we live for that one small moment in which we can help save an animal’s life, or when we reach a breakthrough with an animal. We want to improve their lives the best we can, and that is what keeps us going day after day. It makes all the cleaning and scrubbing worth it.The animal’s welfare means everything, and we consider ourselves extremely lucky. We have a blast.


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