Working With Animals: What You Need to Know
Working with animals can be an extremely rewarding career, and there are many different paths that you can go down if this appeals to you. From taking care of healthy animals in a variety of environments, to helping injured or mistreated animals, or studying them either in a laboratory or their natural habitat, there are a great number of jobs that involve direct interaction with the animal kingdom.
Many animal-related jobs require passion and dedication. Although some can be very well-paid, this work can require long hours, discomfort and even physical danger. It can also be emotionally wrenching. If you feel a deep calling to work with animals and have your heart set on the field in question, then none of this will deter you. If you’re just looking for an easy way to earn a living, however, then working with animals may not be for you.
Many options for working with animals
As an animal lover, you might want to pursue a career as a veterinarian which, in itself, can take you in several different directions. You could train as a veterinary surgeon, a nurse, a technician or a technologist. There are also many careers as animal care and service workers – for instance, kennel attendants, trainers, pet sitters and animal caretakers in a variety of settings.
Animal scientists, zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals for both practical and research purposes, while animal control workers investigate reports of animal cruelty, attend crime scenes where animals are involved, or help look for lost animals. There is a wide range of agricultural jobs involving animals on farms and ranches, from farmhand to breeding specialist.
Zookeeper, military or police dog handler, charity worker or member of a wildlife documentary crew are other roles that involve working alongside animals. All require different skills, experiences and qualifications.
Generally, if you want to get a job as a vet, you’ll need a doctoral or professional degree in veterinary medicine (or equivalent) and a license to practice in the state or country in which you’ll be working. Greencross Vets is Australia’s leading provider of high-quality veterinary services, and is always looking for qualified, dedicated staff. You may be able to get a job as a veterinary assistant with just a high school diploma and relevant voluntary experience. In-house training or in-work study can then help you develop your skills and knowledge.
To work as a veterinary technologist, you’ll need an associate degree, which usually requires two years of study. As well as being medically qualified, vets need to be good listeners with plenty of compassion and empathy. Being a vet isn’t just about working with animals – it’s also about working with people. Emotions often run high when beloved pets are ill or injured. You’ll need to be good at working under stress while maintaining a calm and gentle manner with the animals and their owners.
Relevant work experience would obviously include volunteering at your local vet’s surgery, but voluntary work at an animal rescue center, a zoo or a farm could also count. Places such as zoos and safari parks often have their own in-house veterinary team, and some vets end up specializing in certain animals – for instance, birds, horses or marine life.
Another way to work directly with some of the world’s most exotic and interesting animals is as a zookeeper. The qualifications you need can vary from one institution to another, but getting plenty of voluntary experience before your first paid job is essential. You might be looking at an unpaid internship at a zoo for up to two years before you can apply for a zookeeper’s job.
The basics of zookeeping have been summarized as keeping the animals alive and making sure that they don’t get out, but, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. Regularly cleaning out the animals’ enclosures and making sure that their environment is stimulating – a process known as enrichment – are big parts of the job. As well as looking after the animals, you’ll need to be able to communicate well with the public, teaching them about the animals and making sure that they obey the zoo’s rules.
The job can be physically demanding and will involve long days and early starts. You’ll need to be happy working outdoors in all weather. You’ll need to develop a relationship based on trust with animals that may be both endangered as a species and potentially very dangerous in their own right. This, in turn, will require you to be highly observant, noticing subtle changes in an animal’s appearance or behavior. Their lives, and yours, may depend upon it.
While some animal-related careers require serious qualifications, some, like farming, are more about first-hand experience than formal education. Nevertheless, courses and certification in relevant areas are always useful, and there are many professional courses you can take part-time while working. On-the-job training may involve protected contact training – i.e. learning how to handle animals properly and avoid injury – plus how to deal with injuries if you do have an accident at work. Those working with exceptionally large or dangerous animals will, of course, need extra specialized training.
Volunteering at zoos and animal shelters will allow you to quickly pick up essential skills and knowledge. Shadowing experienced workers – even those in slightly different occupations from the one you’re most interested in – will enable you to get an all-round picture of what goes on. It’s worth shadowing several different people in the same role, as each one will likely do things slightly differently and have different experiences to draw on.
Almost all jobs with animals will require you to be physically fit and have a calm and sympathetic temperament. You’ll need to be an excellent communicator, both verbally and non-verbally, and also have well-honed observational skills. Emotional resilience will also be required, and most of all, you’ll need the dedication that will see you through long hours of hard work and discomfort in sometimes stressful situations.
Working with animals is not an easy ride, but for the right person, it can be the most rewarding career in the world. If you think that this might be for you, contact the relevant national associations or local organizations to find out the best way to proceed.