There are many careers involving wild animals, or related to wildlife and conservation, that you might think about pursuing. Many require extensive education in various fields within the life sciences. The following information applies primarily to these kind of careers.
The best way to begin a career working with animals is to expand your general understanding of animals and the habitats in which they live. To do this, many people study natural sciences, such as biology, zoology, and ecology, in high school and college. You can begin at any time by reading all you can about animals and habitats. You can also look into taking classes offered by your local zoo or natural history museum.
Grade School: For children who think an animal-related career is an exciting possibility, working hard in all subjects in school is the best way to start. A good understanding of science and math concepts will help students continue to master those subjects in subsequent years.
High School: Taking a challenging math and science curriculum (biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, etc.) is the best preparation for college-level math and science courses.
College: Courses in biology, microbiology, physics, zoology, botany, anthropology, organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics are suggested or required in most animal-related degree granting programs.
Graduate School: A master's degree or Ph.D. in zoology, wildlife management, anthropology, or a similar field, or a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) is required for many positions.
In addition to having an academic background in these areas, knowledge and interest in animals, shown through work and/or volunteer experience is helpful and often essential for success in an animal-centered career. Following your personal interests is especially important in choosing the kind of experiences to involve yourself in.
Exposure to a specific field of animal work and the people who perform jobs in animal-centered organizations will help you clarify your goals, narrow your focus, and ultimately help you choose the best career for you. The more you know about what positions exist, the easier it will be for you to plan your course of study. Usually your professional degree is the key qualification for any career related to animals.
Good places to gain exposure to wild animals and the jobs that relate to them are zoos and aquariums; national parks; wildlife refuges, management facilities, and animal shelters. You can get experience with domestic animals by volunteering at animal hospitals and clinics; horse farms or stables; and kennel or boarding facilities.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer at the National Zoo:
In high school and college, you can also look into internships at zoos, conservation organizations, and museums. Internships let you learn more about animals and careers related to them, and meet people who can advise you and help you in the future.
The qualifications for employment in a zoo depend on the job. If you are interested in a profession working in close contact with animals on a daily basis, such as wildlife biologist or veterinarian, an advanced degree in zoology or veterinary medicine is required. Jobs requiring less schooling but include frequent, direct contact with animals include veterinary technician, zoo keeper, or wildlife technician. For all positions, a commitment to the welfare of animals and conservation of species is critical.
Since most of these jobs are popular, there are often more applicants than positions. You should expect strong competition and salaries considered low relative to the level of education necessary to perform them. And these jobs aren't easy. Caring for animals can require around-the-clock attention in some settings. Wildlife biology can involve working outdoors in sometimes difficult field environments.
If you are interested in animals but don't wish to pursue a science degree, there are other careers you might be interested in. Zoos, museums, government agencies, and conservation organizations employ many people as educators, writers, fundraisers, managers, artists, and designers.
If one of these fields is a better match for you, you should still learn all you can about animals while training for one of these careers. For example, if you are interested in writing about animals, you might major in English and minor in zoology.
Finally, there are many jobs in zoos and other organizations that don't involve animals at all, but let you be around them, or support their conservation. For instance, zoos employ accountants, human resource specialists, merchandisers, food service staff, carpenters, electricians, gardeners, and many others.