Animal Keeper Training Programs (scholastic)

Several people made excellent comments in response to the academic training inquiry concerning preferred scholastic programs for wild animal keepers. I would add that two-year degree in a zoo tech program or a two-year vet tech degree permits you to spend less time in school, gain credit through zoo husbandry rotations, and make contacts with people directly in the field. I know several zoo clinicians who teach in vet tech programs and some former zoo clinicians who run zoo tech programs. If you want to be a zoo keeper this is a definitely a direct route. Several curators advanced from entry- level keeper positions to curatorial positions with either of these degrees. I recommend 2 and 4 yr. vet tech degrees because they offer a more advanced training in preventive medicine and animal husbandry than strict animal science programs. It also helps to understand the veterinary vernacular and learn animal restraint procedures used on domestic and alternative livestock-topics taught in some programs.

This is not to say that people without degrees or other life science degrees won’t learn this on the job. If you choose a 4 year liberal arts program you may be limited in your options for major tracks of study and electives.  Degrees in biology offer the broadest training.  One may be required to take courses in organismal biology, genetics, cell/molecular biology, and microbiology, etc. This coursework complements pre-veterinary didactic training, but can limit opportunities to pursue coursework in evolution and systematics. This is the track I took and it only provided me with a superficial foundation for more advanced graduate study. Actually, my undergraduate degree was a combined biology-psychology degree which kind of diluted core curricula for these disparate disciplines. I chose this route because I wanted a background in biology with additional coursework in ethology and comparative psychology.

If you choose a larger university, particularly a land-grant university, you may be offered an opportunity to pursue a program in zoology where the concentration of course work may focus on organismal (whole animal biology) with additional training in conservation biology, ethology, and behavioral ecology. With that said, these programs, in my opinion, are best suited for people who want specialize in aquariology, or herpetology, entomology, or other invertebrate specialties. The reason I suggest this is because you are afforded an opportunity to really study taxonomy and ecosystem studies (e.g. courses in marine biology, limnology or physiological ecology of ectotherms, etc.).

Psychology is a good route if it offers coursework in comparative psychology or experimental psychology with specific training in operant conditioning. This later course is a primary reason that marine park hiring managers may like this kind of training. Hence, a psych degree without an operant conditioning course may not fit your needs.

Similarly an anthropology degree may serve people who specifically want to work with primates. If you work with bird or mammals a degree in animal science may be a preferred route because it offers training in the reproductive, nutrition and other applied sub-specialties that are of great relevance to animal husbandry and are transferable to exotic animal care. Again, these life science degrees are options, but not the only way to supplement your experience. Some of the best keepers don’t have collegiate degrees or they studied something entirely unrelated such as economics of French literature. And this is just my opinion based on experience with these different curricula. The programs in conservation medicine are certainly strong programs, but they may not be as applicable to a career in animal care and training, unless they offer coursework relevant to zoo biology and management.  Many new curricula have emerged since I was an undergraduate student. There may be other applicable programs and preferences for hiring managers.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

One thought on “Animal Keeper Training Programs (scholastic)

  1. I have a series on Unusual Animal Careers and hope to have a series of white papers on the many different options available.

    At one time there were very few programs, in fact when I was accepted into the UC system the only option was a private major–in the end I studied overseas.

    But it is interesting to see how the zoo profession has evolved and the many specialty areas that now exist.

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