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Roundtable Discussion: How can I work with animals without being a vet?


Hi Footnotes,

I want to work with animals but I don’t want to be a vet. What else is there?

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For this round table discussion we pulled in these experts:

  • Expert one: Senior reptile and spider keeper (Zookeeper)
  • Expert two:  Casual at Australian Reptile Park and Aussie Ark (Reptile Park)
  • Expert three: Dog trainer for Guide Dogs Australia
  • Expert four: Herpetologist at Taronga Zoo
  • Expert five: Marine biologist
  • Expert six: Country director of FOUR PAWS (Activist)

The Footnotes: What is your job?

Reptile park: I work as a casual in the customer service and mammals section at the Australian Reptile Park as well as a casual at Aussie Ark. I do daily cleaning of enclosures, health checks, enrichment, food prep, presentations/ interacting with the public, enclosure renovations, conditioning, record keeping and much more. I also partake in different breeding programs.

Marine biologist: Being a marine biologist can mean anything from working counting microscopic organisms in a laboratory, to collecting samples out in the field, or recording behaviours of wild animals, or tagging sharks. My passion definitely lies in animal behaviour and ecology. My two main interests are cetaceans, and sharks. All marine life fascinates me but those two categories are my favourites if I had to pick.

Dog Trainer: As a guide dog trainer, I assess the dogs to see if they’re suitable to be guide dogs and I socialise them and monitor their behaviour. I also train them to make sure they are obedient and test their responses to make sure they meet the needs of their clients.

We work outdoors in a variety of climates from the cold and the rain to the humid summer days (and early starts to beat the heat before it is too hot to work them outdoors).

The job has a high level of activity and we are on our feet about 80% of our working hours.

Zookeeper: I’m a senior reptile and spider keeper at the Australian Reptile Park. This role is a unique one and not for the faint hearted but full of never-ending reward. At the moment we are just about to start breeding the Manning River turtle, a freshwater species, endemic to NSW, under threat from habitat loss and feral predators, to create a back-up population. But day to day, it’s lots of cleans and feeds for crocodiles, alligators, snakes, lizards, spiders, turtles and tortoises. They’ve even got me raising a little Eastern Grey Kangaroo joey, Dundee after hours.

Taronga Zoo herpetologist: Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. On any given day at Taronga Zoo, we usually have about 5-6 reptile keepers. The team makes sure the animals are ok, then they clean all of the exhibits, look after their diet and sometimes we do presentations at the zoo. We also work on Studbooks, which is where you enter all the specimens from a species and use that to determine who should breed with who.

Activist: Four Paws is a global animal protection organization which has been rescuing and protecting animals around the globe for 30 years. We help in disastrous situations, for example,

we see bears and big cats being treated very poorly in captivity and we try to rescue them and provide them with a new life in our sanctuaries.

The Footnotes: How would someone get into your industry?

Dog trainer: I would tell someone who was interested in becoming a dog trainer to get as much hands-on experience as they can. Volunteer at your local animal shelter and get to know body language of different breeds, gain confidence working with all breeds of dogs. Do work placement at doggy day care or groomers and other canine related businesses. Get involved in as much as you can and create contacts and bonds with people in the industry.

Taronga Zoo herpetologist: You don’t need to specifically study amphibians and reptiles at university, but one requirement is that everyone who works at the zoo must sooner or later get a Certificate III in Captive Animal Management. One of the main ways to get experience though is through volunteering. Almost every wildlife park or zoo has a volunteer program and it gives people a great opportunity to build skills and experience.

Reptile park: I’ve known I’ve wanted to be in the industry for a while now, but I didn’t have the knowledge and skill set at that stage. I was a volunteer at the Australian Reptile Park for a year before starting my Certificate III in Captive Animals at TAFE NSW. About 6 months into the course I was offered a casual position in both customer service and the mammals section at the Australian Reptile Park and since then have completed the course and have also been given the opportunity to work at Aussie Ark.

Studying at TAFE NSW provided me with the skills for working in the zookeeping industry with focus on animal husbandry, monitoring health, importance of conservation, exhibit design, correct capture and restraint techniques.

Marine biologist: Take as many maths and science classes as you can! Not just in high school, but in University as well. When deciding on further education, you should look for a school with strong science programs. Career opportunities involving work with marine mammals are very competitive, so you should try to get some relevant experience now. You could begin by finding out about volunteer opportunities at nearby zoos or aquariums.

Activist: I think there are unfortunately not a lot of jobs in the animal protection movement because it’s still a small movement. But inside the companies that do exist, there is a role for almost anyone and that’s the nice thing. For me, for example, I haven’t studied anything that is related to the job I do now, I studied human movement sciences. It’s a very different field.

I started as a volunteer in animal protection and I think that is how a lot of passionate people go into this kind of work.

Volunteering will also show you if it’s really right for you, if you have the passion, and if you really want to work in this environment.

Zookeeper: The key to a foot-in-the-door when it comes to working with wildlife is, without a doubt, volunteering (on the ground experience and a real chance to demonstrate your strong work ethic and passion). You also need the right foundations and knowledge backing you up. Facilities Australia-wide recognise the importance of basic husbandry, handling and communication from potential employees. This is why it is almost a must to have done some form of study in order to gain a role in the industry. The two I made sure I had were Animal Studies and Captive Animal Studies which I completed at TAFE NSW. This gave me the knowledge and fundamentals that set me up for what is an exciting, but extremely challenging role as a Zookeeper.

The Footnotes: What do you love about your job?

Reptile park: The park and Aussie Ark both play a lead role in conservation for many endangered species and I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside other staff in different breeding programs. I’ve also learnt since working in the industry and completing my Certificate III at TAFE NSW that educating the public on the importance of species and conservation is a key aspect in the zoo industry. I’ve gone from someone who was terrified of having to do a class presentation in school to being able to do talks and presentations in front of crowds and educate the public on the species I love and get to work alongside every day.

Taronga Zoo herpetologist: Without the intervention of the work we do, species would be extinct. Most of the public who come to the zoo do not actually see these programs because about 50% of our work is off exhibit. This means working in different conservation facilities on certain species to make sure they don’t go extinct.

Conservation isn’t just about maintaining them here at the zoo. It’s about protecting them in the wild and ensuring that the wild population remains into the future.

Marine biologist: One of the best moments was experiencing the songs Humpbacks sing whilst free diving in Tonga. This trip was for freediving and also to gain experience first-hand of the whales’ behaviour from in the water. It was absolutely incredible, and I couldn’t describe it in words if I tried. Just amazing.

Activist: It is wonderful when we can help animals and rescue them. Earlier this year, I went to Vietnam to join a team to rescue two bears from a bear farm. They had been locked in their cages for 12 years. Being able to rescue them, take them out of their cages and offer them a new life at one of our sanctuaries is a really wonderful thing to experience. But remember, those are the good days!

Zookeeper: In the past week I’ve roped and jumped a female alligator, milked funnel web spiders, walked our Komodo dragons, fed out our Burmese pythons and helped lug half a cow to our 450kg saltwater crocodile, Elvis for his birthday. It’s very hard to describe the passion and excitement I feel for what I do and wildlife is something I will never retire from. There’s way too much to see, learn, explore, adventure, discover and do. There’s a whole world of wildlife out there and an incredible, diverse array of opportunities to immerse yourself in it – you’ve just got to begin and for me, Animal Studies was one of the first steps.

Get your foot in the door through one of the Animal, Agriculture and Environmental studies courses at TAFE NSW.

Disclosure: It’s important to remember these are just opinions of the panel, and that this article’s advice shouldn’t be used in isolation when making your decision about working with animals. Remember, opinions are limited to a person’s own experience. 

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