Tonawanda News

August 18, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: The greatest job in the world

By Kenny Coogan
The Tonawanda News

— “You have the greatest job in the world,” is a comment I luckily hear often after I hosted a bird show or finished handling an exotic animal at my full-time job of being an animal ambassador trainer.

Working at a zoo is quite unique and many visitors ask “How do you become a zookeeper or an animal trainer?”

Last night when I went to bed my cat Princeton jumped up on the mattress. He does this ritually every night. Last night was different, however, as he went under the covers for the first time.

Princeton entered the sheets cautiously and then quickly turned around so his large flat face was sticking out. I held the sheet up so it wouldn’t collapse on him. Surprisingly he laid down, a brave move for such a timid cat. I kept the sheet raised to keep Princeton calm. He laid there for several minutes purring noisily with his mouth slightly opened. He looked as if he was smiling.

I remember as a child reading a story of the Islamic prophet Muhammad cutting off his sleeve on a robe for his cat, Muezza, to not disturb the cat from its nap. After I learned of this story, I thought I would do that, it makes sense. If you adjust your actions to make your critter companions’ lives as carefree as possible, you might have what it takes to be a zookeeper.

Loving animals will not get you the job. Many years of vocational experience will.

For most it starts with a single pet. Pets allow us to connect with nature and they start the initial spark. Many zoos and aquariums have summer camps for elementary to high school students which also allow a peak into the workings of a professional zoological institution to make sure that road is the road one wants to take after college.

Most days start early because exhibits and habitats need to be cleaned before the public arrive. My day starts later than most because the animals I care for are all behind the scenes. The animals that I train and clean are used in educational programming and shows. Since they are not in public view, their enclosures do not need to be cleaned before the park opens.

My day starts at 8:00 a.m. and for the first one and a half hours it is nothing but husbandry: raking, hosing, scrubbing, changing water bowls and making diets. For about two and a half hours of the day animal shows are happening. During the shows, the host can be on stage talking to hundreds of strangers a day. For the other three to four hours more cleaning occurs, with extra time being dedicated to animal training. 

If talking to sizeable audiences of strangers and the five plus hours of cleaning up after animals does not scare you, this is how you go about getting this slightly-above-minimum-wage, highly-competitive job.

Camps that are offered at zoological parks are usually held through the vacations breaks from school. Shadowing opportunities are where — usually high school — students are allowed to follow a zookeeper, veterinarian or trainer for a day. They may assist in tiny daily activities but in general they are observing side by side what the animal professional is doing. The shadowing is scheduled through the school and only occurs for one day. After that, volunteering opportunities can be applied for.

If one is interested in a full-time job as a zookeeper or animal trainer, starting off by volunteering with or without animals at the local SPCA, veterinarian offices or zoological institutions is a great way to start. Volunteering allows you a more in-depth experience compared to attending a camp or shadowing. Volunteers often help with diet prep, clean enclosures and provide enrichment.

Through college more unpaid internships usually take place. This can be studying animals in the field, at a zoo or in the lab. The wider the range of animals the person is familiar with the easier it is for them to get a job. Many times animal professionals are lumped together by geographic region. If you want to work with big cats, in addition to working the lions, you might also be responsible for other African animals including reptiles, hoofstock and birds.

Most people who work with animals have a college degree in a science discipline. I have a degree in animal behavior and many of my coworkers have four year degrees in psychology, biology or zoology. In addition to the college degree, the wide range of animal knowledge and experience and the desire to cut your clothing for an animal to remain comfortable will provide you the skills and personality traits to obtain a job in the professional animal field. 

I have been told it is one of the greatest jobs in the world.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.