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Animal Behaviorist

Overview

Are you fascinated by animals? Do you wonder why they do the things they do? Perhaps you should think about becoming an animal behaviorist.

Animal behaviorists study the way animals behave and try to determine what causes certain types of behavior and what factors can prompt behavior change. They usually specialize in certain types of animals, whether it’s fish, birds, large animals, wild animals, livestock or household pets. They also may focus on certain types of behavior, such as hunting, mating, or raising offspring.

Many things can influence how an animal behaves, including hunger, illness, hormones, the presence of a potential predator or prey, even the weather. Animal behaviorists identify behaviors and try to answer key questions about them, including:

  • What caused this behavior?
  • What factors influenced the behavior?
  • Why did the animal perform this behavior at this particular time?
  • How did the animal learn the behavior -- or is the behavior innate?
  • What purpose does the behavior serve?
  • Does the behavior change over time?

Some animal behaviorists specialize in anthrozoology – the way animals interact with people. However, most anthrozoologists are not animal behaviorists. People who work with pet behavior are Applied Animal Behaviorists. These specialists are often concerned with promoting behavior change in animals by altering aspects of the human-animal relationship. For example, an applied animal behaviorist may come to your home and observe your family’s interactions with a pet to determine why the pet is behaving badly and what changes the family can make in order to improve the pet’s behavior.

Animal behaviorists work in a variety of settings, including universities and research facilities, zoos, animal training facilities, companies that make pet products, organizations that promote animal welfare, and in private practice, helping pet and livestock owners better understand and care for their animals.

Working Conditions

Most animal behaviorists are employed in academic settings, usually in biology or psychology departments, where they teach and engage in high-level research. Others work for companies that conduct research using animals, such as pharmaceutical firms, large-scale livestock producers, and pest control companies. Many begin their careers as full-time or part-time research assistants.

Larger zoos may employ animal behaviorists and animal behavior assistants to conduct research and serve as curators, designing appropriate environments for animals, monitoring behavior, developing educational displays and speaking to the public about animal behavior.

Animal behaviorists who specialize in behavior change work in private practice, zoos, animal shelters or in the veterinary field. Some train animals to perform as entertainment, or serve as companion animals.

Salary Range

The career paths taken by animal behaviorists vary widely, so it’s difficult to determine an average salary for this career. Animal behaviorists working in private practice or for private companies typically earn more than researchers or those working for non-profit organizations, such as zoos.

According to Michael Hutchins, Ph.D., of the American Zoological Association, "most animal behaviorists earn from $35,000 to $90,000 and more, depending what they do and where they work. Those earning higher salaries are administrators. For example, the Director of Conservation at the Walt Disney Wild Animal World is an animal behaviorist."

Animal Behaviorist (Photo: iStock Photograph)
Salary
$35,000 - $90,000
Years in school
6 - 8
Job outlook
Good

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Academic Requirements

To pursue a career as an animal behaviorist, major in biology or psychology in college.

Work part-time and over the summers in settings that give you plenty of opportunity to interact directly with animals and observe human-animal interactions, if you’re interested in anthrozoology. Get to know professional animal behaviorists, making it clear that you are interested in this type of career.

If you want to conduct research into animal behavior or work as a lead curator at a zoo or animal museum, you will most likely need a post-graduate (doctorate) degree in veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, ethology (the study of animal behavior in a natural environment), comparative psychology, behavioral ecology, sociobiology, or another specialized scientific field, such as ornithology (the study of birds). A Ph.D. may also be required if you plan to teach at the college level. The Animal Behavior Society offers a certification program and sells a directory of training programs in North America.

If you want to focus on behavior change, particularly in helping people better relate to their pets, you can become an Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist (which requires a Master’s Degree) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (requiring a doctorate).