Are you fascinated by non-human 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 ask questions shaped by Tinbergen’s four questions, named after Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch biologist and ornithologist:
- What caused the non-human animal to perform the behavior at this particular moment?
- What is the developmental trajectory of the behavior? (When does the animal first perform it, and does it require learning?)
- What is the function or purpose of the behavior?
- What is the evolutionary history of the behavior? (That is, can we track it through a phylogenetic lineage and see how or if it has changed?)
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, animal shelters, 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.
Some animal behaviorists are employed in academic settings, usually in biology or psychology departments, where they teach and engage in high-level research. Companies that use non-human animals may employ individuals whose role is to study behavior and provide behavioral enrichment. 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.
Animal behaviorists may also be hired by government agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or state or local wildlife agencies to monitor wild populations, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect facilities that house non-human animals.
Salary Range and Outlook
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 nonprofit organizations, such as zoos.
Typical entry-level jobs in zoos or shelters could start at less than $30,000. At higher levels, or in industry, salaries can be considerably higher.
To pursue a career as an animal behaviorist, you should:
- Major in biology or psychology or animal behavior in college.
- Seek out volunteer opportunities or internships, or work part-time and over the summers in settings that give you plenty of opportunity to interact directly with non-human animals. Get to know professional animal behaviorists, making it clear that you are interested in this type of career. Many zoos and animal shelters welcome volunteers and/or interns, and these are excellent ways to gain experience. Similarly, many graduate students and field researchers “hire” volunteer field assistants. Although these are usually unpaid, they provide excellent experience and preparation for graduate research.
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 at least five years of zoo experience, and perhaps a post-graduate (master’s or 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.
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).
Learn More About a Career as an Animal Behaviorist
- American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc.
- Animal Behavior Society
- International Society for Anthrozoology
- International Society for Behavioral Ecology