Exploring this Job
If you grew up with a family pet or have spent time on a farm, you're probably already very familiar with how to care for animals. But if you want to gain experience handling a large group or different kinds of animals, contact your local zoo about volunteer or part-time positions. Many zoos have programs in place to introduce young people to the duties and responsibilities of an animal handler. If your local zoo doesn't have such a program, try to create your own. Contact zookeepers, express your interest in their work, and ask to "shadow" them for a few days.
Many part-time jobs are available to high school students interested in working with animals. Pet shops, petting zoos, stables, and kennels are likely to have a few after-school positions. In larger cities, you may be able to start your own animal care business as a dog walker or pet sitter. Or look under "animal handler" in the local telephone book. Some animal handlers work exclusively with movie production crews and other entertainment venues; you may be able to work as a temporary assistant on a production.
Wrangling an iguana for a movie production; preparing the diet for a zoo's new albino alligator; comforting bison to keep them from committing "suicide"; training cats for an animal-assisted therapy program at a nursing home. All these responsibilities, strange as they may seem, actually exist for some animal trainers. Many western states have long contact lists of animal handlers who rent out trained iguanas, horses, cougars, cattle, and other animals for movie productions. Zoos and marine animal parks hire highly trained keepers to feed, shelter, and protect some of the most exotic animals in the world. Bison, if not properly prepared for transport, can easily be provoked to stampede, sometimes killing themselves. And even cats are therapists these days, as people introduce their pets to elderly and ill patients who respond well to interaction with animals.
Whether taking on these types of jobs or working for a small park or large zoo, all animal handlers are called upon for the daily care and safety of animals. They may have special training in a particular animal or breed or work with a variety of animals. It is their responsibility to check the health of the animals and to feed and water them. With a wide knowledge of an animal's nutritional and exercise requirements, animal handlers make sure the animals in their care are well fed, well groomed, and healthy. They prepare food and formulas, which may include administering medications. Maintaining proper shelters for animals requires cleaning the area, ensuring good ventilation, and providing proper bedding. Animal handlers arrange for vaccinations, as well as look for diseases in their animals. They also prepare animals for transport, knowing how to use muzzles and kennels, and how to calm an animal. An animal handler needs to have rapport with the two-legged creatures as well; working with people is also an important aspect of most animal care jobs, as many of these animals are kept for presentation and performance.
The relationship between an animal and its handler can be very strong, particularly in training situations. Dogs trained for a police unit require specially certified trainers, and the dogs often both live and work alongside the officers to whom they are assigned. The same is true of handlers who train seeing-eye dogs or hearing-ear dogs; it is the handler's responsibility to train the animal to think of itself and its owner as one unit, thereby assuring it will watch out for both its own safety and that of its owner. Handlers who breed animals are often very devoted to the animals they place in other homes—they often interview prospective buyers, making sure the animal will have proper shelter, exercise, and feeding. Handlers who prepare animals for research in a lab must pay close attention to animal health, as well as their own; many states require health tests and immunizations of people who run the risk of catching diseases or illnesses from the animals they study.