Animal Handlers


Education and Training Requirements

High School

Take biology, chemistry, and other science courses offered by your high school. The study of science will be important to any student of animals, as will the study of psychology and sociology. Knowing about animal nutrition, health, behavior, and biology will help you to understand the animals you care for, and how to best provide for them. And if you do choose to go on to college, most animal-related courses of study are science based.

Some may think of animal handlers as people who spend all their time separate from the rest of the community, communicating only with animals and limiting interaction with humans. However, most animal handlers work actively with the public; they present the animals in zoos and public programs, and may even perform with the animals. Join your speech and debate team, or your drama club, to prepare for speaking in front of groups of people.

Because so many animal programs, from petting zoos to animal therapy programs, rely on community support, there are many volunteer opportunities for high school students looking to work with animals. Zoos, parks, and museums need volunteers, as do kennels, shelters, and local chapters of the Humane Society of the United States (or the Humane Society of Canada). These organizations may even offer students paid part-time positions. If few opportunities exist in your area, check with the nearest zoo about summer internship programs for high school students.

Postsecondary Training

The value of a college degree depends on the work you do. Many animal handlers do not have degrees, but zoos often prefer to hire people with a postsecondary education. A degree can often determine promotions and pay raises among the workers of a zoo. Many universities offer degrees in animal sciences, zoology, and zoological sciences. There are also graduate degrees in zoology, which may require courses in physiology, animal behavior, and oceanography. Courses for animal science programs generally focus on animal research, but some programs allow students to create their own course plans to involve hands-on experience as an animal handler. Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, offers a unique and popular wild animal technology program; students work toward an associate's degree while gaining a great deal of firsthand zoo experience. The students run a 70-species zoo entirely on their own and, upon graduation, enter bachelor's programs or other animal care jobs.

Some consider a job as an animal handler an internship in and of itself; after gaining experience in a petting zoo or teaching zoo, or working with a breeder or stable hand, some animal handlers pursue careers as zookeepers, veterinarians, and animal researchers. Most college animal science and zoology programs offer some hands-on experience with animals; in the case of Santa Fe College, an internship with the school's zoo is required along with the academic classes.

Many unpaid internships are available for those willing to volunteer their time to researchers and other animal professionals. Check with your local university and zoo to find out about opportunities to study animals in the wild, or to reintroduce animals to their native habitats.


The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) offers a Professional Development Certificate Program in which participants can complete elective offerings via workshops, webinars, and courses. Certificate program concentrations are available in Behavioral Husbandry, Education & Interpretation, and Management & Operations. Contact the association for more information.

Other Education or Training

The AZA offers webinars, workshops, and other continuing education opportunities on topics such as animal management, management and leadership, and personal and professional skills.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Some animal handlers in very specialized situations, such as patrol dog trainers and lab animal technicians, are required to pursue certification. The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science offers certification for those working with lab animals. But for the majority of animal handlers, no certification program exists. Accreditation is generally only required of the institutions and programs that hire animal handlers. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums offers accreditation, as well as memberships to individuals. Though members are required to have a certain amount of experience, membership is not mandatory for those working with animals.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Students should obtain as much experience as possible by participating in summer internships and part-time jobs or by volunteering with animal-related employers. 

It is important for animal handlers to love the animals they care for. What might not be as apparent, however, is the need for animal handlers to enjoy working with people as well. Animal handlers are often required to present the animals to park and zoo visitors, and to serve as tour guides; they also work as instructors in zoo and museum education programs. Some animal handlers even perform alongside their trained animals in theme parks and shows. Some shows, such as marine animal shows, can be particularly strenuous, calling for very athletic trainers.

Working with animals on a daily basis requires patience and calmness since animals faced with unfamiliar situations are easily frightened. Animal handlers must be very knowledgeable about the needs and habits of all the animals in their care. Handlers are often called upon to transport animals, and they must know ways to best comfort them. Impatience may result in serious injury to both the animal and the handler.