An animal handler is responsible for the safe keeping, dietary care and exercise of animals. The handler is typically the employee of a zoo or conservation reserve.
An animal handler is tasked with the safe management and care of animals kept in indoor and outdoor enclosures. This is usually a zoo or biological preserve, although it can extend to game reserves and exhibition/show situations (for example, a circus or marine exhibit). Depending on the scenario, the handler may be responsible for general care and safe-keeping (“husbandry”), dietary maintenance, food preparation, maintenance and layout planning of enclosure, exercise planning and provision, the planning of mating/sexing, rearing, the successful introduction of new animals into existing enclosures and day-to-day medical management and maintenance.
Large zoos with many staff members have teams working with a particular type of animal; there may be a handler, feeder, cleaner, biologist and manager responsible for one enclosure or set of enclosures. In a smaller institution with more limited funding, consolidation of these tasks into one or two roles occurs, with a larger area of responsibility given to the handler. In this respect, they may have to become a “jack of all trades”, though they will still usually look after a defined species or group of species.
Salaries within the zoological sector (outside academia) have typically been quite poor. Those who start as handling assistants (food preparation, maintenance and assisting the handler) will work on minimum wage. In the UK, this is currently £5.93 per hour for workers aged 21 and over, £4.92 for those in the 18-20 age category, and £3.64 for young workers aged between 16-17. Many people begin as unpaid volunteers in the first instance.
For trained handlers working at major zoos, the salary runs to a maximum of £16,000, although income can be supplemented by writing magazine features or in presenting university seminars where applicable. Working hours can be long, but the nature of the work is very rewarding for those who are keen to work with animals.
- Oversee general care and safe-keeping (husbandry)
- Plan dietary maintenance and prepare food
- Planning and design of enclosure and ground layouts (if applicable)
- Maintenance of enclosure (if applicable)
- Exercise planning and provision for wellbeing of the animal
- Planning the mating and eventual sexing of animals
- Rearing and supplementary rearing of newborn and young animals
- Introduction of new animals into existing enclosures
- Medical planning and maintenance on a day-to-day basis
There are no strict academic requirements for candidates wishing to become a maintenance handler for non-dangerous animals, and this may be part of the reason for the low introductory salary. Virtually all of the skills required in caring for an animal are learned “on the job.” Some handlers become specialists with a given breed, and subsequently go on to train assistants or replacement handlers. Large zoos typically demand that those who work closely with large and dangerous animals have an appropriate degree. Animal handlers who wish to study for a degree tend to look at courses focussing on cell biology, conservation biology, zoology or ecology.
- Have a desire to work with a range of animals or a specific type and breed of wild animal
- Develop a rounded understanding of conservation and animal biology
- Be prepared to interact with the public and explain assigned duties (and possibly perform “shows”)
- Be able to plan rotas and diaries
- Have a flexible approach to work, be a team player and be able to cover for others during absence
- Be prepared to work long or unsociable hours, weekends and public holidays
- Be resilient to bites, stings, cuts, scrapes and bruising on the odd occasion!
The working conditions vary considerably depending on the type of animal under the care of the handler. Those who work in petting zoos and aquariums are obviously less prone to physical threat, but the role can span the whole spectrum of dangerous life on earth, from lions, tigers, gorillas and crocodiles through to poisonous lizards and snakes. In addition to the very real threats posed by a highly tangible health and safety risk of handling animals, the job is often messy, cold, unflattering and demanding of interaction with the public at ‘otherwise-busy’ times. It takes a very dedicated sort of person to undertake and enjoy the role of animal handler, but for those with a passion for the job, there is nothing else that comes close. It is a unique position where the candidate can interact and care for a range of biologically-diverse creatures.
Handling animals is all about real-life application; this means on-the-job training, learning from one’s own mistakes, taking constant advice from others and developing a consistent desire to care for (and appreciate) the wellbeing of animals. There are various approaches candidates can take to increasing their personal level of knowledge and experience, from self-study to exchange placements with foreign zoological institutions. Those who specialise with a particular breed can become experts in a given field, and can go on to train others in different zoos or learning institutes.
Those with several years of experience in a given field have the opportunity to be recognised as species specialists, and often give seminars in education centres and other zoological organisations. They may also contribute published material for magazines and specialist publications. These ancillary roles help to grow the reputation of the candidate and also their place of work, and can also generate semi-regular income. Although the possibility of growing earnings to a high level is limited, there is a chance to broaden one’s own profile of recognition within the zoological arena.
Animal handlers will typically work with zoos or zoological institutes, which may be small organisations specialising in a single species type, all the way up to internationally recognised centres containing thousands of different animals.
In the UK, the largest and most well-known large zoos are Chester Zoo (Cheshire), Whipsnade Wild Animal Park (Bedfordshire), Colchester Zoo (Essex), Twycross Zoo (Warwickshire), Dudley Zoo (Birmingham), Longleat Safari Park (Wiltshire) and ZSL London Zoo (London). All of these zoological centres offer a means of contacting them relatively easily via their web sites, and most have a page dedicated to careers, learning and volunteering.
Also known as…
- Animal carer
- Animal care assistant
- Animal trainer
What’s it really like?
Jeffrey Harwell is a specialist large carnivore handler at Out of Africa Wildlife Park, Cape Verde, Arizona, USA. He is renowned for working with large tigers as both occupation and passionate hobby.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
I’ve always loved the wild cats, and just “went for it”! This is a career that tends to find you; if you are right for this job, then the love of animals (or of a particular breed) will mean that this is something you believe in passionately. There’s definitely nothing else like it.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?
I start with basic husbandry, which basically means I administer meds, hang out with large carnivores and work on and maintain relationships with them, then perform in shows with them, drive tours, be an MC for the show, shoot and butcher horses, food prep: the usual!
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
A close call with an animal. Anyone thinking of doing this will already know of the risks, and yeah, it’s not an amazingly safe job for much of the time!
What do you like most about the job?
Well, I get to swim with tigers! I guess that’s something you would not experience in an accounts job!
What do you like least about the job?
My tigers don’t live forever. This is also something that candidates need to be aware of. There are times when the job can be a huge emotional drain on you.
What are the key responsibilities?
Husbandry; it’s all about the day-to-day tasks, as well as performing for the public. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that not everyone would find very interesting. But I love my cats, so it’s not a chore.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
I started on 11 dollars per hour (£6.71), which rises by about 1 dollar per year, until you reach a cap of 14 dollars per hour (£8.54). No benefits!
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Make sure it’s really what you want to do, because you will have to sacrifice a load of things to get here. If you love animals, you will probably already understand what I mean.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Humility and work ethic are the key things. Preconceived knowledge is severely over-rated; you’ll learn what you need to learn soon enough! The ability to get along with your co-workers, follow instructions and put yourself on the line to save another person are much more valued traits.