Behavior Biologist

Essay on Careers in Animal Behavior


by Lee C. Drickamer


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If I have a degree in zoology or biology with an emphasis on animal behavior, what sorts of employment and careers can I pursue?
We will assume that this is a bachelor’s degree, though for some it may be an associate’s degree and for others it might be a master’s degree. There are a variety of interesting options that can provide exciting employment opportunities, solid income potential, and possible training for further study. Which of these possible avenues you pursue, will depend on your background, school coursework, any outside training or experiences, and your own interests. The possible careers are presented in no particular order.

Field Assistant

Many research scientists use assistants to help conduct their investigations in natural settings. This type of work is very good from the perspective of gaining experience. It can also help you decide on future steps in terms of what you enjoy to plan for your career. For some, being a field assistant is a rewarding career, and they maintain such positions for many years. People who like to work under field (or wild) conditions watching animals are a primary resource to aid with data collection for all sorts of research. The projects can involve living in field settings, sometimes at exotic locations, and working under harsh, demanding, but highly rewarding conditions. I worked on primates in semi-natural settings in colonies on islands off the coast of Puerto Rico. Some students of mine studied social relationships in rodents in forest and field settings, while others worked on topics that included flight speeds of birds (using police radar guns), winter colonies of gulls, and song bird distributions in field and forest habitats. In each of these studies, we used undergraduates and some field assistants in the course of the research.






Laboratory Research Technician, Assistant, or Associate

While field work is, in a sense, the heart of the study of animal behavior, much of the research that takes place in our field involves laboratory work. In many instances the work is done entirely in the laboratory. Today, investigations of animal behavior often intersect with fields like endocrinology, molecular genetics, neurobiology, and immunology, as well as ecology, population biology, and similar fields of study. Thus, a student of animal behavior often needs to ‘wear’ several hats – having a group of skills that can be used to design and test hypotheses. We often work in teams and some who are really animal behaviorists are also experts on, for example, the nervous system. In all of these endeavors, there is a great need for assistants to work with both the principal investigator and often also with graduate students. This means that as a student of animal behavior you should consider, during your undergraduate or master’s degree studies, acquiring a variety of skills that you can use during your career.






Zoological Parks, Aquariums and Other Such Facilities

The remainder of the entries involve types of employment that are primarily applied animal behavior in different forms. However, it is easy to think of research investigations that would follow these same paths. Thus, one can enter these careers with a combined emphasis or interest. Being employed at a zoo or aquarium often begins with some sort of caretaking duties. You learn about the basic biology of the organisms for which you are caring. Your observations of the behavior, daily activities, and health of the various animal species help the entire zoo enterprise. Often, such positions lead to more responsibilities, including participation in research and can result in becoming an assistant curator of, for example, reptiles and amphibians. A student of mine studied primates at the zoo in St. Louis, Missouri and now, many years later, is in charge of a colony of wolves living in a large enclosed area that are part of the zoo’s research facilities. Another student, working at the same zoo, studied the behavioral stereotypies that occur in primates housed in typical barred, confining cages as opposed to those that live in semi-natural enclosures.


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Pet Psychology – Applied Animal Behavior

Over the past four decades, a group of people interested in animal behavior developed a focus on behavioral problems that arise in cats, dogs, and some other species that we keep as pets. Some schools now have programs at the bachelor’s or master’s degree levels to aid students who wish to pursue this option. I have several colleagues at universities who both practice pet psychology and provide consultations for people with pets that have behavioral problems. A student from earlier in my academic years has spent her entire career doing domestic animal behavior with her bachelor’s degree. Experience is a key factor in this business and building up many cases, working with a variety of animals, over several decades provides a great basis for helping with a variety of pets and also a fine body of information to share with colleagues who practice in the same field.

Animal Training

Becoming a dog trainer involves a basic knowledge of animal behavior, coupled with additional classes designed for certification. With these credentials, you can trains canines for pet owners, to be guide or assistance dogs, and to serve as aids in law enforcement and related activities such as drug or bomb detection. In addition, there are numerous animal facilities where various species are trained to perform for the public. These activities are generally associated with zoos, aquariums, game farms, or similar enterprises. One of my undergraduates spent her summers working at a marine mammal park in Florida and later pursued an advanced degree in animal behavior.






Agricultural Animal Behavior

Since humans first domesticated animals, such as cows, horses, chickens, and swine, there have always been individuals who observed and recorded their behavior. The behaviors include social organization, mating, reproduction and development, feeding, aggression, and many others. In the past half century, those whose primary focus is agriculture have taken a greater interest in the behavioral aspects of their animals. Understanding the behavior leads to greater production, which is the goal of animal agriculture. Recent graduates can explore this avenue via work in farm operations and may obtain a master’s degree in agricultural or animal science with an emphasis on behavior.


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Environmental Assessment and Consulting

Currently, many large scale construction projects require some form of environmental assessment covering the ecology of the area to be developed. Also, in many instances, where environmental contaminants have infiltrated or been dumped into an area, further assessment is needed to decide how to best remediate the damage. A whole industry of firms that specialize in the sorts of environmental assessments just mentioned has arisen since the 1970s. A number of animal behaviorists have been employed by such companies; behavior can be a tool for looking at the effects of development projects or contaminants on the entire ecosystem. We spent several summers in Arizona working on the potential effects of establishing a gunnery range on a military installation on a population of prairie dogs that inhabited the area. In the end, we were able to successfully transplant a number of the animals that might have been affected. Further we were assigned the task of monitoring the health of the population of prairie dogs that remained in the area of the new range. Watching their behavior both before and after the construction enabled us to make comparisons to assess any possible negative effects of the ongoing construction work and eventual use of the area for gunnery practice. At another military base, I helped with trapping rodents in order to collect urine for chemical testing. Knowing where and now to capture these animals required information on their habitat preference and habits, both based on behavior.

Animal Conservation Work

As many countries and often states within those countries began to list organisms as endangered species, behavior became a very important part of the process. To understand the threats to various wild-dwelling animals, we need information on where they live, their social organization, and particularly all aspects of mating, reproduction, and development. In some instances, this information can be used to aid existing wild populations. Knowing that habitat destruction is a key problem enables us to save as much land as possible that contains the particular habitat important for a threatened species. In other cases, where the problem is critical, we often bring some of the animals of the endangered species into a laboratory or semi-natural setting in order to study them a bit better and to breed groups of the animals to return them to the wild. Re-introduction programs have been quite successful in a number of species, including California condors, golden-lion tamarins, and ibex.

Veterinary Related Work

I previously noted the practice of domestic animal behavior in terms of both pets and agricultural animals is a growing field of work. In addition, there are individuals with training in animal behavior, who choose to work in areas involving veterinary medicine. A person may be a veterinary technician; there are programs at many community colleges for this field. Such individuals become skilled at understanding behaviors of our pets. They then often combine their veterinary technician work with pet sitting. This can involve actually living in people’s homes with their cats dogs, birds, etc., while they are away, or visiting the home several times each day. An individual I know, who works for a local veterinarian, is currently taking care of our two dogs back in Ohio while we are in New York. Other people have a daily routine that provides them time to walk dogs for people who work all day. Lastly, some people with these skills operate kennels or ‘vacation’ homes for pets.


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State or Federal Game and Wildlife Departments

Both at the federal level and for most states, there are departments that deal with issues related to fish and game, often including aspects of conservation or land management (forests, prairies, lakes, rivers). Some of these individuals are trained in animal behavior. Management of mammals, birds, and fish for sport hunters and anglers is a key part of the mission of such agencies. This involves understanding topics such as social organization, habitat preferences, diet, and reproductive biology, all of which fall in the realm of expertise in animal behavior. My department at Northern Arizona University had many students that took courses in wildlife, fisheries, and animal behavior and then worked for state or federal government agencies. A former student, who did a master’s degree with me, has worked for nearly two decades as chief zoologist for the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico.

Education

Teaching others about what we know is one of the most rewarding endeavors I can imagine. That’s why I spent my 40-yearcareer working at colleges and universities. There are opportunities to teach science at the primary and secondary school level where knowledge of animal behavior, with its components of physiology and internal mechanisms on the one hand and ecology on the other, provide a strong basis for educating younger people. There are numerous opportunities to work with a variety of non-profit organizations that do what we call informal science education. I just visited an aquarium yesterday where eight different staff people were working with the public, from tiny toddlers to senior citizens (like me) to help them understand the behavior and ecology of organisms ranging from sea lions to sharks to moray eels. Local nature centers, parks at both national and state levels, and major organizations like The Nature Conservancy employ people to interact with the public, to help them understand the animals and plants that they are viewing. A former undergraduate of mine has been the science educator for the zoo at Cincinnati, Ohio for nearly 20 years, designing educational exhibits and meeting with school groups.

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