Career as a Zoo Biologist
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The following questions were answered by zoo biologist Will Waddell of the Point Defiance Zoo, who answered kids'questions on the Scholastic Web site during the 1997-1998 school year.
What is being a zoo biologist like?
Being a zoo biologist is hard work, many times you have to work outside when it is very cold or hot. And sometimes you have to lift heavy things. But if you love animals, it is very rewarding and it really is fun, so you don't mind.
What should I study to be a zoo biologist?
It is important to work hard in school, because zoo biologists have to know a lot about problem solving, math, reading, and all about the animals they take care of.
Most people who work in zoos now have a degree in biology or a related field, meaning at least four years of college. In college, you would study many different parts of biology. When I was in college, I learned about mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants, and also took several math classes.
Why did you decide to become a zoo biologist?
I have always liked being outdoors, hiking around, and watching animals. So when I went to college, I got a degree in wildlife biology, though I never thought I would work in a zoo. But that turned out to be the path I took, and I think I am lucky to be doing what I love to do — work with and help animals. I really have fun working with the animals because they are all different; animals and the habitats that they live in are important to everyone.
What would a day’s work be like as a zoologist?
Depending on your specific career choice, your workday is usually quite varied. It also depends on if you work at a zoo, at a university, or with a state or federal agency. There is often quite a bit of reading, talking on the phone, and using the computer. Working in the field depends on what your interest is, and the particular animal or habitat that you want to study. Zoo pathology is an interesting part of working with animals and is a lot like being a detective.
Do you study animals in their natural habitat?
I was a zookeeper for about 15 years before I started working with red wolves. When I was a keeper I took care of a lot of different kinds of animals — bears, big cats, birds, and elephants. My job now requires a lot of writing and talking on the phone, but I still get a chance to do studies of red wolves in their natural habitat. Several years ago, I studied vultures in Central America.
Have you worked with orphaned animals?
I have worked with orphaned or injured animals, specifically raptors, which are birds like hawks, eagles, and owls. Most of these birds were injured in some way and we rehabilitated those that we could and would return them back to the wild. Sometimes animals may appear to be orphaned, but in most cases it is best to leave them alone as their parents may be somewhere nearby. Many states have places that are licensed to provide care for orphaned animals.
What do you do with animals that die at the zoo?
Animals usually die in zoos because they are old or sick, though sometimes we don't know why they die. When an animal dies, our veterinarians will do what is called a necropsy, which means they cut the animal open to look at their internal organs like the heart, lungs, and liver. Many times veterinarians will be able to see things that may have caused or contributed to the animal’s death. Then, samples from these and other organs are sent to a lab, where a pathologist will look at them to try to confirm the cause of death. By doing this we can learn many things that will help us take care of other animals in the zoo or in the wild. Sometimes the skin and bones are sent to museums to study and learn more about the animal.
Were you ever attacked by an animal?
I have never been attacked by an animal, although I remember when I lived in Missouri having blue jays dive at my head because they had a nest nearby. Wild animals usually do not attack people unless they feel threatened or if they lose their fear of people, like if people give them food.
What is it like getting to touch, care for, and be responsible for the health and well-being of the animals?
When I was a keeper, I took care of a variety of animals: birds, bears, cats, elephants. No matter what kind of a day I was having, I knew that we had a responsibility to give the best care that we could. So it is very rewarding being able to take care of the animals in the zoo and getting to know the personalities of each individual. Protecting what we still have and protecting the places that plants and animals need to live in the wild should be all of our concern, since we share the planet with so many other creatures.
What do you think are the most important qualities or skills a young person should develop to become a great naturalist?
One obvious quality is a love and understanding of the outdoors. Aside from getting a college degree in one of the many areas of biology, I think that patience and attention to details are important qualities to have to become a great naturalist. Most of the naturalists that I have read about would spend a great deal of time observing the natural world and writing down all of the details of what they saw. I also think it is important to be able to work well and communicate with people who are not naturalists