Animal Care and Science

Find career information about animal science and care.

Video: Animal Keeper

Learn about being an animal keeper. Juan shows you some of the animals he cares for and talks about education and training.

My name is Juan Rodriguez. I'm an animal keeper here at this Smithsonian's National Zoo.

When I was a kid I think the very first instance where I realize I loved animals was when my older brother would bring home injured pigeons and cats and dogs, stray animals and I just fell in love with taking care of animals since I was like seven years old. Becoming a volunteer was sort of the first stepping stone in getting into this system as a full-time employee. And just basically the love of working with animals was the main reason how I got involved working at the national zoo.

They gave me the basics of understanding what my responsibility were and what I needed to do to become a keeper and after I was a volunteer for several months I was able to get a job here, but in terms of formal training I didn't have my degree when I first started back in '97 but as time went on I eventually obtained my Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology.

On a day to day basis the basic thing that we do is that we want to make sure when we come in the morning they're well, they're not sick, everything's normal. We get a head count of all our animals that we're in charge of and then at that point if there are animals that need any medication or any special treats in the morning we'll give them their medications in the morning and then we could continue through our day and basically after that were involved with many things such as research, behavioral watches, cleaning stalls, you got to do the dirty work too and then also the basic things of actually talking to the public so that they will learn more about the sloth bears and all the other animals in Nature Trail are and learn what they can do about conservation.

I think the favorite part of the job is when I'm actually talking to the public and they learn something new about an animal that I work with. You can just see sort of like a light bulb flash in their head and they're actually, "Wow, this is something really amazing. I've never knew about this about this particular animal" and then the other second favorite thing is when the animals are actually enjoying the enrichment item (toys and food treats, are used to help re-create an animal's natural habitat. The enrichment items encourage animals to exercise their natural instincts to play, learn and grow.) we have put out in the yard for them.

For example the sloth bears we can use big boomer balls. We drill holes into them and we actually put their kibble into the boomer ball and they will roll it around for minutes to sometimes even hours to try to get the food out of the boomer balls to anything you could imagine. I think the best advice I have for kids is basically if you love to work with animals just follow your passion, your desire to work with animals and if you're really determined to do that you'll always find a way to do what you're trying to accomplish. So if you like to learn more about the National Zoo and all the animals that are here, if you want to look at the live webcams like the lion cub webcam you can go to www.nationalzoo.si.edu.

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Video: Dog Trainer

Meet Bridget, a canine handler with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. She trains dogs to search and find illegal drugs and gives tips for training your dog.

In this episode, we visit the Canine Training Site, which is part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. These working dogs are trained to search and find illegal drugs. Meet Bridget. She helps train the dogs for working at airports, vehicle stops and other U.S. border locations.

Our agency [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] usually sticks with Labs, German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois. They usually have a higher drive and they're more motivated to work.

We do a 12 weeks training with them. During that 12 weeks, we'll introduce them to a lot of different environments [locations]. We start training them on the illegal drug odors and once they get really well, good at that, we bring in the handlers [officer that directs the dog]. We team them up with certain dogs on personalities and where they're going [where the dog will be working]. And then for another 7 weeks, they train with that team handler. After that, once their 12 week is over, they'll go out into the, all across the nation into the workforce.

What's your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part is when my dog does find illegal drugs. It makes all our practice and hard work that we put into it pay off.

Any tips for training dogs?

My #1 tip would be to be consistent. For example, when you're trying to play a sport like baseball, you gotta do a lot of practicing to get better. And the same thing with your dog; he needs a lot of practice and encouragement [praise] to get better.

I would have to say the easiest thing in training a dog with would be verbal praise [let the dogs know they're doing something right] and then a reward system. That could go anywhere from a plastic pipe to a rubber hose. The praise, it just stimulates [energizes] them. Every dog works for it; they want to make their owners happy. So they work hard for that.

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Video: Marine Biologist

Meet Chris Meyer, a scientist from the National Museum of Natural History. He talks about the ocean and his favorite animal the cowrie snail.

As a marine biologist we get to study the ocean and all the animals and creatures that live in it. I didn’t spend much time near the ocean, but once I saw the ocean, I became really fascinated with it. To be underwater and seeing things that were different and it just sparked that curiosity.

What do you like about your job?

The most fun parts of my job are that I’m going to see something and learn something new everyday and that I get to travel. I get to meet wonderful people who are also excited about what we’re doing.

The beautiful part of doing this job is it’s hard to say that there is a typical day. It’s the excitement of discovery. It’s the chance to be wowed and have that sense of wonder every single day.

What's your favorite animal?

Well my favorite creature is certainly the cowrie, which is a type of snail.

I mean they’re spectacular and they’re beautiful; they’re very shiny and most snails aren’t as shiny or maybe they’re only shiny in the middle where the animal comes out. It’s because the animal comes and covers the whole animal when it’s alive, so that makes the shell nice and smooth.

Each of these different looking ones are different species [a group of living things] and they all have slightly different habitats [home of an animal or plant] that they live in, a different preference, different things that they like to eat. So you can tell from the smallest to largest, and yet they’re kind of in the same family, so they kind of have the same general shape, the same general feel.

Advice for kids

If you’re interested in pursuing marine biology or any kind of biodiversity [variety of life] study, I would encourage everybody to just get out and get out and walk around and observe the environment. Take the time, stop, look and ask questions.

The fun part about Science is that we’re still finding and learning and discovering new things about the ocean, about almost any place on the planet. And so there’s a lot of opportunity to explore.

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Video: Veterinarian

Meet Megan, who helps working dogs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Find out how to start working with animals and why your dog's needs healthy teeth.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

We get to work with dogs all day long.

This is Candy, so we’re just gonna do a physical on Candy. Candy is here so that we can get her back into our working dog program, which means that she’ll be a detector dog looking for any type of contraband [illegal goods], like narcotics [illegal drugs]. So, what makes that a little bit different from a pet dog is that, is that she has a little bit more, usually energy, excitement to work, excitement for toys.

Why do you check Candy’s teeth?

We check to make sure her gum color looks ok and we look at all of her teeth. The teeth can help make sure that they’re not developing tartar or gingivitis [swollen gums]. In working dogs, [we] really have to make, in all dogs, especially working dogs, you wanna make sure that they don’t have any dental disease. That can really inhibit [stop] them wanting to play with the toys, have bad breath, not eat well and be in pain.

How can you tell if your dog’s in pain?

They [the dogs] can’t speak to you and tell you where things hurt and what they’re feeling that day. Sometimes, a lot, they [dogs] don’t do anything, which can make it challenging to decide that they’re in pain, but sometimes it’s as simple as their work ethic [hard work] is. They don’t want to work as hard that day, which means that they may not want to play with the toy as excitedly as they normally do. They may not want to jump to, up and down off of things or jump high, or search high and low.

Advice for kids

To become a veterinarian, it takes a lot of hard work and school. You have to really apply yourself to all of your different courses, not just sciences or animal related courses.

But to develop the idea that they want to be a veterinarian, as much exposure [experience] as they can get to the veterinary field and that can come through volunteer work in veterinary clinics or even in rescues and shelters.

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Video: Wildlife Biologist

Wildlife biologists study wild animals and how they interact with their environment. Learn how they protect wild animals.

I absolutely love being outdoors, getting to study new species [group of animals] all the time. Learning about how they affect the ecology [animals and their surroundings] of an environment [where the animals live] is fascinating to me.

Conservation really means protecting wildlife and when I say wildlife, I'm not just referring to animals, but I'm talking about animals, plants and their habitat [where the animals live] so that our future generations can enjoy the wonderful landscapes and scenery that we can today.

What's a refuge?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge System is actually the largest set of land and water put together specifically for the protection of wildlife, including endangered species [animals at risk of dying out]. We have about 564 as of today, but we're constantly growing.

What have you experienced working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife?

So I had experiences at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge studying puffins. I later went to Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire monitoring loon [duck] populations and moose populations.

I had the experience of working at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge studying an endangered species [animals of risk of dying out] which will now be delisted [removed from the endangered species list] soon, called the Delmarva fox squirrel. And they're these big over-sized squirrels that seemed to be getting hit by cars a lot because they're so slow and sluggish. Most squirrels go tree to tree to tree. Well these guys are so slow, that they come down the tree, go on the ground, all the way up the tree, down the tree and again. So but their populations are coming back now.

What do you do with the information you collect?

Everyone that's a wildlife biologist typically does it because the love being outside; they love being outdoors. But when you collect all that data [information collected] and all that information, there's a time when you have to be in the office to kind of analyze [study and examine] everything to see what the trends [a direction of something changing] are, to see what the [animal] populations are doing. And that is very important data and very important things to do.

What can kids do now to protect wildlife?

I would say the most important thing that kids can do to protect wildlife is to be knowledgeable. To share that information with their classmates, to explore the outdoors, whether that be a small patch in their backyard or a bush or at a park or at a national wildlife refuge, like where we're at now, at Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge. To get out and explore, make observations [watch something carefully] or your own and do your own biology in your own backyard.

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Video: Zoo Keepers

Meet Kristen and Juan, Zoo Keepers at the National Zoo. They talk about how they train the animals and what you can do to get started.

Kristen Clark, Zoo Keeper at the Great Cats and Bears Unit, National Zoo:
First thing in the morning, we go around and check all the animals, administer medications [give medicine] if we need to. Just make sure everyone's okay and then we start cleaning yards and preparing diets [food] for the cats and we prepare enrichment [toys and food treats used to help recreate an animal’s natural habitat] for the animals before they go out [outside] for the day.

Juan Rodriguez, Zoo Keeper at the Asia TrailNational Zoo:
We'll go in and we'll set up the [outdoor] yards in the morning before we let them out.  We'll put food out into the different parts of the habitat [where the animals live and eat]. We like to encourage the animals to search for the food and sort of stimulate their natural instincts, their natural behaviors of going out, sniffing out their food.

The really great thing about sloth bears, especially for the cubs, is that even though they're in the same enclosure [stall] every night, as long as you change their structures of the logs or you put a different enrichment item [toys and food treats used to help recreate an animal's natural habitat] into the stall, it's almost like giving a brand new habitat [where the animals live and eat] every night.

Animal Training

Kristen: The training is done, basically, to check every part of their bodies every day without actually being able to touch them. We use training for medical reasons only, there are no special tricks or anything that we ask them for. If we do this [hold index finger and thumb in the shape of an "L"], they open their mouths, so we can check their teeth. They're trained for voluntary injections [shots].  We're also working on training them for blood draws from their tail. So anything we can do voluntarily with the animals without having to anesthetize [giving medicine to put an animal in a temporary relaxed or sleeping state] them is something that we work for.

Relationships with the animals

The interactions [routines] on a daily basis that you have with your animals and there is a relationship there. A lot of people just say "Oh it's a lion or a tiger," but these lions know us. They trust us. They train for us and to us it's just like having a pet at home. You know, we cry when they are sick and we’re happy when they have babies. And so just being part of their lives every day and being responsible for their care is the best part for me.

Advice for kids

Particularly if they're interested in animal work, I would suggest just starting with dog walking or pet sitting in their neighborhood. That's a really good way to get into the industry [career] at a very early age. And then when you get older, you can become a keeper aid at the zoo and actually learn what it takes to be a zoo keeper and sort of the care of exotic [wild] animals.

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