So what is an animal behaviorist? It’s the study of animal behavior, as you might imagine. Which is basically the study of what animals do, and the reasons behind what they do. And we’re talking all kinds of animals here, from single-celled organisms, all the way up through invertebrates, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and finally mammals.
Almost everyone is familiar with the zoologist Dian Fossey and her famous research of gorilla groups in the forests of Rowanda. But many other less famous, but no less dedicated researchers work in this challenging and rewarding career field.
An animal behaviorist investigates the relationships of animals to each other, and the environment around them. This includes the methods by which animals find and defend their food, how they mate and reproduce, how they avoid predators, how they groom themselves, and how they care for their young.
Animal behaviorists are trained to be keen observers, both in the wild, and in controlled settings such as zoos. Think of them as animal psychologists, probing the causes for certain behaviors, and trying to understand the functions, development and evolution of those behaviors. Trying to understand what makes an animal tick, in other words, much like a parent trying to fathom why his or her children act the way that they do.
As you might imagine, the study of animal behavior is a complex field, one that takes years of classroom training, and careful observation in the wild. The development of behavior patterns pertains to the ways in which such behavior changes over the lifetime of an animal, and how these changes are affected by both genes and experience. The evolution of behavior relates to the origins of behavior patterns and how these change over generations.
So what training and/or education is required for a career in animal behavior? For starters, this career field actually encompasses four broad sub-specialties: Anthropology, behavioral ecology, ethology and comparative psychology. There is a considerable amount of overlap in these disciplines, as far as their interests, goals and methods.
Ethologists and psychologists concern themselves mainly with the fuctions and regulations of animal behavior. Behavioral ecologists, on the other hand, are more concerned with the ways in which behavioral patterns in animals relate to environmental and social conditions. These researchers are normally trained in departments of zoology, biology, ecology, wildlife, and other animal sciences.
There are new areas and opportunities opening up in this field. In fact, animal behaviorists are increasingly being hired by colleges and universities to help in the management, production, and care of domestic animals. This would have been unheard of just a decade ago.
Many of these professionals are also working in academic departments around the country, and applying their behavior knowledge to such tasks as wildlife management, entomology, animal science and even veterinary medicine. Just be aware that a post graduate degree such as a Ph.D. is usually required to find employment in this field.
There are some jobs in animal behavior that only require a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree. But these are in the minority. These days, most careers in animal behavior require advanced degrees, sometimes a Master of Arts or of Science, but usually a Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.
If you decide to go for an advanced degree, you'll want to start with a strong undergraduate background, a very good academic record, drive, motivation, and lots of hard work.
You may want to visit the Animal Behavior Associates website to learn more about working in this challenging but very rewarding industry, and how you can turn your passion for pets and wild animals into a lifelong career.
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