Many career options exist for an animal behaviorist. Let’s look a bit more closely at some of them.
Many animal behaviorists work independently and offer training programs to pet owners. If you want to get started on your own, veterinarians are the best referral sources.
Some animal behaviorists stay in the academic world, where they conduct research and pass on their knowledge and experience to university-level students. Just as with any professorial post, you need a doctorate and must meet the specific requirements of the hiring department.
Another career option is animal-assisted therapy, in which animals become part of the therapeutic process. They can be used to help people with a wide range of needs, such as a social dog for a child with emotional or social problems, or a dog that acts as a prosthesis, such as Seeing Eye, hearing ear, or seizure-alert dogs, for example. Animal behaviorists train animals for these roles.
For example, Dr.Mary Lee Nitschke (see her profile later in this chapter) teaches others about hippotherapy, which involves working with horses to help humans with neuromuscular difficulties. Hippotherapy is horseback riding directed by a physical therapist or kinesiologist, where the movement of the horse is used as a way of stimulating neuromuscular interaction patterns in the rider. Dr.Nitschke’s goal is to teach people in the medical field about the many possibilities that are available therapeutically with animals. “I hope I’m carving out a path that will become more common as the years go by—teaching people to use animals therapeutically,” she says.
Another application of animal-assisted therapy is showcased by the work of Dr. Mary Birch, who works with babies who were born addicted to crack cocaine. These infants have no inhibitory control and scream most of the time, making it very hard for the nurses to care for them. It is also very difficult to have an impact on them in any way.
Dr. Birch uses a concept called entrainment, in which the rhythm that occurs in the patient is matched to a corresponding rhythm, with the goal of bringing down the higher rhythm of the patient. She started with little, active finches in a cage right next to the baby, who is eventually entrained on the birds. Then she substituted the finches with birds that moved more slowly, to the point where she could finally use a chinchilla to soothe the baby. The concept combines biofeedback, animal behavior, and circadian rhythm. These are just some examples of the many ways that animal behavior can be used therapeutically.
As any animal lover knows, research using animals is a controversial subject, to say the least. An animal behaviorist working with scientists for the betterment of animals can ensure that humane practices are followed.
Animal Training Instructors
Teaching other people how to train animals is a viable career path for animal behaviorists. Although the notion of training animals for circuses or television or film work might be abhorrent to some (there are many who believe that animals should be left in the wild and not used for any purposes related to people’s needs), animals can humanely be trained to interact with humans in a therapeutic setting.
Many zoos hire animal behaviorists or work with consultants to train zookeepers how to handle and interact well with the animals. More and more zoos operate open park facilities as opposed to keeping animals in cement-floored cages. Animal behaviorists teach zoo owners about the needs of the different animals—for example, which animals can be kept in the same park spaces together and which must be kept separated.