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A Day in the Life of a Real Marine Biologist and Animal Researcher

By AZA Staff
min read

Plus: 3 Ways to Prepare for a Career Working with Animals

What is it like to work in a zoo or aquarium?

We’re often asked, “What is it like to work in a real zoo or aquarium?” Working in a zoo or aquarium is an exciting and rewarding career path, but it also provides unexpected challenges and opportunities. We asked two animal care specialists what it’s really like to work with animals each day.

Donnie Alverson is a research associate for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Donnie’s research has been instrumental in recovery ecology efforts for the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

Amanda Hodo is an aquarium biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. Amanda’s dedication to caring for animals and her work to raise awareness of the need for more marine science programs has not gone unnoticed in the community.

Both Donnie and Amanda were also finalists in the  2018 Association of Zoos and Aquariums Find Your Heroes contest which recognizes outstanding work in the animal care and research industry. Read on to learn more about their work and experience.

Animal Caretaker and Researcher Donnie Alverson working in the lab

What is it like to be an animal care specialist?

Donnie Alverson: There is a lot of variety in each day, so boredom is rare. Despite the image that many people may have in their heads, we are not sitting around all day cuddling cute baby birds and animals. There is a lot of dirty work involved, and cleaning enclosures and aviaries is a major part of the job. In most facilities, you will have constant exposure to the public. For me, being in a field setting, this is rare, although we still do have tours from local schools, and I conduct tours when our facility hosts an annual open house.

Amanda Hodo: Being an aquarium biologist at Mote is the best! I get to work with so many different kinds of creatures and design habitats and displays to help tell their amazing stories to guests. Getting to care for animals and help guests connect with them is the best of both worlds and is extremely rewarding.

What are the day-to-day duties and responsibilities involved in your role?

DA: I am responsible for the daily husbandry of the endemic Hawaiian birds that we maintain at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. This includes diet preparation, conducting observations, cleaning aviaries, and administering any medications the birds are on. During the breeding season, I focus on incubation and hand-rearing chicks. Chicks are fed on the hour from 6 AM until 8 PM at night - that’s 15 feedings a day! The shift is split between an AM and PM keeper.

AH: I am responsible for the complete care of several habitats in the Aquarium such as the Lionfish and Ribbon Pipefish habitats. Not only do I feed and check on the animals every day, I have to clean the habitats and make sure the pumps and filtration on the habitats function properly. Additionally, I help train our sharks during frequent training sessions, provide attentive care for larval and juvenile fish in Mote Aquarium’s Center for Reproduction and Conservation, and help with our weekly maintenance dives in our large shark habitat!


Scientist Caring for Baby Duck

What was your path to pursuing your career with animals?

DA: I have always had an intense connection to animals and nature from an extremely young age. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that involved these things. I majored in pre-veterinary studies in college. I did the Avian Care Internship at the Toledo Zoo and that is when I really knew I had found something I enjoyed. My mentor Staci in the Avian Breeding Center really inspired me. I worked in the bird department at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and had a wonderful time. I wanted to get more directly involved in conservation and that is when my job opportunity arose with San Diego Zoo Global and the work that they do in the Hawaiian Islands with endangered birds.  

AH: I had a love for animals and a desire to be a veterinarian at a young age, but later realized that I was allergic to everything. I did quite a few programs with the Shedd Aquarium as a teen, which helped me gain experience with fish identification and interpretation and interacting with the public, field research, and more. These programs put marine science on my radar, but I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do! To make things even more confusing, I fell in love with a tiny liberal arts college in the cornfields of Iowa called Grinnell College, very far from the ocean.   

I got a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Grinnell, but what ultimately helped me narrow down my interests were the aquarium internships and research experiences that I did during and after college. After internships with both Mote Aquarium and Shedd Aquarium, I knew I wanted to work in the zoo and aquarium field. Mote Aquarium had a temporary Aquarium Biologist position open shortly after one of my internships, and I got the position! Timing is everything. I have happily been at Mote ever since!

Are there opportunities to volunteer at zoos and aquariums for young people interested in an animal care career?

DA: San Diego Zoo offers great volunteer and internship opportunities. One of the best ways to get direct experience in your area of interest is by doing an internship at any AZA-accredited facility. This is how I got started.

AH: Positions working with animals can be very competitive, so volunteering at zoos and aquariums helps you gain experience early and can help to narrow down your interests.  After you get your feet wet with a volunteer position, it can open up more opportunities, such as summer programs, internships, and even paid positions! At Mote, many of our volunteers are docents who focus on connecting guests to our animals and conservation efforts. We also have a special team of volunteers that helps staff out behind the scenes as well.


Marine Biologist Amanda Hodo on a dive

Ways to Prepare for a Career Working with Animals

Ready to prepare for your career as a zookeeper or aquarist? Here’s what you can do to give yourself a head start.

1. Expand Your Knowledge of Zoos and Aquariums

Before you decide to pursue a career working with animals, take advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as you can about this career while you have summer breaks, spring breaks, and other chances to visit zoos, find internships, and more.

READ MORE: So You Want to Be a Zookeeper?

With an AZA Membership, you can visit more than 6,000 of AZA-member zoos and aquariums around the world and receive discounted admission, access to grants for traveling and research related to animal conservation only available to members, access to the AZA job board featuring open positions at zoos around the world, AZA’s Connect Magazine, and more.


2. Take Advantage of Zoo and Aquarium Internships and Volunteer Opportunities

From San Diego to Sarasota, there are numerous zoo or aquarium internships available. If you’re interested in gaining more experience to prepare for a career working with animals, check out these resources for more information on available internships and volunteer opportunities:

3. Pursue a Degree in Zoo Animal Management or Animal-Related Sciences

Most animal care positions for any zoo or aquarium require a degree from a 4-year college or university in zoology, biology, animal behavior, or another related field, in addition to a minimum of 1-year of experience working hands-on with animals alongside an experienced animal care specialist.


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