Animal trainers at zoos and wildlife centers are taking on new roles. In addition to training a seal to balance a ball on its nose, coax a dolphin to jump through a hoop, or have a capuchin monkey perform on cue, animal trainers are working closely with wildlife veterinarians to identify unusual behaviors. If an animal is sick, a veterinarian will sometimes call on the animal trainers to assist with calming the animal.
Jessica and David Peranteau, senior supervisors of animal training at Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari, train a variety of animals from small birds and reptiles to kinkajous, dolphins, and sea lions. When an animal is out of sorts, the Peranteaus are called in to get the animals to cooperate — kind of like a mom sitting with her children in the pediatrician's office.
“The animals we train know us,” says Dave. “They let us take blood samples. Most animals have to be anesthetized or restrained in order to take blood samples. The dolphins we work with let us use gastric tubes to take stomach fluids. We can also get them to let us do voluntary ultrasounds on them.”
“The reason they do this is because they trust us,” says Jessica. “These animals know us, and we make a game out of these necessary tests. It's better for the animals not to restrain them. There is less stress involved for them and for us. Everything they do is voluntary.”
The Peranteaus use positive reinforcement on all of the animals they train. Developing a relationship based on trust is essential. “Animals cannot tell us when they are under the weather,” says Jessica. “The staff here really relies on us to let them know if we notice anything out of the norm. We can see signs or precursors before they get sick by observing their behavior. We spend a lot of time around the animals, so we know when something is off.”
Most people don't realize that animal trainers need to have excellent public speaking skills. According to Jessica Peranteau, “Animal trainers are the ambassadors of the animals they represent. We want the audience to have a good time. We also want them to come away with a good understanding about the animals. So, public speaking is a major part of this job.”
Dave says, “We do want our audience to know the animals. Through knowledge comes caring, and this work is all about caring. This is not a job; it's more of a lifestyle. Jess and I are lucky that we ended up working together. Many people in this business end up in close relationships since we spend so much time together doing something we truly enjoy. This is not a nine-to-five job. We are on call if an animal is pregnant or sick. The vet staff relies on us.”
“We helped hand raise a few baby monkeys that were brought to us,” says Jess. “We took turns bottle-feeding them every couple of hours throughout the night. Not all nights are like this, and many people outside of the animal world don't always understand the dedication that is needed for this job. It's just so cool to be around the animals. We are also lucky that we can work together as a couple.”
Jess got her bachelor's degree in behavioral psychology from Kent State University. Dave got his bachelor's in marine ecology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. In his senior year in college, Dave went to the Caribbean to study sharks. He also interned with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where he worked with dolphins and seals, doing outreach educational programs with visitors to the aquarium. He was then hired at Sea World in Ohio.
Jessica also applied and was hired at Sea World. “A lot of people don't realize that there is a Sea World in Ohio,” says Jess. (In 2001, the company sold the Ohio property to Six Flags.) As a child, she went to Sea World often with her family. “Every summer, my family and I went to the Cleveland Zoo, Columbus Zoo, or Sea World,” she says. “I was in high school when I went up to the trainers and asked them how I could pursue a career training animals. They suggested a background in animal sciences, animal behavior, and hands-on experience.”
“Nothing is as important as hands-on experience,” says Dave. “Many schools for animal training have internships. Volunteering at zoos, aquariums, and wildlife centers is essential. Some parks even have shadow programs where you can follow a trainer around for a day. It's a good way to tell if this is a job for you.”
Getting a job training exotic animals is possible. “We found a way,” says Dave. “It helps to volunteer — even if it means interning or volunteering at a shelter or veterinarian's office working with dogs and cats.”
Jess says that when applying for a job to train animals, you should be open to all situations. “You might not be able to train monkeys or killer whales. You might be able to train sea lions. The basics of all training principles are the same. Never close doors, because each experience is a learning one, and if you are working with one species, a good deal of what you learn will apply to another species.”
As with most jobs, salaries depend on experience and geographic location. Trainers of exotic animals with at least five years of experience can earn between $40,000 and $50,000.