Animal Attraction? Consider Zoology or Wildlife Biology

by Shawna Sykes

January 9, 2020

Oregon is known for its scenic outdoor recreation areas teeming with diverse wildlife, from the rocky Pacific Shores providing habitat for the western snowy plover to the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area in Northeast Oregon where visitors may get a glimpse of a yellow-bellied marmot. Who might you find out in Oregon’s wilderness studying the fish, birds, and animals? Wildlife biologists.

Wildlife biologists and zoologists study animals, both within facilities and in the wild. They determine origin and examine behavior, diseases, genetics, and life processes of animals. Some may specialize in wildlife research and management, collecting data to determine environmental impacts of land and water use on habitats. Others may care for animals in zoos, aquariums, or rehabilitation facilities, helping to ensure the best possible care of the animals.

The Bees Knees

Close to 900 people are employed as zoologists or wildlife biologists in Oregon. About 28 percent work within the Northwest Oregon area, just under one-quarter work within the Portland Metro area, and the balance are spread across the state. Wages for zoologists and wildlife biologists start at about $25 per hour and range up to more than $47 per hour for those with more education and experience, with a 2019 average annual pay of $74,712 statewide. This is about 41 percent above the 2018 average annual wage of $53,053 across all industries statewide.

A Little Bird Told Me

More than eight out of 10 Oregon jobs in zoology and wildlife biology are for government entities, with 41 percent employed in state government, 31 percent in federal government, and 9 percent in local government. Another 11 percent of jobs are in the professional, scientific, and technical services sector, and the balance are working in the other services sector.

According to Vanessa Blackstone, Wildlife Biologist for the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, “I try to help balance the needs of native wildlife with the needs of visitors to our public parks and recreation areas.” There is no typical day for Vanessa. “I spend some days in the office responding to email, writing reports, doing blog posts, and using geospatial software. Other days, I survey wildlife in the field or help develop habitat conservation plans to protect threatened or endangered species like the snowy plover. We count amphibian eggs in ponds, do bird counts during migration, fish surveys, and much more.”

Learning about the Birds and the Bees

Most wildlife biologists and zoologists have at least a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree makes you more competitive in the labor market. Charlee Jackson, Aviculturist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. Through internships, volunteer work, and seasonal summer work, she persevered and landed her current position overseeing the Sea Bird Aviary at the aquarium. It’s a great job for someone like Charlee who grew up in Eugene visiting the Oregon Coast on vacations and wanting to learn more about the ocean and work with animals.

Charlee’s day is filled with a myriad of tasks and responsibilities. With tasks ranging from preparing food and feeding the birds, animal care, taking detailed notes and keeping electronic records on the animals, exhibit maintenance (which also includes diving into the saltwater pools to vacuum and clean exhibit windows), creating enrichment activities and changes to the habitat to ensure a stimulating environment for the animals to educating the visitors about sea birds through presentations, it’s a very demanding job. One of her favorite activities is working one-on-one with the facility’s special ambassador animals which visitors interact with on the aquarium’s behind-the-scene tours. “It’s fun to build relationships with individual animals, get to know their personalities and share that insight with our visitors.”

Science, Math, and Communications Skills Are Important

The most important skills for wildlife biologists and zoologists include:

According to Charlee, a passion for animals is essential when seeking a job in this field. “You need to constantly be learning about how to provide the best care possible for the animals through continuing education and peers at other facilities. Be flexible. Yes, there is a daily routine but you have to adjust to the immediate needs of the animals. Sometimes it is hard, tedious work and can be very demanding. You have to be willing to work long hours, especially during the peak summer season, and be on call for after-hours emergencies. You are responsible for maintaining the best animal welfare so if animals experience injuries, sickness, or problems due to aging, you sometimes have to make hard decisions to ensure their best quality of life. Finally, you must have people skills, be able to make presentations to the public, be friendly, and customer-service oriented. These things are important in any tourism-related job.”

A Wild Goose Chase?

Zoology and wildlife biology can be a competitive field to find employment in, but there are some things job seekers can do to help themselves be more successful once they’ve completed their formal education. Vanessa Blackstone recommends getting involved in your local Wildlife Society chapter. “This is a national organization with local chapters. They typically have activities geared toward individuals who are early in their career. It’s a great way to learn more about what’s happening in the state and network with other wildlife biologists.”

Charlee Jackson recommends looking for internships or volunteer opportunities for organizations or wildlife facilities in your area. “Humane societies, wildlife rehabilitation centers, aquariums, or other facilities are great places to volunteer because they always have a need.”

Jobs for zoologists and wildlife biologists are projected to grow by about 9.5 percent between 2017 and 2027, with about 86 job openings statewide annually. For more information, check out the detailed occupational profile on our website.

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