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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Aquarist to zookeeper: Careers for animal-lovers

By Gwynn Scheltema
Special to the Toronto Sun

My job is never boring, and around me are the sounds and smells of the rainforest," says Jackie Craig, a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo. "I make good money, doing what I would happily do for free."

"I always wanted to work with dogs," says Sharon Wannamaker of Kit 'n Ka-poodle grooming salon. "I've been in the business for years, and I still love my job."

Students in the animal care worker (ACW) program at Georgian College come for a variety of reasons, explains instructor Stacey Alderwick. "Some witness animal cruelty and want to help prevent animal abuse. Others are concerned with urbanization's impact on wildlife. Some already work in the field and want to upgrade their skills."
"Pet grooming is all hands on," says Sharon Wannamaker, owner of Kit 'n Kapoodle grooming salon. Wannamaker teaches a six-month course on the field at her salon.


While going to university and becoming a veterinarian is certainly an option, there are other options available, directly from high school, through part-time continuing education courses, or full-time courses at the college level.

"Pet grooming training is all hands on," Wannemaker says. "I look for a student with a Grade 12 diploma, because that shows an ability to finish something.

"More importantly, I look for excitement about the field." Wannamaker teaches a six-month course on-site at the salon.

Non-medical ACW (or animal care aide) certificate programs teach animal handling, nutrition, protection and legislation. The courses are usually part-time and have a practical placement component.

"I volunteered at the zoo. The more I learned, the more I wanted to get involved," says ACW student Lenore Nadeau. "I was working full-time, and a part-time course seemed a good place to start."

"The ACW program at Georgian College is the only one of its kind in Canada," says Janet Arnett, manager at the Midland Campus. She explains that after completing a foundation component, students choose one of three specialties: shelter -- designed for work in shelters and kennels, and preventing animal cruelty; wildlife -- designed for work in parks, zoos and conservation agencies; and enforcement -- for work as bylaw officers capturing or restraining animals in an urban setting.

For those interested in a medical program, several colleges offer a two-year veterinary technician diploma program. This course prepares students for employment in clinics, hospitals and research facilities, or in the food industry and wildlife services. Applicants need a Grade 12 diploma, including some science credits.

Students study subjects such as animal behaviour, anatomy and physiology, genetics, and parasitology. Some programs have co-op components; others have access to animals in on-campus facilities. Upon graduation, students can go on to become Registered Veterinary Technicians (RVT).

What you need to succeed

"You need to be physically and emotionally strong," says zookeeper Jackie Craig. "It's hard when animals die or are moved away. You need compassion, but you can't treat the animals as pets and become attached."

"Experience with animals is really important," Craig stresses. "I volunteered or worked at clinics and pet shops all through high school, but you can work at horse barns, fish farms, shelters or smaller zoos, too."

The animal care industry is ideal for self-employment. "But you need drive and an entrepreneurial spirit," Wannamaker says.

Sheridan College suggests the ideal ACW is patient, attentive to details and dedicated.

Career prospects

Government statistics indicate good or sustained growth through 2007 for this industry, particularly in York Region. "That's because there are a lot of equestrian and other agricultural businesses in that area," Alderwick says. "I also see growth within Toronto and other urban centers. People are willing to spend money on their pets, and this market -- grooming, dog walkers, doggie day care -- will grow, much the same way that it has in Europe and the States in recent years."

"If you're good at what you do, you'll always find a position," Wannamaker says. "Once people find a groomer they like, they are loyal."

The Toronto Zoo employs more than 250 people, about half of them in the biology and conservation sector. More than half of those are in animal care.

"I'm looking forward to my new career," Lenore Nadeau says. "What better than to get paid to do what you love!"

Careers for animal lovers

Animal Care Workers


High school or part-time college courses:

  • Aquarist
  • Animal control officer
  • Animal shelter worker
  • Animal trainers
  • Breeders handling assistant
  • Conservation park attendant
  • Dog handler
  • Dog trainer
  • Grooming assistant
  • Horse hotwalker
  • Kennel attendant
  • Kennel keeper
  • Lab animal attendant
  • Pet sitter
  • Pet shop worker/owner
  • Public education worker
  • Receiving barn custodian
  • Veterinary clinic attendant
  • Zoo attendant

    With additional courses, and/or some medical training:

  • Animal health technologist
  • Animal care facility manager breeder
  • Certified master groomer
  • Circus attendant
  • Dog training school owner
  • Drooming instructor


    Veterinarian technician


    College diploma

  • Biomedical research assistant
  • Clinic manager
  • Diagnostic lab technician
  • Exotic animal practice assistant
  • Food animal inspector
  • Livestock health manager
  • Pharmaceutical sales
  • Public health officer
  • Shelter manager
  • Teacher
  • Veterinary technician
  • Bookeeper

    Ontario colleges offering animal care and/or veterinary technician programs:

    College Boreal, New Liskeard (

    Georgian College, Newmarket/Midland/Barrie (

    Northern College, Haileybury (

    Ridgetown College, Ridgetown (

    Seneca College, King City (

    St. Clair College, Windsor (

    Sheridan College, Oakville (

    St Lawrence College, Kingston (

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