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The Average Salary of an Exotic Animal Handler

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If the idea of working with exotic animals sounds appealing, a career as an exotic animal handler might be for you. Often, exotic animal handlers work in zoos, but they may also work at private exotic animal rescue organizations and in circuses, handling everything from tigers and lions to alligators and crocodiles. Before you start down this career path, it may be useful to know what you can expect to earn working as an exotic animal handler.

By the Numbers

Unfortunately, salary figures for exotic animal handlers are hard to come by. That’s partly because exotic animal handlers often go by other professional titles, such as zookeeper, exotic animal trainer and animal care specialist. But one thing is clear: you’re not going to get rich working as an exotic animal handler. A novice zookeeper may make as little as $20,000 a year, while someone who works in television and film training and handling exotic animals may make more than $60,000 a year.

Reasons for Fluctuations

Some of the traditional reasons for salary fluctuations, such as education, training and years of experience, are to blame. However, another big reason for the huge disparity in exotic animal handler salaries is that these professionals work in such a wide variety of settings, and different types of organizations tend to be able to pay differently for similar positions. For instance, a small nonprofit that rescues and houses wild cats may simply not have the kind of funds that a large, profitable zoo does, so it just can’t pay as much.

Other Compensation

For exotic animal handlers, the ability to work with exotic animals is compensation in itself. Fortunately, those who hold full-time positions typically also get other compensation, such as paid vacation and sick days, health insurance and even contributions toward retirement plans and tuition assistance. Such benefits can add significantly to a compensation package, making a low base salary more attractive.

Important Considerations

Caring for baby tigers, hand-feeding orphaned sloths and watching bears care for their young day in and day out may sound like dream. But animal handlers’ jobs often also include less glamorous duties like shoveling feces and restraining animals during veterinary procedures. Not only will you get down and dirty, but you may also be risking injury throughout the course of the job. You’ll likely never earn a six-figure salary doing a job that could leave you severely impaired. If you’re OK with all that, then this is a career for you.


Cynthia Gomez has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. She is currently an editor at a major publishing company, where she works on various trade journals. Gomez also spent many years working as a newspaper reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University.