One of the most common questions I have seen regarding exotic animal training is, “How much does it pay?” In looking for answers on the internet, I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw one person say that exotic animal trainers are paid $56 per hour. As if that’s typical!
Science Buddies reports that the median salary of an animal trainer is $27,270. Presumably, this is for all animal trainers – domestic and exotic, entry-level and experienced. As someone who has succeeded at entering the exotic animal field, I have looked through a lot of job postings, primarily in the zoo and aquarium field. Based on my surveying, I would say that the average starting salary for an entry-level exotic animal trainer is around $10 per hour. Trainers with a few years of experience may make up to $20-25 per hour at some facilities, but most would probably pay lower than that.
There is a lot of variety in salary. Facilities that are better known and respected tend to pay higher salaries than lesser known places. Facilities in big cities tend to pay better than facilities in small communities, where cost of living is lower. Facilities that have unions tend to pay better as well (though that is somewhat counterbalanced by the cost of union dues). Even so, there are exceptions to the rules. I encountered a well-known facility in a large city with an extremely high cost of living that paid a lower salary than a small facility in a small city with a very low cost of living. I know of a facility in a major metropolitan area that pays minimum wage to their starting trainers. I also know of supervisors and even curators who work second jobs in order to pay the bills. Granted, these people aren’t living the simplest, cheapest life, but they certainly aren’t living an extravagant life, either.
So where did the $56 per hour answer come from? It probably came from the website for the Hollywood Animals’ Exotic Animal Training School. This website reports that animal trainers for movies make $56 per hour – for overtime. Regular pay is $300 for an 8 hour day, which averages to a little under $40 per hour. While that may sound very good, it does not report if this wage is a starting, average, or top-level salary. Most likely, it is one of the latter two. Hollywood Animals also reports that movie animal trainers are paid only when studios have a need. That means, as a movie animal trainer, you may be getting well paid for several days (or weeks or months) while you are working on set, and then you may go several days (weeks/months) working without getting paid a cent. You will always have to work because the animals always need to be cared for and fed, and their training must be up to date so they will be ready when paying work calls. In the end, even with a high hourly wage, the yearly salary of movie animal trainer may may be lower than that of a trainer in a zoo.
If you want to be an exotic animal trainer, expect to hold a second (or even third job). When I landed my first job in the field, it was a part-time (32 hours per week) position. I held a second job as a tutor and I arranged with my landlady/roommate to do extra chores around the house in exchange for rent reduction. My second job was full-time and with a higher salary, but I still opted to get a second job to help with the bills. My coworkers and friends have similar stories.
The low salary in the field of animal training is just one of many sacrifices that is required from those who are drawn to this career. If that’s a sacrifice you don’t think you can make, there’s no shame in that. Animal training is a profession that’s not right for everyone. But if you can accept the low pay and the uncertainty that comes with it, and still not be dissuaded from this path, then maybe – just maybe ;) – you’ve got the right career for you.
Do you have questions? Ask in the comments!
AZA job listings, Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Science Buddies, Science Careers: Animal Trainer, Science Buddies
Hollywood Animals, Frequently Asked Questions, Hollywood Animals’ Exotic Animal Training School