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A baby panda
A baby panda gets a check up with a zoologist from the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, on November 5, 2003.
(Photo: Zoological Society of San Diego/Getty Images )

Zoology is the study of animals. It seeks to understand the ways in which animals are alike or different in their structures, bodily processes, and behaviors, and how animals interact with each other. It also includes the study of how humans and animals affect the lives of one another.

The science of zoology came about as people realized that knowledge of animals was beneficial to human lives. For example, by studying animal anatomy and physiology, physicians learn more about how the human body works. Interest in zoology also grew as people learned about human impact on the environment and saw the need to research and document the lives of creatures that share the Earth with us.

Zoologists concentrate on different research areas. Some zoologists study animal behavior in general (ethologists), while others focus on a specific group or species. For example, zoologists may specialize in the study of whales (cetologists), mammals (mammalogists), amphibians and reptiles (herpetologists), or other creatures.

Zoologists learn about animals by asking questions and then conducting experiments or making observations to find the answers. Zoologists may study animals in controlled settings such as laboratories or zoos, or they may observe animals in their natural habitats. The latter type of research is known as field study.

In addition to working with animals, however, zoologists spend much time on other tasks. For example, they must oversee financial records for their research projects and maintain strict budgets. When project data are collected, these researchers help organize the information and coordinate technical publications and professional presentations. Zoologists may also serve on state and federal committees related to their research.

There is a continual demand for qualified zoologists to teach. Animal biology is taught at nearly every school and grade level, although teaching at the university or college level usually requires a doctoral degree.

Studying zoology is good preparation for a number of other careers as well. Some of these careers, such as veterinarian, animal caretaker, or park ranger, involve interaction with animals. But a zoology degree can also lead to success in careers such as pharmacy, dentistry, or journalism.

To prepare for a career in zoology, students should focus on courses in biology, ecology, chemistry, and animal sciences. Coursework dealing with scientific writing, laboratory experiments, the use of computers, and the analysis of data is also helpful.

Young students who are interested in zoology can gain valuable experience by participating in volunteer or internship programs. Such programs are available through many zoological parks, veterinary hospitals, animal shelters, bird rehabilitation centers, ranches, and pet stores. By volunteering, students will gain practice in working with animals or studying animal behaviors. Volunteering time also shows that a student is serious about his or her commitment to animals.

Students can also join professional organizations that specialize in the study of animals. Students will be able to learn more about animals and careers through newsletters published by these organizations. And by attending workshops and conferences, a student might meet zoologists who could serve as contacts and provide more information on how to chart a path for a career in zoology.

Loran Wlodarski
Science Writer
SeaWorld, Orlando