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These Jobs are for the Birds

November 24th, 2003, 08:15 AM
. . . and for dogs, elephants and other critters too, as people find work tending to animals

By Jessica DuLong

'I'm getting goose bumps," says Hans-Ludwig Suppmeier, halting midsentence.

Suppmeier was recounting the last day of his four years traveling with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He'd packed his gear and said his farewells, but stopped to visit the elephants one last time.

As he walked down the row of stalls, reaching his hand out to touch the head of each of 15 elephants, an earsplitting clamor erupted. "They were screaming like hell and moving like this," says Suppmeier, in his German-accented English, rocking side to side in his metal folding chair to demonstrate the elephants swaying in their pens. "I don't want to say they knew specifically I was leaving, but they knew something. And I wasn't even the trainer. I was only the assistant." Recalling that day still rattles Suppmeier, but he resists attributing to animals too much human thought.

George Kollias, on the other hand, has no qualms affirming the adage that an elephant never forgets. Of all the animals he treats at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park in Syracuse, Kollias is particularly cautious around elephants. His concern is not just mishap but vendetta. "They seem to realize that if a vet is around, something is going to happen," says the director of the wildlife health program at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Kollias says he's heard stories of vengeance where elephants hurt people who previously harmed them. But he's certain elephants remember good deeds, too: "I'm convinced ones that have been really sick, that we've really helped, remember us. When they see us later, they come right up to us."

That's more than you can say about a lot of people, which may account for the growing popularity of jobs that work with animals. From the theatrics of circus performance to the mundane task of cage cleaning, tens of thousands of people hold jobs in critter care. The most common job is veterinarian, with an estimated 59,000 people working as veterinarians in 2000, compared with 40,000 in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. An estimated 145,000 people worked in other animal care and service jobs in 2000, most of them in boarding kennels, animal shelters, stables, grooming shops, animal hospitals and vet offices. And those numbers are likely to climb, says the bureau, which projects that animal-care jobs will grow much faster than average during this decade.

While some professions, like veterinarian, require years of schooling, others, like animal control officer, can be learned on the job. The day-to-day routines of these workers are as varied as the animals in their care. Yet from pet counselor to pet taxi driver, what these workers have in common is not only a love of animals, but an ability to understand them.

Behind the growth is a national rise in household pet ownership that has attracted big players like the Petco chain of stores. And because a large number of pet owners are baby boomers with lots of money to spend on grooming, boarding, training and veterinary services, job opportunities in these areas are expected to increase. These pet owners are more aware of the availability of advanced pet care and more likely to take advantage of nontraditional veterinary services such as preventive dental care.

But vets aren't the only ones who've turned their love of animals into a business opportunity. A pet counselor since 1978, Kay Cox has turned her talent for understanding animals' motivations and behaviors into a revenue-generating venture. Based in Chandler, Ariz., Cox works with all kinds of animals - from tarantulas and snakes to dogs and cats - for clients all over the country. Whether in a phone session or on a house call, Cox's first task is always the same: to understand both the pet's troublesome behavior and the owner's attitude toward it. The human attitude makes all the difference, she says. A situation where an owner says, "If this animal doesn't shape up, I'm gassing it," is much less dangerous than if a pet owner becomes afraid of the animal, Cox explains.

A good way to determine who's in charge is the "hand in the dog's food bowl test," Cox said. "If you can put your hand in the dog's food bowl while the dog's eating, the dog completely trusts you and knows you're the leader. If the dog starts growling viciously, it thinks it is in charge of the household." Establishing oneself as a "gentle, understanding and kind but firm leader" is crucial to successful pet-owner relationships, says Cox, who provides easy, step-by-step instructions to establish or re-establish who's in charge and correct difficult behavior.

Cox also serves as an expert witness, interpreting events from an animal perspective. While most disputes involve dog bites, Cox once advised on a case involving a reindeer mauled by a wolf. She proposed that the animals were acting out a conflict between their owners, who were embroiled in a neighbor feud. "Animals take on our weaknesses," Cox said. "It's a pack thing." After the case was settled, she explains, the neighbors worked out their differences, and she helped the reindeer and wolf become friends.

Steve Appelbaum has built a career out of promoting positive interactions between people and their pets - in his case dogs. A trainer for more than 23 years, Appelbaum's business is two- fold. First, he manages a national network of dog trainers through the Los Angeles-based Animal Behavior and Training Associates, the largest independent dog training company in the nation. Secondly, he trains "the next generation of trainers" through the Animal Behavior College, certifying students all over the United States and Canada.

Setting professional standards for an occupation with no formal licensing has been one of Appelbaum's goals. Equally importantly, he sees his work as lifesaving for dogs. "The single largest treatable cause of death in dogs in this country is untreated behavior problems," he says, citing the fact that millions are euthanized each year after ending up in shelters.

Mike Pastore is one of the people who collect the dogs, and other animals, that end up in shelters. As director of field operations for New York City Animal Care and Control, Pastore supervises the 15 staffers responsible for picking up and taking in the unwanted or unidentified homeless animals in a city of 8 million people. "I do a lot of quarterbacking" throughout the day, he says, whether it's coordinating with other city agencies, dishing out assignments, arranging for special equipment or assisting out in the field.

In his 10 years with the agency, Pastore has seen a wide variety of animals - cobras, iguanas, goats, sheep, pigs and monkeys among them - in all manner of strange situations. Last month, he helped relocate a 400-pound orange and white tiger living in a Harlem apartment to an Ohio sanctuary. "We already have a problem with overpopulation of dogs and cats," he cautions.

The job also has some unpleasant moments. Pastore works closely with police, collecting the animals of suspects being arrested and sometimes murder victims. "I've had to walk around corpses to get to animals," he says. He's also had to remove dogs with bullet wounds, transporting them to the shelter to be put to sleep humanely.

Larry Reilly also makes a living transporting animals, though in most cases the circumstances are much less dire. Manhattan-based Pet Taxi is exactly what it sounds like: a taxi service for pets traveling with or without their owners. Inspiration struck Reilly while he was living in the East Village with a German shepherd but without a car. "You could stand on the corner for 45 minutes and never get a cab," Reilly said. So in 1995, he painted a van to look like an old Checker cab, and business has been booming ever since. In addition to the Petney shuttle, which transports pets to the Hamptons in the summer months, Reilly recently launched PetJet, an animal shipping service that coordinates shots, blood tests, paperwork and quarantining that meet the requirements for national and international moves.

In addition to a good driving record, all Pet Taxi drivers must own, or have owned, an animal, so they truly understand what a pet means to its owner. "It's not like delivering a package. People treat their pets like children," Reilly said, adding that his four drivers all have good people skills, which help them serve as a resource to pet owners. "Because people talk when they get in the cars, we know everything about the pet industry in Manhattan and beyond." Reilly declined to reveal his drivers' salaries, but says they make a living and support their families through their salaries and tips.

While 70 percent of the animals Pet Taxi transports are dogs, others include cats, rabbits, pigs, lizards, guinea pigs and snakes. For a bit more than the cost of a regular cab, customers take their pets to and from the groomer, the kennel, the airport, the vet's office and other stops. Drivers learn to deal with the likely occupational hazards, especially the messes made by a sick or incontinent animal. But enforcing a quick preride dog-walk rule helps keep incidents down.

Handling "nature's call" is inevitably a big part of any job working with animals. As a veterinary technician at Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital in Garden City Park, Erika Prior does everything from giving pills, inserting IVs and drawing blood to cleaning cages. "You get nasty ones sometimes," Prior said. "Ones that are extremely sick, vomiting and diarrhea. You have to clean the cages." Sometimes when bathing older dogs she discovers they have maggots, or sick kittens come in with flea larvae all over their eyes. At least once each year she contracts ringworm from one of the animals in her care. Despite all this she says she loves her job. "It's so rewarding when you have a sick animal that you nurse back to health."

Of all careers working with animals, veterinary technician job openings are increasing the fastest. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 39 percent increase in the number of vet tech jobs from 2000-2010, compared with an average projected growth rate of 15 percent for all jobs.

If vet tech jobs are the easiest to find, circus animal-trainer jobs are among the hardest. At Big Apple Circus, the ringmaster hires only the most experienced, seasoned trainers. Raised in a circus family, Suppmeier has spent his whole life traveling with circuses worldwide. With years of animal training under his belt, he was a clear pick for a job with Big Apple training four 2-year- old camels (Andy, Spike, Lily and Chica), and a 4-year-old llama named Shek. Of all the animals he's worked with - zebras, giraffes, horses and rhinos among them - he says the most difficult to train was the rhino: "It has a short attention span. It's short-sighted. And the defense of the rhino is attack."

What Suppmeier loves is his job's unpredictability. "This is live entertainment. We're performing every day, but it can't be the same show every day." The hardest part, he explains, is the commitment to the animals. "You can't take a day off." But his is a labor of love. "Every time I go out to the store, I come back and check on them."

Pet Projects

The number of jobs in fields tied to animal care is projected to rise faster by 2010 than the average 15 percent gain for all occupations.

Occupation Number Employed Projected Increase, Median Annual

in 2000 2000-2010* Earnings in 2000

Veterinarian 59,000 32% $60,910

Veterinarian Technicians 49,000 39% $21,640

Animal Trainers 15,000 18% $21,930

Non-farm animal caretakers 131,000 22% $15,960

Animal Control Workers 9,000 13% $23,000

*Compared with 15% average increase for all jobs

SOURCE: U.S. Burea of Labor Statistics