Many zookeepers specialize in a specific area, such as working with birds, big cats, elephants, or aquatic species. They might also assist with reproductive procedures and raise young animals to propagate endangered species kept in their zoo.
Zookeepers are animal professionals who are responsible for maintaining the health of their charges as well as ensuring proper maintenance of their habitat. Zookeepers play a role in educational programs offered to the public in many zoos and parks.
Education: A zookeeper typically has a degree in an animal-related field such as animal science, biology, or zoology. Physical fitness: This job requires kneeling, climbing, crawling, and even running.
Employment of animal care workers in general is expected to increase by 22% from 2016 through 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and this is much faster than the average for all occupations. Even though the salary isn't particularly high for this position, it's fairly difficult to land a job as a zookeeper nonetheless.
This career might not show such significant growth compared to other job options in the animal industry. Some zookeepers advance to managerial roles within the zoo, or they eventually go on to pursue careers in veterinary medicine.
They can be bitten, scratched, kicked, or otherwise harmed by frightened or wild animals that aren't accustomed to human contact. Zookeepers must be prepared to work evenings, weekends, and holidays because zoo animals need care 24/7.
Another noted educational option is the Exotic Animal Training Management program at Moor park College in California. This associate degree program is 22 months, and students gain hands-on experience working in a zoo setting while also attending classes.
They prepare the diets, clean and maintain the exhibits and holding areas, and monitor the behavior of animals that range from the exotic and endangered to the more common and domesticated. Zookeepers interact with visitors and conduct formal and informal educational presentations, they sometimes assist in research studies, and depending upon the species, may also train animals.
Five hundred years later, the Chinese emperor Wen Wang founded a zoo that covered about 1,500 acres. Rulers seeking to display their wealth and power established small zoos in northern Africa, India, and China.
By the end of the 1400s, European explorers returned from the New World with strange animals, and interest in zoos renewed. Some merely consisted of small collections of bears or tigers kept in dismal cages or pits.
However, this care probably consisted only of giving the animals food and water and cleaning their cages. Today’s zoos are still in the entertainment field, but they have assumed three additional roles: conservation, education, and research.
They maintain exhibits (for example, by planting grass or putting in new bars) and modify them to enhance the visitors’ experience. They also provide enrichment devices for the animals, such as ropes for monkeys to swing on or scratching areas for big cats.
They regulate environmental factors by monitoring temperature and humidity or water-quality controls and maintaining an inventory of supplies and equipment. They must observe and understand all types of animal behaviors, including courtship, mating, feeding, aggression, socialite, sleeping, moving, and even urination and defecation.
They must maintain careful records of these observations in a logbook and file daily written or computerized reports. In addition, they assist the veterinarian in providing treatment to sick animals and may be called upon to feed and help raise infants.
When an animal is transferred to another institution, a keeper may accompany it to aid in its adjustment to its new home. The professional zookeeper works closely with zoo staff on research, conservation, and animal reproduction.
Many keepers conduct research projects, presenting their findings in papers or professional journals or at workshops or conferences. Some keepers participate in regional or national conservation plans or conduct field research in the United States and abroad.
Depending on the species, keepers may train animals to shift or to move in a certain way to facilitate routine husbandry or veterinary care. Elephant keepers, for example, train their charges to respond to commands to lift their feet so that they may provide proper foot care, including foot pad and toenail trims.
Zookeepers must be able to interact with zoo visitors and answer questions in a friendly, professional manner. Keepers must carefully monitor activity around the animals to discourage visitors from teasing or harming them.
They must be able to remove harmful objects that are sometimes thrown into an exhibit and tactfully explain the “no feeding” policy to zoo visitors. About 85 percent of the job involves custodial and maintenance tasks, which can be physically demanding and dirty.
Because animals require care every day, keepers must work weekends and holidays. If you are planning a career in zoo keeping, take as many science classes while in high school as possible.
Courses in English and speech will help you to develop vocabulary and hone public speaking skills. Although practical experience may sometimes be substituted for formal education, most entry-level positions require a four-year college degree.
They must be able to perform detailed behavioral observations, record keeping, nutrition studies, and health care. Their increased responsibilities make their role an essential one in maintaining a healthy animal collection.
Electives are just as important, particularly writing, public speaking, computer science, education, and even foreign languages. Those seeking advancement to curatorial, research, or conservation positions may need a master’s degree.
Smaller zoos may hire keeper trainees, who receive on-the- job training to learn the responsibilities of the zookeeper. Several major zoos offer formal keeper training courses, as well as on-the-job training programs, to students who are studying areas related to animal science and care; contact the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) for further information about which schools and animal facilities are involved in internship programs.
Many institutions offer unpaid internships for high school and college students interested in investigating a career in animal care. Union membership is more common at publicly operated zoos, but it is on the rise in privately run institutions as well.
Keepers need excellent interpersonal skills to work together and to interact with visitors and volunteers. A calm, stable nature, maturity, good judgment, and the ability to adhere to established animal handling and/or safety procedures is essential.
“The keepers that stand out develop a sixth sense that’s hard to describe and difficult to learn,” said Lucy Emerson, a zookeeper at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro. Zookeepers have to be able to handle the emotional impact when animals with whom they have built a relationship go to another institution or die.
They cannot be squeamish about handling body wastes or live food items or dealing with sick animals. High school students can explore the field of animal care in several ways.
Most zoos have Websites containing information about the institution and its programs and career opportunities, as well as about the industry in general. Many institutions offer classes about animals and conservation or educational programs, such as Keeper Encounters, where students can learn firsthand what a zookeeper’s job is like.
Opportunities vary between institutions and run the gamut from cleaning enclosures to preparing food to handling domesticated animals to conducting tours or giving educational presentations. Experience with animals is invaluable when seeking a job and provides opportunities to learn about the realities of work in this field.
Attending local workshops or national conferences offers an opportunity to network and gather information for charting a career path. Despite the low pay and challenging working conditions, competition for jobs at zoos is intense.
Entry-level applicants may find it easier to start out in small zoos in smaller communities, where the pay is usually low, and then move on once they have gained some experience. Part-time work, summer jobs, or volunteering at a zoo increases an applicant’s chances of getting full-time employment.
An entry-level position, even if it does not involve working directly with animals, is a means of making contacts and learning about an institution’s hiring practices. “Start out working at guest services or driving the safari van,” Jane Ballantine, director of public affairs for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), advises.
Job advancement in zoos is possible, but the career path is more limited than in some other professions requiring a college degree. The possibility for advancement varies according to a zoo’s size and operating policies and an employee’s qualifications.
Continuing professional education is a must to keep current on progress in husbandry, veterinary care, and technology, and in order to advance. The curator is responsible for managing a specific department or section within the zoo, either defined by taxonomy, such as mammals, birds, or reptiles, or by habitat or biogeography, such as the Forest Edge or African Savannah.
Many zookeepers eschew advancement and prefer to remain in work where they have the most direct interaction with and immediate impact on the lives of animals. Most people who choose a career as a zookeeper do not do so for the money, but because they feel compassion for and enjoy being around animals.
Generally, the highest salaries tend to be in metropolitan areas and are relative to the applicant’s education and responsibilities. The zookeeper’s salary can range from slightly above minimum wage to more than $40,000 a year, depending on the keeper’s background, grade, and tenure and the zoo’s location.
Cleaning, feeding, and providing general care to the animals are a necessity seven days a week, sometimes outdoors and in adverse weather conditions. A large portion of the job involves routine chores for animals that will not express appreciation for the keeper’s efforts.
Some work may be physically demanding and involve lifting heavy supplies such as bales of hay. The zookeeper may be exposed to bites, kicks, diseases, and possible fatal injury from the animals he or she attends.
Even though an animal may have been held in captivity for years or even since birth, it can be frightened, become stressed because of illness, or otherwise revert to its wild behavior. The tasks involved require agility and endurance, whether they consist of cleaning quarters, preparing food, or handling animals.
A chief advantage is the personal gratification of successfully maintaining wild animals, especially rare or endangered species. A healthy, well-adjusted animal collection provides a keeper with a deep sense of satisfaction.
The opening in 1998 of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Long Beach Aquarium created a ripple effect throughout the entire industry as experienced personnel migrated to Florida and California, respectively, and jobs for new hires and promotions opened up at dozens of institutions. The demand will increase for well-educated personnel who will be responsible for much more than simply feeding the animals and cleaning their enclosures.
Pursuing a job in this area is well worth the effort for those who are dedicated to providing care for rapidly diminishing animal species and educating the public about the fate of endangered animals and the need to preserve their natural habitats.