There are many different ways to have a career working with animals. One such way? Becoming a zookeeper! Keeping wild animals in zoos has a long and controversial history (and the dehumanizing and incredibly racist trend of keeping people in zoos around the turn of the 20th century is also not a great look). But nowadays, zoos can be a place for research, conservation, education, and more. There are many different jobs at a zoo, like finance manager, operations director, curator of exhibits, public relations, veterinarian/veterinary technician, development director, special events coordinator, and more. But the most well-known position and the person that the public probably interacts with the most is zookeeper!
What Do Zookeepers Do?
The nice thing about the Internet is that there is a little corner where zookeepers from all over the world share their experiences and photos working in many different settings with many different animals. One such person is Rick Schwartz, who goes by the moniker ‘ZookeeperRick’ online, and wrote about what a zookeeper is back in mid-2018. In particular, he wrote that:
Zookeepers are caretakers. Zookeepers are housekeeping. Zookeepers are chefs. Zookeepers are educators. Zookeepers are construction workers. Zookeepers are gardeners. Zookeepers are nurses. Zookeepers are advocates for conservation. Zookeepers are scientists. Zookeepers are behaviorists. Zookeepers are parents to animals in need of a mom or dad. Zookeepers are the voice for those who don’t speak our language. Zookeepers are friends to other species.
In other words, being a zookeeper can mean a whole lot of things and can involve tasks like diet preparation, cleaning, general maintenance, record keeping about health, reproduction, and behavior, educating the public, creating appropriate enrichment items, training, and keeping an eye on how the animals seem to be feeling. A workday for a zookeeper can look so differently based on a variety of factors, like what animals they’re working with. Even the same person working with the same animals won’t have the same day twice.
Working as a zookeeper means being a skilled in animal behavior and care. This can mean they know what needs different species have, from exhibit space to enrichment to nutrition. It also means keeping exhibits clean, interesting, and safe for the animals. Being a zookeeper also means understanding of animal behavior and health while also keeping an eye on how the animals in their care are feeling. The health of the animals in a zoo are important and zookeepers are a vital part of that; as the folks who work with the animals the most, zookeepers are the frontlines in seeing how animals are feeling.
Another part of being a zookeeper also means working on training and enrichment for the animals. To help make vet visits easier and less stressful for the vet team and for the animals, zookeepers often train some animals to voluntarily participate in medical producers. Clicker training and positive reinforcement are how animals are trained, allowing for a positive association with training.
It can be tempting to see zookeeping as a way to interact with both domestic and wild animals and while there is a level of interaction that most people do not get, any sort of close contact between animals and keepers is limited and strictly managed. That level of separation is for the safety of the people and animals, as habituated wild animals may be more accustomed to people but could still cause serious injury or death if stressed.
Working as a zookeeper also means constant learning and adhering to state, federal, and international animal welfare guidelines. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, for example, requires that all AZA accredited institutions to have copies of the completed animal care manuals on site and available for animal keepers. Other related organizations that many zoos are associated with (in some form) include the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. All of these organizations are dedicated to the welfare of wild animals, both in zoos and in the wild, making them important resources and guides for zookeepers.
Zookeeping requires a deep appreciation and love for animals, as it can be a difficult and oft underpaying position. You don’t get the traditional work schedule, meaning you might be regularly working weekends, holidays, or called in at the last moment. After all, many of the animals kept in zoos need daily care. The salary isn’t particularly high for this career either, particularly given the need for education and training, and according to GlassDoor.com the average zookeeper in the United States makes about $33,000 a year.
Additionally, working at a zoo (be it as a keeper or in a different position) regularly involves tasks that aren’t particularly fun or are downright weird, like physically demanding labor, dealing with fecal matter and other unpleasant bodily fluids, working outside no matter the weather, helping animals reproduce, and so much more. Animals, both domestic and wild, can also be difficult to work with sometimes. Escapes from enclosures can happen; injuries and fatalities of zookeepers and other workers have also been known to happen with wild animals; work can be emotionally taxing at times too.
Diets are also kept as close to as what wild animals would naturally eat as possible, meaning zoo workers often have to handle things frozen mice or rabbits. Keeping an eye on visitors is also vital, as guests may give the animals something that is toxic or dangerous for certain animals or drop something into an enclosure that is not safe for animals. Some zoo animals have, unfortunately, ingested items like plastic toys or coins that were tossed in their exhibits and these items have resulted in intestinal upset, metal toxicity, or other issues.
All of that is to say that while there are so many wonderful things about being a zookeeper, you shouldn’t go into the field with rose-tinted glasses. Knowing the good, the bad, and the ugly can mean you have a better understanding of what needs to be done.
Education, Qualifications, and Skills
Unfortunately, getting a job as a zookeeper can be a bit difficult, as there are more people interested in the field than there are positions available. And that gets even more challenging as your field of interest narrows. One zookeeper on TikTok named Melanie, who goes by ‘ZookeeperMel‘, suggests not limiting yourself to a certain field, especially if you’re just starting out. Important skills for the job can include good communication skills, an eye for details, customer service, critical thinking and problem solving, and a certain sense of flexibility.
As far as education goes, a college degree in a related field is important. It may not be an absolute requirement for some jobs but biology, zoology, wildlife management, animal husbandry, forestry, ecology, marine biology, and veterinary medicine are just some fields of study related to zookeeping. There are several universities in the Pacific Northwest that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, including
- BS in Zoology from Oregon State University [Online]
- Graduate Certificate in Wildlife Management from Oregon State University
- BS in Marine Biology from the University of Washington
- BS in Environmental Science from Western Washington University
- Pre-Veterinary Medicine Program from Portland State University
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Washington State University
Studying and getting a degree is important in getting a zookeeping job but so is hands-on experience. Internships/externships, volunteering, and similar jobs will help prepare you for the work that a zookeeper does. Entry-level positions at zoos, like maintenance technician, ticket sales, or gift shop attendant, may not be what you want but these positions can help get your foot in the door at a park. Plus, getting work experience in a lot of different areas can also give you important skills, like time management, customer service, and problem-solving, that can transfer to any job you take later in life.
Becoming a zookeeper involves time, dedication, and a deep love for all sorts of animals. It involves a lot of hard work, both academically and in the real world, and there are a lot of tasks that aren’t particularly great. But it’s also incredibly rewarding and you often end up forming wonderful bonds with the animals you’re caring for. For those interested in the field, there are resources, like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the American Association of Zoo Keepers, that can help provide more information.
Zookeeping is just one of the many ways to work with animals and in the world of wildlife conservation and a job that may not be for everyone. Hopefully, this post gives you a better understanding of the field!