Become a Professional Zookeeper: Education Requirements and Career Info

Learn how to become a professional zookeeper. Research the job duties and the education requirements and find out how to start a career in zookeeping.

Should I Want Become a Zookeeper?

Zookeepers care for animals in settings such as zoos and aquariums. Common work duties include cleaning enclosures, feeding, observing and recording behavior, constructing enrichment items, training the animals, administering basic veterinary care, and educating zoo visitors. Some zookeepers work with more than one type of animal, while others specialize in a group like primates or carnivores. These professionals spend a lot of time with animals, and are sometimes at risk for bites, scrapes and scratches. In addition, they work irregular hours, which includes nights and weekends. The job is rewarding for someone who loves animals and wants to educate the public about them.

Zookeepers need a bachelor's degree in biology, zoology, zoo technology, or some field related to animal management. Another option is a specialized two-year zookeeper degree from a community college. An associates degree is easily transferable to certain bachelor's degree programs affiliated with the two-year programs. There are some master's degree programs in zoo management, but a bachelor's degree is all that is required for most zoo keeping jobs.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associates degree minimum; typically a bachelor's degree is needed
Degree Field Zoology, animal science, any life science
Experience Entry-level job experience may substitute for education, higher-level positions (e.g. lead keeper) may require one to five years zoo experience in addition to education; internships also available
Key Skills Strong decision making skills, independent thinking, observation, record keeping, and ability to manage animals and perform a certain amount physical labor, proficient in Microsoft software
Salary (2015) $29,639 per year (Median salary)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, University of Florida, Job postings by employers (July 2012), American Association of Zoo Keepers, Payscale.com

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's or Associate's Degree

The typical education required for zookeepers is a bachelor's degree in one of the life sciences, which includes biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and zoology. Depending on the program, students can choose elective courses to specialize in an area such as herpetology, aquatic biology or animal behavior. This specialization may determine what kind of job you're hired to do at a zoo.

A different track is to earn an associate's degree in zoo technology at a community college that is connected with a local zoo. These programs emphasize hands-on education, which is valuable when entering the field of zoo keeping. Courses in animal training, which are not offered through most traditional bachelor degree programs, may be available in an associates program. Some associates degrees are guaranteed to transfer to zoo-related bachelor's degree programs.

Success Tips:

  • Research courses offered in different biology programs. Each school will have courses in different specialties. A student interested in pursuing primate behavior should pick a school that offers courses in the subject, and has faculty that is active in researching the animals.
  • Volunteer or intern at a zoo or animal care facility. Experience in animal handling is important in the field of zoo keeping. If not enrolled in a program that offers courses in animal handling or training, you can get this experience by volunteering or interning at a local humane society, wildlife rehabilitation center or zoo. An internship might count for college credit.

Step 2: Get Zoo Keeping Experience

Knowledge and experience in animal handling is crucial. Aspiring zookeepers usually start out volunteering or participating in an unpaid internship. After a time, the volunteer or intern will gain more experience working with different animals and earn positive references from supervisors. This will help in acquiring a paid internship.

Paid internships are commonly available to those still in college and recent graduates, and they're sometimes a prerequisite needed before being hired at a zoo. Often, zoos looking for a new zookeeper will give first priority to those who have interned there. The zoos that do this know first-hand that the intern works hard, understands how the zoo is run, and is familiar with the zoo animals.

Success Tip:

  • Get involved early. The sooner you begin acquiring experience with animals the better. You should start when you're in high school or during college. The advantage of doing this type of work during college is that some zoos have internship programs developed specifically for college students. These programs support students in getting experience, college credit, and sometimes even a good paycheck.

Step 3: Earn a Higher Position

Once you find a job as a zookeeper, you can move up to the positions of lead keeper or curator. This takes time and experience. Senior-level jobs are more supervisory in nature and require more time in an office. Seniority also means a better work schedule, more responsibility, and an increase in pay. Many zookeepers just starting out are required to work evenings and weekends.

Success Tip:

  • Become an expert in a certain area. As zookeepers work with and learn more about particular animals, they can take part in research. This involves working with researchers both in the zoo and in the animal's natural habitat. Many senior-level zookeepers conduct conservation research on the animals.

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