Should I 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 exhibit strong decision making skills, carry out independent thinking, observation, and record keeping. Proficiency in Microsoft software is generally expected. Zookeepers also manage animals and perform physical labor. PayScale.com reported that in January 2016, that zookeepers earned a median salary of $29,897.
Steps to Becoming a Zookeeper
Zookeeper jobs require some college education plus experience.
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 zookeeping. Courses in animal training, which are not offered through most traditional bachelor degree programs, may be available in an associate's program. Some associate's degrees are guaranteed to transfer to zoo-related bachelor's degree programs.
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 zookeeping. 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 Zookeeping 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 interns work hard, understand how the zoo is run, and are familiar with the zoo animals.
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.
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.
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. Gaining experience through volunteer work or an internship is really important to landing a job in this field.