How to Become a Zoo Curator: Career Guide

Find out how to become a zoo curator. Research the education requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in zoo curating.

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  • 0:02 Become a Zoo Curator?
  • 1:03 Career Requirements
  • 1:34 Steps to Become a Zoo Curator

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Should I Become a Zoo Curator?

Zoo curators oversee the care and display of animals at zoos and aquariums and manage the staff who care for them. The job can vary considerably depending on the size of the facility.

Larger zoos and aquariums may have several curators who specialize in animal groups or in other areas, like education, research or horticulture, along with a general curator who supervises them. Curators at larger institutions may spend substantial time acquiring and transferring animals, doing conservation fieldwork, lecturing, and attending conferences. At a small zoo, there may be only one curator who oversees all aspects of the care and exhibition of that institution's limited range of species. Some animals may be very challenging to work with, and this job can also entail dealing with ill or deceased animals.

Career Requirements

Median Salary (May 2015) $51,280 per year
Degree Level Bachelor's degree is essential; many positions require an advanced degree
Degree Fields Animal behavior, animal science, wildlife management, zoology, marine biology, or conservation biology
Experience Animal handling, entry-level work experience at a zoo, some supervisory experience is normally required; internships are often available
Key Skills Communication, organizational, management, administrative

Sources: Association of Zoos & Aquariums, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Steps to Become a Zoo Curator

Let's look at what steps you'll need to take if you want to become a zoo curator:

Step 1: Get a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor of science degree in an animal-related field is a basic requirement for curatorial work. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums recommends majoring in zoology, animal science, animal behavior, or wildlife management. Whichever scientific field they choose, you should be sure your coursework includes study of the management, health, reproduction, and behavior of animals. You might also consider taking some business-related electives to begin acquiring managerial and administrative skills, such as accounting or personnel management.

Success Tip:

Gain experience in animal handling as early as possible. Previous work with animals is a requirement for zoo curators. Zoos and aquariums have student internships and volunteer programs, although not all positions are directly related to animal care. Internships that relate to animal husbandry are ideal for providing exposure to exotic species. You could also gain relevant experience working with organizations devoted to wildlife or domestic animals, such as local animal shelters, veterinarian's office, park service, or wildlife rehabilitation center. Time on a farm, at horse stables, or in a 4-H club could be useful as well.

Step 2: Get a Graduate Degree

Until recently, a bachelor's degree was all the education expected of a zoo curator. As zoos and aquariums have become more focused on professionalism, however, advanced degrees have become preferred, if not required. Graduate programs in biology, zoology, animal behavior, or animal science are the most relevant choices. In a biology graduate program, for example, students can study such general topics as genetics, evolutionary biology, and ecology as well as more focused areas like animal physiology, vertebrate anatomy, or marine molecular biology. Both master's and PhD degrees in these fields are generally available.

Success Tip:

Join a professional organization. Professional memberships provide educational and networking opportunities and are often available at a discount to students. Both the American Association of Zookeepers and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums offer student memberships.

Step 3: Gain Experience Working at a Zoo

Since zoo curator jobs are not entry-level, you will need to work your way up through the zoo ranks. Some supervisory experience is normally a prerequisite as well. Many future curators gain key experience as zookeepers, the staff who are responsible for the day-to-day care of the animals. Other entry-level zoo positions, such as working in groundskeeping, administration, or tour operations, could also serve as good experience, especially for future curators of education, horticulture, or other non-animal areas.

To become a zoo curator, you need at least a bachelor's degree and past work experience at a zoo that will bring you to the advanced level of this position.

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