How to Become an Animal Keeper: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Mar 09, 2020

Learn how to become an animal keeper. Research the education requirements, training information, and experience required for starting a career in animal care and husbandry.

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Should I Be an Animal Keeper?

Animal keepers care for animals in zoos, aquariums, and amusement parks. They may create meal plans for animals, clean animal enclosures, and report injuries or unusual behavior. They might also answer questions from the public and interact with students and classes on field trips. Some keepers work with broad groups of animals, such as birds, mammals, and reptiles, while others specialize in subgroups, such as primates or cats. Some job tasks, such as cleaning cages or grooming, can be unpleasant. There is also always the risk of being injured by a scared or aggressive animal. While demanding, the career generally offers meager earnings. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the average yearly salary for all non-farm animal caretakers was $25,890 as of May 2018. However, these professionals tend to have a strong passion for working with animals and there is typically great job satisfaction.

Degree Level Bachelor's degree typically needed for zookeeper positions; an associate's degree or some formal training may be sufficient for some jobs
Degree Field Biology, animal science, zoology, behavioral sciences, or other related field
Training On-the-job training generally required
Key Skills Customer service, problem-solving, and monitoring skills; good judgment and decision-making skills; compassion, patience, and physical stamina
Salary (May 2018) $25,890 (average yearly salary for all non-farm animal caretakers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine

Now let's look at the steps one might take to become an animal keeper.

Step 1: Learn About Animals

Before pursing formal education, aspiring animal keepers may want to begin by learning about the particular animal or species they wish to work with. Animal keepers typically work at facilities that require maintaining a habitat for animals, such as a zoo or ranch. Individuals should visit such establishments to get a feel for being around the animal of their interest and to inquire about work duties.

Step 2: Earn a Degree

The next step is to earn a bachelor's degree, which is generally preferred by employers of animal keepers. Common majors for these professionals include zoology or animal science. Other choices for aspiring animal keepers include animal behavior, biology, ecology, or conservation science. In some cases, veterinary technicians with associate's degrees in veterinary technology may qualify for employment as animal keepers.

Step 3: Gain Hands-On Experience

After or while earning a degree, you can begin to gain industry experience. These professionals may gain such experience through volunteer work, work study opportunities, and internship programs. You might find such opportunities with humane societies, veterinary offices, farms, horse stables, 4-H clubs, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and zoos. Sometimes these positions can lead to employment opportunities and they then open the door to animal keeper positions at outside facilities. The American Association of Zoo Keepers offers these professionals information on job opportunities, volunteer work, and internships.

Step 4: Advance With Experience

Once you've gained employment, you can advance to the role of animal keeper with experience. With time and demonstrated expertise, you may continue to advance to such positions as senior keeper, assistant head keeper, or assistant curator. Most higher-level positions are available in larger zoos and animal parks.

Step 5: Consider Certification

With education and experience under your belt, it's time to consider certification. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums offers members the AZA Professional Development Certificate Program in various areas of concentration, such as education and interpretation, elephant management, and behavioral husbandry. The program requirements include completion of two courses in an area of specialization, along with 16 elective units. In addition, Association of Zoos and Aquariums membership offers opportunities to complete professional training courses that provide information on the latest advances in working with animals.

To become an animal keeper, you generally need a bachelor's degree in or related to zoology or animal science and industry experience. You may also obtain a professional certificate to improve job prospects.

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