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

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 Become an Animal Keeper?

Animal keepers often work in zoos, aquariums or amusement parks. They create meal plans for animals, clean animal enclosures and report injuries or unusual behavior. Animal keepers at zoos are usually assigned a number of animals to care for. They may also answer questions from the public or 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. Working in this profession requires a love for animals. However, some 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.

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Career Requirements

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 $22,970 per year (2014 average salary for all nonfarm animal caretakers)

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

Step 1: Learn About Animals

Before pursing formal education, aspiring animal keepers may want to learn 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 equestrian 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

Although not always required, a college degree is preferred by many employers who are looking to hire animal keepers. Some colleges offer associate's degree programs that train students to become animal keepers. However, programs in zoology or animal science are more commonly offered at the bachelor's degree level. Some professionals in this field are also veterinary technicians who have completed a 2-year veterinary technology program and have met state-level requirements. Other choices for aspiring animal keepers include degree programs in animal-related fields, such as animal behavior, biology, ecology or conservation science.

Step 3: Gain Hands-on Experience

Potential animal keepers can gain experience through volunteer work. College students might also be able to take advantage of work-study opportunities and/or internship programs. Some places to look for volunteer work or internships include humane societies, veterinary offices, farms, horse stables, 4-H clubs, wildlife rehabilitation centers and zoos. Sometimes these internship and volunteer positions can lead to employment opportunities.

Step 4: Advance to Higher Positions

Zoo keepers can 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. The American Association of Zoo Keepers offers members information on job opportunities, volunteering, internships and current research in the field.

Step 5: Consider a Professional Certificate for Career Advancement

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) offers the AZA Professional Development Certificate Program in various areas of concentration to its members. The program requires that candidates complete two courses in an area of specialization along with 16 elective units to earn the certificate. Individuals can select a focus in such areas as education and interpretation, elephant management and behavioral husbandry. In addition, membership with the AZA offers opportunities to complete professional training courses that provide information on the latest advances in working with animals.

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