Zoo and Aquarium Curator and Director Careers

Zoo Curator CareerZoos are wild kingdoms, and aquariums are underwater worlds. The word zoo comes from the Greek for living being and is a shortened term for zoological garden or zoological park. Although this may imply that zoos are created just for beauty and recreation, the main functions of modern zoos are education, conservation, and the study of animals. The term aquarium comes from the Latin for source of water; in such places, living aquatic plants and animals are studied and exhibited. These land and water gardens are tended by people with an affinity for animals.

Zoo and aquarium directors, or chief executive officers, are administrators who coordinate the business affairs of these centers. Directors execute the institution’s policies, usually under the direction of a governing authority. They are responsible for the institution’s operations and plans for future development and for such tasks as fund-raising and public relations. They also serve as representatives of, and advocates for, their institutions and their entire industry. Zoo and aquarium curators are the chief employees responsible for the day-to-day care of the creatures. They oversee the various sections of the animal collections, such as birds, mammals, and fishes.

Zoo and Aquarium Curator and Director Career History

Prehistoric humans did not try to tame animals; for purposes of survival, they hunted them to avoid danger as well as to obtain food. The full history of the establishment of zoos and aquariums can probably be traced as far back as the earliest attempts by humans to domesticate animals. After realizing that they could live with animals as fellow creatures, humans attempted to domesticate them. The precise timing of this phenomenon is not known; it apparently occurred at different times in different parts of the world.

Ancient Sumerians kept fish in manmade ponds around 4,500 years ago. By 1150 BC pigeons, elephants, antelope, and deer were held captive for taming in such areas as the Middle East, India, and China. In 1000 BC a Chinese emperor named Wen Wang built a zoo and called it the Garden of Intelligence. Also around this time, the Chinese and Japanese were breeding and raising goldfish and carp for their beauty in a garden setting.

Zoos were abundant in ancient Greece; animals were held in captivity for purposes of study in nearly every city-state. In early Egypt and Asia, zoos were created mainly for public show, and during the Roman Empire, fish were kept in ponds and animals were collected both for arena showings and for private zoos. Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conqueror, created a fantastic zoo in Mexico in the early 16th century. The zoo had 300 keepers taking care of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

Zoo and aquarium professions as we know them today began to be established around the mid-18th century with the construction of various extravagant European zoos. The Imperial Menagerie of the Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria, was opened in 1765 and still operates to this day. One of the most significant openings occurred in 1828 at the London Zoological Society’s Regent’s Park. The London Zoo continues to have one of the world’s most extensive and popular collections of animals, with more than 650 species, including some of the rarest animals. The world’s first public aquarium was also established at Regent’s Park, in 1853, after which aquariums were built in other European cities. In the United States, P. T. Barnum was the first to establish a display aquarium, which opened in New York in 1856.

Today’s zoos and aquariums are built around habitat-based, multi-species exhibits designed to immerse the visitor in an experience simulating a visit to the wild places from which the animals came. The keeping and breeding of captive animals is no longer an end in itself, but a means of educating and communicating a strong conservation imperative to the public. The public has embraced this change, with visitor numbers rising steadily each year.

Along with this expanded public role has come a professionalization of the industry, marked by advances in animal husbandry, veterinary care, nutrition, and exhibit technology that have greatly improved the conditions under which animals are held. These advances have been costly, and the rise in operating expenses reflects these increased costs. Zoos and aquariums today are big business.

Today, curators have a host of responsibilities involved with the operation of zoos and aquariums. Although many zoos and aquariums are separate places, there are also zoos that contain aquariums as part of their facilities. There are both public and private institutions, large and small, and curators often contribute their knowledge to the most effective methods of design, maintenance, and administration for these institutions.

The director’s job has changed radically in the past 15 years, reflecting the overall maturity of the zoo and aquarium business. Directors no longer have direct responsibility for working with animals or managing the people who care for them. The director’s role has broadened from animal management to overall management, with a focus that has shifted from the day-to-day details of running the facility to ensuring the ongoing success of the entire operation.

Zoo and Aquarium Curators and Directors Job Description

General curators of zoos and aquariums oversee the management of an institution’s entire animal collection and animal management staff. They help the director coordinate activities, such as education, collection planning, exhibit design, new construction, research, and public services. They meet with the director and other members of the staff to create long-term strategic plans. General curators may have public relations and development responsibilities, such as meeting with the media and identifying and cultivating donors. In most institutions, general curators develop policy; other curators implement policy.

Animal curators are responsible for the day-to-day management of a specific portion of a zoo’s or aquarium’s animal collection (as defined taxonomically, such as mammals or birds, or ecogeographically, such as the Forest Edge or the Arizona Trail); the people charged with caring for that collection, including assistant curators, zookeepers, administrative staff such as secretaries, as well as researchers, students, and volunteers; and the associated facilities and equipment.

For example, the curator in charge of the mammal department of a large zoo would be responsible for the care of such animals as lions, tigers, monkeys, and elephants. He or she might oversee nearly 1,000 animals representing about 200 different species, manage scores of employees, and have a multimillion-dollar budget.

Assistant curators report to curators and assist in animal management tasks and decisions. They may have extensive supervisory responsibilities.

Curators have diverse responsibilities and their activities vary widely from day to day. They oversee animal husbandry procedures, including the daily care of the animals, establish proper nutritional programs, and manage animal health delivery in partnership with the veterinary staff. They develop exhibits, educational programs, and visitor services and participate in research and conservation activities. They maintain inventories of animals and other records, and they recommend and implement acquisitions and dispositions of animals. Curators serve as liaisons with other departments.

Curators prepare budgets and reports. They interview and hire new workers. When scientific conferences are held, curators attend them as representatives of the institutions for which they work. They are often called upon to write articles for scientific journals and perhaps provide information for newspaper reports and magazine stories. They may coordinate or participate in on-site research or conservation efforts. To keep abreast with developments in their field, curators spend a lot of time reading.

Curators meet with the general curator, the director, and other staff to develop the objectives and philosophy of the institution and decide on the best way to care for and exhibit the animals. They must be knowledgeable about the animals’ housing requirements, daily care, medical procedures, dietary needs, and social and reproduction habits. Curators represent their zoos or aquariums in collaborative efforts with other institutions, such as the more than 80 American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) Species Survival Plans that target individual species for intense conservation efforts by zoos and aquariums. In this capacity, curators may exchange information, negotiate breeding loans, or assemble the necessary permits and paperwork to affect the transfers. Other methods of animal acquisition coordinated by curators involve purchases from animal dealers or private collectors and collection of nonendangered species from the wild. Curators may arrange for the quarantine of newly acquired animals. They may arrange to send the remains of dead animals to museums or universities for study.

Curators often work on special projects. They may serve on multidisciplinary committees responsible for planning and constructing new exhibits. Curators interface with colleagues from other states and around the world in collaborative conservation efforts.

Working under the supervision of a governing board, directors are charged with pulling together all the institution’s operations, development of long-range planning, implementation of new programs, and maintenance of the animal collection and facilities. Much of the director’s time is spent meeting with the volunteer governing board and with departmental staff who handle the institution’s daily operations.

Directors plan overall budgets, which include consideration of fund-raising programs, government grants, and private financial support from corporations, foundations, and individuals. They work with the board of directors to design major policies and procedures, and they meet with the curators to discuss animal acquisitions, public education, research projects, and developmental activities. In larger zoos and aquariums, directors may give speeches, appear at fund-raising events, and represent their organizations on television or radio.

“Zoos and aquariums are mission-driven, which opens the door to more diverse responsibilities,” said Kathryn Roberts, Ph.D., executive director of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minnesota. “The CEO of a major corporation is responsible only to the stockholders. We have a huge group of constituents, each with different needs.”

A major part of the director’s job is seeing that his or her institution has adequate financial resources. Zoos and aquariums were once funded largely by local and state governments. However the amount of tax money available for this purpose is dwindling. Generally, zoos and aquariums need to generate enough revenue to pay for about two-thirds of their operating expenses from sources such as donations, membership, retail sales, and visitor services.

As zoos and aquariums endeavor to improve facilities for animals and visitors alike and to present the message of conservation to the public in a more effective manner, renovation of existing structures and construction of new exhibits is an ongoing process. Directors spend much of their time working with architects, engineers, contractors, and artisans on these projects.

Directors are responsible for informing the public about what is going on at the zoo or aquarium. This involves offering interviews with the media, answering questions from individuals, and even resolving complaints. In addition to being interviewed by journalists and other writers, directors do writing of their own for in-house newsletters and annual reports or for general-circulation magazines and newspapers.

Although not directly involved in animal management within his or her own institution, the director may play a significant role in conservation at a regional, national, or international level. They may be involved at high levels of the AZA, working on such things as accreditation of other institutions, developing professional ethical standards, or long-range planning. Directors work with other conservation groups as well and may serve in leadership positions for them too.

As zoos and aquariums expand their conservation role from only the management of captive animals to supporting the preservation of the habitats from which those animals came, directors are working with universities and field biologists to support research.

Other directorial personnel include assistant directors and deputy directors. Like curators, these workers are responsible for a specific duty or department, such as operations, education, or animal management. They also manage certain employees, supervise animal care workers, and take care of various administrative duties to help the director.

Zoo and Aquarium Curators and Directors Career Requirements

Aquarium Curator CareerHigh School

High school students who want to prepare for careers in upper management in zoos and aquariums should take classes in the sciences, especially biology, microbiology, chemistry, and physics, as well as in mathematics, computer science, language, and speech.

Extracurricular activities for students interested in becoming zoo and aquarium curators and directors should focus on developing leadership and communication skills: these include student body associations, service clubs, debate teams, and school newspapers.

Postsecondary Training

The minimum formal educational requirement for curators is a bachelor’s degree in one of the biological sciences, such as zoology, ecology, biology, mammalogy, and ornithology. Course work should include biology, invertebrate zoology, vertebrate physiology, comparative anatomy, organic chemistry, physics, microbiology, and virology. Electives are just as important, particularly writing, public speaking, computer science, and education. Even studying a second language can be helpful.

Typically, an advanced degree is required for curators employed at larger institutions; many curators are required to have a doctoral degree. But advanced academic training alone is insufficient; it takes years of on-the-job experience to master the practical aspects of exotic animal husbandry. Also required are management skills, supervisory experience, writing ability, research experience, and sometimes the flexibility to travel.

A few institutions offer curatorial internships designed to provide practical experience. Several major zoos offer formal keeper training courses as well as on-the-job training programs to students who are studying areas related to animal science and care. Such programs could lead to positions as assistant curators. Contact the AZA for further information about which schools and animal facilities are involved in internship programs.

A director’s education and experience must be rather broad, with a solid foundation in animal management skills. Therefore, a good balance between science and business is the key to finding a position in this field. Directors need courses in zoology or biology as well as business courses, such as economics, accounting, and general business, and humanities, such as sociology.

Today, most directors have a master’s degree; many at larger institutions have doctoral degrees. Directors continue their education throughout their careers by taking classes as well as by reading and learning on their own.

“Zoos are not just about animal keeping,” said Brian Rutledge, president/CEO of Zoo New England in Boston, Massachusetts. “Discover what skills are best for you, accentuate them, and aim them at a zoo and conservation. Everyone has a skill they can bring to the team.”

Other Requirements

Curators who work for zoos and aquariums must have a fondness and compassion for animals. But as managers of people, strong interpersonal skills are extremely important, including conflict management and negotiating. Curators spend a lot of time making deals with people inside and outside of their institutions. They must have recognized leadership ability, good coaching skills, and the ability to create and maintain a team atmosphere and build consensus.

“I want the staff to be happy in their jobs, to feel a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. That way the animals will be well cared for,” said Anita Cramm, curator of birds at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. “I spend a lot of time talking to the keepers, brainstorming with them, responding to their problems. It’s a very important part of all our programs.”

Curators also need excellent oral and written communication skills. They must be effective and articulate public speakers. They need to be good at problem solving.

Curators should have an in-depth knowledge of every species and exhibit in their collections and how they interact. Modern zoo and aquarium buildings contain technologically advanced, complex equipment, such as environmental controls, and they often house mixed-species exhibits. Not only must curators know about zoology and animal husbandry, they must understand the infrastructure as well.

Zoo and aquarium directors are leaders and communicators. Inspiring others and promoting their institution are among their most important tasks. Their most important traits include leadership ability, personal charisma, people skills, and public speaking ability.

“The director must have the ability to craft a vision, to own it, to guard it, and to promote it,” said Terry L. Maple, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of Zoo Atlanta in Georgia. “A director has to focus on the vision, believe in it, and get others to do so.”

Directors need to be politically savvy. They interact with many different groups, each with their own agendas. They must be able to build bridges between these various groups and put together a consensus. They need to be flexible and open-minded without losing sight of their role as advocate for their institution. Directors must have outstanding time-management skills, and they must be willing and able to delegate.

A fondness and compassion for animals is not all that is needed to become a successful zoo or aquarium director. “Too many people get into the business because they like animals,” said Tony Vecchio, director of the Metro Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. “The zoo business is not just animals; it’s all about people. Education may not be as exciting as breeding endangered species or supporting in situ research, but it is our best contribution to conservation.”

Directors must be articulate and sociable. They must be able to communicate effectively with people from all walks of life. Much of their time is spent cultivating prospective donors. They must be comfortable with many different types of people, including those with wealth and power.

Zoo and Aquarium Curator and Director Career Path

Reading about animals or surfing the Internet, taking classes at local zoos and aquariums, or joining clubs, such as 4-H or Audubon, can help you learn about animals. Taking time to learn about ecology and nature in general will prepare you for the systems-oriented approach used by modern zoo and aquarium managers. “Tomorrow’s curators need to develop an understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of wild things and wild places,” says Dennis Pate, senior vice president and general curator of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Volunteering at zoos or aquariums, animal shelters, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, stables, or veterinary hospitals demonstrates a serious commitment to animals and provides firsthand experience with them.

Professional organizations, such as AZA and the American Association of Zoo Keepers Inc. (AAZK), have special membership rates for nonprofessionals. Associate members receive newsletters and can attend workshops and conferences.

The AZA offers practical advice for students who are considering animal facility jobs such as that of the director. Suggestions for exploration include visiting zoos and aquariums and learning how they operate, trying to decide on a specific interest, attending events and meetings planned by zoos and aquariums in your area, and continuing to read books and journals on animals and nature.


Because there are so few zoos and aquariums in the country (fewer than 200), most positions will be the result of turnover, which is low. While a few new zoos and aquariums may open and others may expand their facilities, the number of new curator and director positions available will be extremely low, particularly compared to the number of interested job seekers. The number of curators and directors employed by each facility depends on the size and budget of the operation and the range of animal types they house.

Starting Out

Neither the position of zoo and aquarium curator nor the position of director is an entry-level job. Although there are exceptions, most curators start their careers as zookeepers or aquarists and move up through the animal- management ranks.

“Learn as much as you can, and don’t try to move up too quickly,” advises Anita Cramm. “Let the hands-on care teach you before you get into decision making. Once you’re there, you can never go back.”

Although the competition for zoo and aquarium jobs is intense, there are several ways to pursue such positions. Getting an education in animal science is a good way to make contacts that may be valuable in a job search. Professors and school administrators often can provide advice and counseling on finding jobs as a curator. The best sources for finding out about career opportunities at zoos and aquariums are trade journals (AZA’s Communique or AAZK’s Animal Keepers’ Forum), the Web sites of specific institutions, and special-focus periodicals. Most zoos and aquariums have internal job postings. A few zoos and aquariums have job lines. People in the profession often learn about openings by word of mouth.

Working on a part-time or volunteer basis at an animal facility could provide an excellent opportunity to improve your eligibility for higher-level jobs in later years.

Moving up from supervisory keeper positions to curator and director positions usually involves moving to another institution, often in another city and state.

Today’s zoo and aquarium directors often began their careers in education, marketing, business, research, and academia as well as animal management.


Curatorial positions are often the top rung of the career ladder for many zoo and aquarium professionals. Curators do not necessarily wish to become zoo or aquarium directors, although the next step for specialized curators is to advance to the position of general curator. Those who are willing to forego direct involvement with animal management and complete the transition to the business of running a zoo or aquarium will set as their ultimate goal the position of zoo or aquarium director. Curators and directors who work for a small facility may aspire to a position at a larger zoo or aquarium, with greater responsibilities and a commensurate increase in pay. Although some directors may move about, the majority remain at the same institution, reflecting the strong identification of the director with the institution that he or she leads.

Advancing to executive positions requires a combination of experience and education. General curators and zoo directors often have graduate degrees in zoology or in business or finance. Continuing professional education, such as AZA’s courses in applied zoo and aquarium biology, conservation education, institutional record keeping, population management, and professional management, can be helpful. Attending workshops and conferences sponsored by professional groups or related organizations and making presentations is another means of networking with colleagues from other institutions and professions and becoming better known within the zoo world.


Salaries of zoo and aquarium curators and directors vary widely depending on factors including the size and location of the institution, whether it is privately or publicly owned, the size of its endowments and budget, and job responsibilities, educational background, and experience. Generally, zoos and aquariums in metropolitan areas pay higher salaries.

Yearly salaries for curators range from as low as $20,000 to as high as $79,000 for general curators in major metropolitan areas. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings for curators in general were $43,620 in 2005, with salaries ranging from less than $25,360 to more than $77,490. Directors tend to be the highest-paid employees at zoos and aquariums; the range of their salary is also broad, from $28,000 to more than $100,000 per year, with some directors at major institutions earning considerably more than that. Given the scope of their responsibilities, salaries are not very high.

Most zoos and aquariums provide benefits packages including medical insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, and generous retirement benefits. As salaried employees, curators are not eligible for overtime pay, but they may get compensatory time for extra hours worked. Larger institutions may also offer coverage for prescription drugs, dental and vision insurance, mental health plans, and retirement savings plans. Private corporate zoos may offer better benefits, including profit sharing.

Work Environment

The work atmosphere for curators and directors of animal facilities will always center on the zoo or aquarium in which they work. Curators spend most of their time indoors at their desks, reading email, talking on the phone, writing reports, meeting deadlines for budgets, planning exhibits, and so forth. Particularly at large institutions, the majority of their time is spent on administrative duties rather than hands-on interaction with animals. Like other zoo and aquarium employees, curators often work long hours tending to the varied duties to which they are assigned.

When the unexpected happens, curators get their share of animal emergencies. In difficult situations, they may find themselves working late into the night with keepers and veterinarians to help care for sick animals or those that are giving birth.

Celeste Lombardi, living collection director at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, tells of an animal shipment that went awry. Two eight-month-old lions had been imported from South Africa through New York City on their way to Columbus when their connecting flight was delayed and then cancelled due to inclement weather. Concerned that the animals had already been crated with only water for 16 hours, Lombardi made numerous calls to arrange the services of an animal broker and to charter a plane, and, along with the assistant zoo director, she stayed up until 3:00 a.m. when the lions finally arrived at their destination.

Curators are sometimes required to travel to conferences and community events. They might also travel to other zoos throughout the country or lead trips for zoo members to wilderness areas in the United States and abroad.

Despite the tedium and the long hours, zoo and aquarium curators derive great personal satisfaction from their work. “Ours is a family oriented business,” said Lombardi. “People come to zoos to learn—whether they’re kids or they’re 90 years old. I feel that we’re doing something good for the earth.”

Directors tend to spend a great deal of time in their offices conducting business affairs. They attend a lot of meetings. “The director’s job is not for those who need a daily fix with animals,” says Terry Maple.

Directors are sometimes required to travel to conferences and community events. They might also travel to other institutions throughout the country or abroad to attend meetings of professional organizations and conservation groups or to discuss animal transfers and other matters. Often, directors lead groups on trips around the United States or to developing countries.

Zoo and Aquarium Curator and Director Careers Outlook

There are fewer than 200 professionally operated zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks, and oceanariums in North America. Considering the number of people interested in animal careers, this is not a large number. Therefore, it is expected that competition for jobs as curators (as well as for most zoo and aquarium jobs) will continue to be very strong.

The employment outlook for zoo curators is not favorable. Because of the slow growth in new zoos and in their capacity to care for animals, job openings are not expected to grow rapidly. The prospects for aquarium curators are somewhat better due to planned construction of several new aquariums.

However, competition and low turnover rates will continue to squelch opportunities in these occupations. According to Dennis Pate, one area with greater growth potential than conventional zoos and aquariums is privately funded conservation centers.

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