Zookeepers provide the day-to-day care for animals in zoological parks. They prepare the diets, clean and maintain the exhibits and holding areas, and monitor the behavior of animals that range from the exotic and endangered to the more common and domesticated. Zookeepers interact with visitors and conduct formal and informal educational presentations, they sometimes assist in research studies, and depending upon the species, may also train animals.
Zookeeper Career History
Humans have put wild animals on display since ancient times. About 1500 BC, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt established the earliest known zoo. Five hundred years later, the Chinese emperor Wen Wang founded a zoo that covered about 1,500 acres. Rulers seeking to display their wealth and power established small zoos in northern Africa, India, and China. The ancient Greeks established public zoos, while the Romans had many private zoos. During the Middle Ages, from about 400 to 1500 AD, zoos became rare in Europe.
By the end of the 1400s, European explorers returned from the New World with strange animals, and interest in zoos renewed. During the next 250 years, a number of zoos were established. Some merely consisted of small collections of bears or tigers kept in dismal cages or pits. They were gradually replaced by larger collections of animals that received better care.
In 1752, what is now the oldest operating zoo, the Schonbrunn, opened in Vienna, Austria. Other European zoos followed. In the United States, the Central Park Zoo in New York City opened in 1864, followed by the Buffalo Zoo in New York in 1870 and Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in 1874.
Workers were needed to care for the animals in even the earliest zoos. However, this care probably consisted only of giving the animals food and water and cleaning their cages. Little was known about the needs of a particular species. If an animal died, it was replaced by another animal from the wild. Few zoos owned more than one or two animals of a rare species, so the keepers did not need to be involved in observations or research on an animal’s lifestyle, health, or nutrition.
The modern zoo is a far cry from even the menageries of earlier eras. Today’s zoos are still in the entertainment field, but they have assumed three additional roles: conservation, education, and research. Each of these roles has become vital due to the increasing pressures on the world’s wildlife.
Zookeeper Job Description
Zookeepers are responsible for providing the basic care required to maintain the health of the animals in their care. Daily tasks include preparing food by chopping or grinding meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit; mixing prepared commercial feeds; and unbaling forage grasses. Administering vitamins or medications may be necessary as well. In addition, zookeepers fill water containers in the cages. They clean animal quarters by hosing, scrubbing, raking, and disinfecting.
Zookeepers must safely shift animals from one location to another. They maintain exhibits (for example, by planting grass or putting in new bars) and modify them to enhance the visitors’ experience. They also provide enrichment devices for the animals, such as ropes for monkeys to swing on or scratching areas for big cats. They regulate environmental factors by monitoring temperature and humidity or water-quality controls and maintaining an inventory of supplies and equipment. They may bathe and groom animals.
Zookeepers must become experts on the species—and the individuals—in their care. They must observe and understand all types of animal behaviors, including courtship, mating, feeding, aggression, sociality, sleeping, moving, and even urination and defecation. Zookeepers must be able to detect even small changes in an animal’s appearance or behavior. They must maintain careful records of these observations in a logbook and file daily written or computerized reports. Often, they make recommendations regarding diet or modification of habitats and implement those changes. In addition, they assist the veterinarian in providing treatment to sick animals and may be called upon to feed and help raise infants. Zookeepers may capture or transport animals. When an animal is transferred to another institution, a keeper may accompany it to aid in its adjustment to its new home.
The professional zookeeper works closely with zoo staff on research, conservation, and animal reproduction. Many keepers conduct research projects, presenting their findings in papers or professional journals or at workshops or conferences. Some keepers participate in regional or national conservation plans or conduct field research in the United States and abroad.
Keepers may assist an animal trainer or instructor in presenting animal shows or lectures to the public. Depending on the species, keepers may train animals to shift or to move in a certain way to facilitate routine husbandry or veterinary care. Elephant keepers, for example, train their charges to respond to commands to lift their feet so that they may provide proper foot care, including footpad and toenail trims.
Zookeepers must be able to interact with zoo visitors and answer questions in a friendly, professional manner. Keepers may participate in formal presentations for the general public or for special groups. This involves being knowledgeable about the animals in one’s care, the animals’ natural habitat and habits, and the role zoos play in wildlife conservation.
Keepers must carefully monitor activity around the animals to discourage visitors from teasing or harming them. They must be able to remove harmful objects that are sometimes thrown into an exhibit and tactfully explain the “no feeding” policy to zoo visitors.
Taking care of animals is hard work. About 85 percent of the job involves custodial and maintenance tasks, which can be physically demanding and dirty. These tasks must be done both indoors and outdoors, in all types of weather. In addition, there is the risk of an animal- inflicted injury or disease. Although direct contact with animals is limited and strictly managed, the possibility for injury exists when a person is working with large, powerful animals or even small animals that possess sharp teeth and claws.
Because animals require care every day, keepers must work weekends and holidays. They also may be called upon to work special events outside their normal working hours.
In large zoological parks, keepers often work with a limited collection of animals. They may be assigned to work specifically with just one taxonomy, such as primates, large cats, or birds, or with different types of animals from a specific ecogeographic area, such as the tropical rainforest or Africa. In smaller zoos, keepers may have more variety and care for a wider range of species.
Zookeeper Career Requirements
If you are planning a career in zookeeping, take as many science classes while in high school as possible. A broad-based science education including courses in biology, ecology, chemistry, physics, and botany, coupled with mathematics and computer science, will be helpful. Courses in English and speech will help you to develop vocabulary and hone public speaking skills.
Although practical experience may sometimes be substituted for formal education, most entry-level positions require a four-year college degree. Animal management has become a highly technical and specialized field. Zookeepers do much more than care for animals’ bodily comforts: Many of today’s zookeepers are trained zoologists. They must be able to perform detailed behavioral observations, record keeping, nutrition studies, and health care. Their increased responsibilities make their role an essential one in maintaining a healthy animal collection.
Degrees in animal science, zoology, marine biology, conservation biology, wildlife management, and animal behavior are preferred. Electives are just as important, particularly writing, public speaking, computer science, education, and even foreign languages. Applicants with interdisciplinary training sometimes have an advantage. A few colleges and junior colleges offer a specialized curriculum for zookeepers. Those seeking advancement to curatorial, research, or conservation positions may need a master’s degree. Animal care experience such as zoo volunteer, farm or ranch worker, or veterinary hospital worker is a must.
Smaller zoos may hire keeper trainees, who receive on-the- job training to learn the responsibilities of the zookeeper. 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; contact the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) for further information about which schools and animal facilities are involved in internship programs. Such programs could lead to full-time positions.
Many institutions offer unpaid internships for high school and college students interested in investigating a career in animal care. Internships may involve food preparation, hands-on experience with the animal collection, interpretive services for the public, exhibit design and construction, or the collection and analysis of data. The length of the internships varies. The minimum age for most of these programs is 18.
Some zoos require written aptitude tests or oral exams. Applicants must pass a physical exam, as keepers must be physically able to do such demanding work as lifting heavy sacks of feed or moving sick or injured animals.
Union membership is more common at publicly operated zoos, but it is on the rise in privately run institutions as well. There is no single zookeepers’ union, and a variety of different unions represent the employees at various zoos and aquariums.
Zookeepers must first and foremost have a fondness and empathy for animals. “I always had a passion for animals. I liked watching them and working with them,” says Ron Ringer, a senior keeper at the Zoological Society of San Diego, who has worked with elephants and rhinoceroses for 20 years. “I was always bringing home something I wasn’t supposed to.”
The work of the zookeeper is not glamorous. It takes a special kind of dedication to provide care to captive animals that require attention 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Keepers need excellent interpersonal skills to work together and to interact with visitors and volunteers. Strong oral and written communication skills are also required. They should be detail-oriented and enjoy paperwork and record keeping.
They must be able to work well independently and as part of a team. Keepers rely on each other to get their jobs done safely. A calm, stable nature, maturity, good judgment, and the ability to adhere to established animal handling and/or safety procedures is essential. Being in a bad mood can interfere with concentration, endangering the keeper and his or her coworkers.
Keepers must have keen powers of observation. “The keepers that stand out develop a sixth sense that’s hard to describe and difficult to learn,” said Lucy Segerson, a zookeeper at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro. “Often, exotic animals don’t show that they’re in trouble until it’s too late. But with experience with different species and individuals, you learn to see those subtle little changes that indicate an animal is sick.”
Due to the physical demands of the job, keepers must be physically fit. Psychological fitness is important too. Zookeepers have to be able to handle the emotional impact when animals with whom they have built a relationship go to another institution or die. They cannot be squeamish about handling body wastes or live food items or dealing with sick animals.
Zookeeper Career Path
High school students can explore the field of animal care in several ways. They can learn about animals by reading about them and taking classes in biology and zoology. Most zoos have Web sites containing information about the institution and its programs and career opportunities, as well as about the industry in general. Hobbies such as birding can expand your knowledge of animals.
Many institutions offer classes about animals and conservation or educational programs, such as Keeper Encounters, where students can learn firsthand what a zookeeper’s job is like.
Some have part-time or summer jobs that can give a good overview of how a zoo operates. Many zoos offer volunteer opportunities for teens, such as Explorers or Junior Zookeeper programs, which are similar to programs for adult volunteers but with closer supervision. Most volunteer programs require a specific time commitment. Opportunities vary between institutions and run the gamut from cleaning enclosures to preparing food to handling domesticated animals to conducting tours or giving educational presentations.
Prospective zookeepers can volunteer or work part-time at animal shelters, boarding kennels, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, stables, or animal hospitals. They may get a feel for working with animals by seeking employment on a farm or ranch during the summer. Joining a 4-H club also allows hands-on experience with animals. Experience with animals is invaluable when seeking a job and provides opportunities to learn about the realities of work in this field.
Professional organizations have special membership rates for nonprofessionals. Reading their newsletters provides an insider’s look at what zoo careers are like. Attending local workshops or national conferences offers an opportunity to network and gather information for charting a career path.
Despite the low pay and challenging working conditions, competition for jobs at zoos is intense. There are many more candidates than available positions. Most zookeepers enjoy their work, and turnover is low. The majority of new jobs result from the need to replace workers who leave the field. A limited number of jobs are created when new zoos open. Entry-level applicants may find it easier to start out in small zoos in smaller communities, where the pay is usually low, and then move on once they have gained some experience. There are many such small-town zoos in the Midwest.
The days when zookeepers were hired off the street and trained on the job are a thing of the past. Today, most institutions require a bachelor’s degree. Practical experience working with animals is a must. This experience can involve volunteering at a zoo or wildlife rehabilitation center, caring for animals in a kennel or animal hospital, or working on a farm or ranch.
Part-time work, summer jobs, or volunteering at a zoo increases an applicant’s chances of getting full-time employment. Many zoos fill new positions by promoting current employees. An entry-level position, even if it does not involve working directly with animals, is a means of making contacts and learning about an institution’s hiring practices.
“Start out working at guest services or driving the safari van,” Jane Ballentine, director of public affairs for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), advises. “You get your foot in the door, meet the people, and find out if this is a place you would like to work.” Zoos that are municipally operated accept applications through municipal civil service offices. At other zoos, an application is made directly at the zoo office.
Occasionally zoos advertise for personnel in the local newspapers. Better sources of employment opportunities are trade journals (AZA’s Communique or the American Association of Zoo Keepers Inc.’s Animal Keepers’ Forum), the Web sites of specific institutions, or special-interest periodicals. A few zoos even have job lines.
Most zoos have internal job postings. People in the profession often learn about openings by word of mouth. Membership in a professional organization can be helpful when conducting a job search.
Job advancement in zoos is possible, but the career path is more limited than in some other professions requiring a college degree. The possibility for advancement varies according to a zoo’s size and operating policies and an employee’s qualifications.
Continuing professional education is a must to keep current on progress in husbandry, veterinary care, and technology, and in order to advance. AZA offers formal professional courses in applied zoo and aquarium biology, conservation education, elephant management, institutional record keeping, population management, professional management, and studbook keeping. Attending workshops and conferences sponsored by professional groups or related organizations, such as universities or conservation organizations, is another means of sharing information with colleagues from other institutions and professions.
Most zoos have different levels of animal management staff. The most common avenue for job promotion is from keeper to senior keeper to head keeper, then possibly to area supervisor or assistant curator and then curator. On rare occasions, the next step will be to zoo director. Moving up from the senior keeper level to middle and upper management usually involves moving out to another institution, often in another city and state.
In addition to participating in daily animal care, the senior keeper manages a particular building on the zoo grounds and is responsible for supervising the keepers working in that facility. An area supervisor or assistant curator works directly with the curators and is responsible for supervising, scheduling, and training the entire keeper force. In major zoological parks, there are head keepers for each curatorial department.
The curator is responsible for managing a specific department or section within the zoo, either defined by taxonomy, such as mammals, birds, or reptiles, or by habitat or ecogeography, such as the Forest Edge or African savannah. The curator of mammals, for example, is in charge of all mammals in the collection and supervises all staff who work with mammals. Usually, an advanced degree in zoology and research experience is required to become a curator, as well as experience working as a zookeeper and in zoo management.
Many zookeepers eschew advancement and prefer to remain in work where they have the most direct interaction with and immediate impact on the lives of animals.
Most people who choose a career as a zookeeper do not do so for the money, but because they feel compassion for and enjoy being around animals.
Salaries vary widely among zoological parks and depend on the size and location of the institution, whether it is publicly or privately owned, the size of its endowments and budget, and whether the zookeepers belong to a union. Generally, the highest salaries tend to be in metropolitan areas and are relative to the applicant’s education and responsibilities.
The zookeeper’s salary can range from slightly above minimum wage to more than $40,000 a year, depending on the keeper’s background, grade, and tenure and the zoo’s location. Certain areas of the country pay higher wages, reflecting the higher cost of living there. City-run institutions, where keepers are lumped into a job category with less-skilled workers, pay less. On average, aquarists earn slightly more than zookeepers.
According to a 2000 salary survey by the American Association of Zoo Keepers, the average salary for zookeepers was $24,925. Those with a college degree fared better, earning an average of $26,715. However, salaries as low as $15,000 and as high as $50,000 to $75,000 were also reported.
Most zoos provide benefits packages that include medical insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, and generous retirement benefits. Keepers at larger institutions may also have coverage for prescription drugs, dental and vision insurance, mental health plans, and 401(k) plans. Those who work on holidays may receive overtime pay or comp time. A few institutions offer awards, research grants, and unpaid sabbaticals. Private corporate zoos may offer better benefits, including profit sharing.
Cleaning, feeding, and providing general care to the animals are a necessity seven days a week, sometimes outdoors and in adverse weather conditions. The zookeeper must be prepared for a varied schedule that may include working weekends and holidays. Sick animals may need round-the-clock care. A large portion of the job involves routine chores for animals that will not express appreciation for the keeper’s efforts.
Some of the work may be physically demanding and involve lifting heavy supplies such as bales of hay. The cleaning of an animal’s enclosure may be unpleasant and smelly. Between the sounds of the animals and the sounds of the zoo visitors, the work setting may be quite noisy.
The zookeeper may be exposed to bites, kicks, diseases, and possible fatal injury from the animals he or she attends. He or she must practice constant caution because working with animals presents the potential for danger. Even though an animal may have been held in captivity for years or even since birth, it can be frightened, become stressed because of illness, or otherwise revert to its wild behavior. The keeper must know the physical and mental abilities of an animal, whether it be the strength of an ape, the reaching ability of a large cat, or the intelligence of an elephant. In addition, keepers must develop a healthy relationship with the animals in their care by respecting them as individuals and always being careful to observe safety procedures.
Being a zookeeper is an active, demanding job. The tasks involved require agility and endurance, whether they consist of cleaning quarters, preparing food, or handling animals.
Many keepers would agree that the disadvantages of the job are outweighed by the advantages. A chief advantage is the personal gratification of successfully maintaining wild animals, especially rare or endangered species. A healthy, well-adjusted animal collection provides a keeper with a deep sense of satisfaction.
Zookeeper Career Outlook
Zoos hire more animal keepers than any other classification. But this is still a very small field. For this reason, employment should grow at a slower rate than other occupations through 2014. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, of the more than 32,000 full-time professionals working in zoos and aquariums, fewer than 5,000 are zookeepers. Each year, there are many more applicants than positions available. Competition for jobs is stiff in the fewer than 200 professionally operated zoological parks, aquariums, and wildlife parks in North America.
Opportunities arise mainly through attrition, which is lower than in many other professions, or the startup of a new facility. The opening in 1998 of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Long Beach Aquarium created a ripple effect throughout the entire industry as experienced personnel migrated to Florida and California, respectively, and jobs for new hires and promotions opened up at dozens of institutions.
Aspiring zookeepers are not the only ones who will benefit. “Ten years ago, there were no geneticists in zoos, and there were very few people working in conservation departments, public relations, or development,” said Anita Cramm, curator of birds at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. “Fifteen years ago, there were no education departments. As zoos continue to grow, new career opportunities will emerge.”
As the preservation of animal species becomes more complicated, there will be a continuing need for zoo staff to work to preserve endangered wildlife and educate the public about conservation. The demand will increase for well-educated personnel who will be responsible for much more than simply feeding the animals and cleaning their enclosures. Zookeepers will need more knowledge as zoos expand and become more specialized. The amount of knowledge and effort necessary to maintain and reproduce a healthy animal collection will keep zookeepers in the front line of animal care.
Pursuing a job in this area is well worth the effort for those who are dedicated to providing care for rapidly diminishing animal species and educating the public about the fate of endangered animals and the need to preserve their natural habitats.