How to Become a Zookeeper
Traditionally, the position of zookeeper is the first rung on the ladder of zoological careers. Though you’ll often see zookeepers cleaning dung out of a cage or feeding wild cats in their enclosure, the zookeeper is at heart a scientist. They are a very visible member of the scientist family, since many zoologists work in the background at the zoo, in administrative offices or at veterinary clinics away from the public eye. The zookeeper is a scientists that gets their hands dirty, the feeder and caretaker of exotic zoo animals, and the go-between for the zoo and the zoo-going public.
What is the best way to prepare for a career as a zookeeper?
There are many routes in to a position with a zoo. Volunteer workers are a major part of zoo life — these are usually young people or students of biology attempting to get both hands-on experience and perhaps to impress the zoo’s directors enough for a full-time job offer. Preparation to become a volunteer at your local zoo is a snap — have a passion for animals and a desire to work in the field of biology. Not all volunteers at zoos will go on to become zookeepers or even zoologists, but work at a zoo (like work at a farm or veterinary clinic) is good for scientists of any biological field.
When a position for a zookeeper opens at a major zoo, there are often thousands of applications from qualified zoologists for a single position as a zookeeper. The competition is very high, though smaller market zoos offer a better opportunity for zoologists just getting started. Still, even positions in small town zoos often get hundreds of applications. That’s why it’s important for anyone interested in becoming a zookeeper to do as much as they can to set their application apart from the crowd. Experience and education are the main areas that directors will look at when hiring a zookeeper.
How do I get experience as a zookeeper?
An applicant’s experience (including any special work they’ve done or work with well-known zoos) is often the deciding factor in a zoo hire. One easy way to earn zoo experience is, as we’ve already mentioned, work as a volunteer at a Zoo in your area. Actual zoo experience usually counts more on a job application, but if you don’t live near a zoo, you can work at a vet’s office, an animal shelter, at the humane society, or even on a farm that takes care of live animals. This kind of experience does two things — the wannabe zoologist gets hands on experience with different animals, and that application has built up some credential with an employer that can vouch for their experience. Once upon a time, most zookeepers were people who grew up on farms — though college education is now a pretty big prerequisite as well.
If you are studying zoology or any field of biology and there is a zoo near you, look into something a little more strenuous than volunteer. The position of “animal keeper” is the “entry level” version of a zookeeper. Animal keepers do some of the grunt work of zookeepers, and are charged also with keeping an eye on the animals. In this way, animal keepers learn a ton about animal behavior, which is perfect prep work for a future as a zookeeper.
What kind of education should I get to become a zookeeper?
Most zoos will say officially that you only need a high school education for employment, having advanced college degrees will get you hired well before the brightest high school grad. Attend a school that offers a degree in Zoology or Animal Science, or earn your Master’s or Doctoral degree in any life science for a guarantee of work in the zoo field. If you’re more interested in working hands on with animals, there are animal handling programs and so called “zoo schools” in a few parts of the country — work with these specialty schools is just as valuable as what you can learn at a university.
Besides education and work experience, there are a few things that could catapult you into a career as a zookeeper. If you really want your application to stand out, you should volunteer with the zoo you’re applying at before you apply. This shows a true commitment to that zoo’s work, and the people reviewing your application are familiar with your name, your drive, and your desire to learn the science of zoology. At most zoos, volunteers get plenty of time working around animals, though they kind of work they do is even less glamorous than that of the full-time animal handlers. There’s no shame in volunteer work — most zoo curators today started out their careers in zoology as volunteers, on their hands and knees helping the zoo accomplish its mission.
What does it take to be a good zookeeper?
A good zookeeper does a wide range of things very well, from studying and learning animal behavior to conditioning a habitat for a new animal species. Zookeepers work well in groups or on their own, and they respond to stress and emergencies well. Zookeepers must be fully commited to their animals, to the zoo they work for, and to educating the public about biology and animals. Zoo work requires long hours and hard work for little financial reward, at first. Zookeepers can move up the ranks at their zoo, with experience and a good work ethic, but before they start earning six figures, they spend long periods of time buying in bulk and driving used cars. But they get to work with exotic animal species close up, engaging with animals that few people ever even get to see.
If you’re interested in becoming a professional zookeeper, you should study mathematics and the science, apply at zoo schools or university programs, volunteer with animals at a zoo or vet’s office, and get work as an animal handler before you ever apply for work as a zookeeper.