There was a time when zoos were little more than places where people went to view exotic animals in glorified cages, similar to a museum.
But today, these institutions are much more than that. Zoos are places where endangered species are protected and bred, so they can someday thrive again in the wild. And zoos are places where the public can learn about wild animals, and come to appreciate the value of wildlife conservation.
As zoos have changed over the years, so has the job of zookeeper. These are the people put in charge of caring for the animals at the zoo, and much more. Once a job that consisted of little more than feeding the animals and cleaning out their cages, the job of today’s zookeeper is a lot more rewarding and complex.
But make no mistake. Most zookeepers are still in charge of making sure all the animals at the zoo are well fed and well cared for, but their duties go way beyond that. Today zookeepers also help to educate the public about wildlife issues, they assist in training the animals, designing their habitats, and even participate in zoological research.
Because of these changes in a zookeeper’s duties, and the fact that the job has broadened into a more complicated and demanding position, many zoos today are showing a preference for hiring individuals with at least a bachelors degree in zoology or another animal-related major. But there are still opportunities for prospective zookeepers who have an extensive background in handling zoo animals, along with some formal schooling, but no degree if they’re willing to learn on the job and work hard.
And you don’t have to live in a big city in order to get a zookeeper job. While it’s true that large metropolitan zoos are still some of the biggest employers of zookeepers, there are a growing number of smaller zoos in rural and suburban locations that also require the services of animal caretakers.
Taking care of zoo animals is hard work, but there are also many rewards to this career including the fact that you’ll get to work closely with exotic and endangered animals on a daily basis. You’ll get to help sick and injured animals, you’ll spend part of your time educating the public about the importance of wildlife conservation, and you’ll get to help out with important breeding programs that endangered species rely on for their very survival.
About the job
As mentioned above, the duties of a modern zookeeper are many, and can include some or all of the following:
What the job is really like
Like many animal-related careers and jobs, zookeepers spend much of their time working outdoors, in all kinds of weather conditions. Many exhibits in zoos are outdoor habitats, and the animals need to be tended to no matter if it’s an extremely hot day, or it’s snowing outside.
This is also a job that requires working odd hours, including weekends, evenings, and even holidays. Zoo animals need to be cared for 365 days a year, and zookeepers are needed every day of the year as well. But most zoos have enough staff on hand that everyone only has to put in 40 hour weeks, with the occasional overtime shift.
Since a large part of a zookeeper’s duties is helping to clean and maintain the zoo’s cages and enclosures, be aware that the job can be a smelly and messy one, especially in hot weather. Zoos are also noisy places, as many animals call out as they would in the wild, so this is another consideration. And there is also a considerable amount of heavy lifting involved with zookeeping, so you’ll need to be in good physical condition for this job.
As a zookeeper you’ll also be spending a good amount of your time dealing with the public, some of whom aren’t always well-behaved or respectful around the animals. And the animals themselves aren’t always well behaved either, and zookeepers contend with the risk of being scratched or bitten by the animals. Occasionally a zookeeper is seriously injured on the job, but these incidents are rare.
Training and certification
As the duties and responsibilities of zookeepers have increased in recent years, more and more of these positions require at least a four-year college degree. Prior experience as a veterinary technician or a wildlife rehabilitator can also get you through the door of a modern zoo.
However, there are still some opportunities for applicants who only have a high school education or GED. If you go this route, you’ll typically need a lot of volunteer experience with zoo animals, plus some college or continuing education courses in things like animal behavior, zoology, animal science, or wildlife management.
Visit the best colleges for zoology page for more information on getting a degree in this challenging and rewarding career field.
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