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Zookeeper Job Description, Career as a Zookeeper, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Associate's degree in animal training management; bachelor's degree in biology or zoology

Salary: Median—$14 per hour

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Zookeepers take care of some of the largest and smallest creatures in captivity, from African elephants to Amazonian frogs. Depending on the zoological park or aquarium in which they work, keepers may be assigned to care for a broad group of animals such as mammals, birds, or reptiles, or they may work with a more specific collection of animals such as primates or large cats.

Zookeepers prepare balanced diets for the animals in their care. Many animals, especially the more exotic breeds, eat only certain foods; for example, koalas eat only the leaves of eucalyptus trees. In addition to preparing the animals' meals, zookeepers feed the animals, which can be a complicated undertaking: some can be fed only in the daytime while others must be fed at night. The animals must be fed every day, so keepers frequently work on weekends and holidays. The responsibilities of zookeepers also include watering, bathing, and exercising the animals, and cleaning, disinfecting, and repairing their cages or tanks.

Because zookeepers spend so much time with the animals, they can provide zoo managers with valuable information on animal behavior, interactions, health concerns, environmental factors, and conservation efforts. Keepers must be well informed so they can answer questions from zoo visitors.

Zookeepers are employed at all sizes of zoos, aquariums, and wildlife refuges throughout the country. They work alongside animal curators, veterinarians, and resident zoologists.

Animal curators are scientists in charge of the animals. With the help of zookeepers, they shift animals from one location to another, moving tigers to winter quarters, placing an ape in a new home, or giving a lioness and her cubs the privacy they need. They encourage breeding, apply medicines, and study animal behavior.

To keep the animals healthy, zoo veterinarians spend a lot of time practicing preventive medicine. They are faced with very special challenges because little is known about the diseases of some species. Sometimes zoo vets have to develop their own treatments.

Resident zoologists are also animal scientists, and their work frequently overlaps with that of curators and veterinarians. Some zoologists are in charge of the educational aspects of the zoo such as preparing descriptions of animals or designing habitats that simulate those found in nature.

Education and Training Requirements

While many zookeepers get their start by volunteering at a zoo, the entry-level keeper position usually requires an associate's degree or, more often, a bachelor's degree. Training in animal science, zoology, conservation biology, wildlife management, or animal behavior is preferred. Caretakers for marine mammals such as seals may need a degree in animal science, biology, marine biology, zoology, psychology, or a related field, plus strong swimming skills and SCUBA certification. To work in zoos or aquariums that are operated by the local government, candidates may have to pass a civil service exam. Curators, zoologists, and veterinarians are expected to have advanced degrees.

Getting the Job

Interested candidates can gain valuable experience in the field by serving as a zoo volunteer, a humane society volunteer, or a veterinary worker. Prospective zookeepers should apply directly to the personnel departments of various zoos. School placement offices, online zoological Web sites, and professional journals also list job openings.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

According to the American Association of Zoo Keepers, some applicants for zookeeper jobs "may become frustrated over the initial difficulty in entering the animal care profession. [However,] the future for careers in zoo work continues to expand and is promising for both men and women." Chances for advancement to managerial positions is possible but rather limited. Zookeepers may be promoted to the post of senior keeper, assistant head keeper, head keeper, or assistant curator. With additional education zookeepers may become curators, veterinarians, or zoologists. A zookeeper may also advance by moving to a larger zoo. The number of zoos in the United States is not expected to increase greatly in the near future, so stiff competition will exist for all zoo positions.

Working Conditions

Zookeepers do not have glamorous, high-paying jobs; they enter the field because of their love for animals. Much of their work requires physical strength, patience with the animals, and the ability to make detailed observations and keep accurate records. Captive animals require attention twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so the hours can be long and exhausting. A special kind of dedication is needed to stay at a zoo through the night nursing a sick animal, or to get up in the middle of the night to meet a pair of rhinos arriving at the airport.

Animal odors and the smell of cleaning fluids may be disagreeable to some people. Having to euthanize old or sick animals can be emotionally stressful. However, most people who enter the profession love animals and receive great satisfaction from helping and working with them. In some places caretakers wear uniforms. Employers may provide uniforms or an allowance for their purchase and cleaning.

Where to Go for More Information

American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc.
3601 SW 29th St., Ste. 133
Topeka, KS 66614-2054

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association
8403 Colesville Rd., Ste. 710
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3314
(301) 562-0777

Earnings and Benefits

Considering the rigorous academic qualifications required, zookeeping is not a particularly high-paying profession. Curators, veterinarians, and zoologists earn considerably more than zookeepers, but these positions require even more years of study and higher degrees. Zookeepers with limited education and experience may start at little more than minimum wage. Online salary surveys indicate that the median salary for zookeepers is $14 per hour or $28,000 per year. If they invest in additional training, experienced zookeepers can make more than $40,000 per year, depending on the size of their zoo and where it is located. Typically, zoos in metropolitan areas pay the most. Benefits for full-time zookeepers usually include paid vacations, accident and health insurance, and retirement plans.

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