So you want to become a zookeeper?
Well I’m going to be the first one to tell you that the job is a lot different then you think.
Parts of the job are incredible and will leave you with once in a lifetime experiences that will make your grandkids eyes go wide with amazement when you recount them. Other parts of the job are tough and require a strong stomach and an either stronger will to complete. Just because you’re working with animals every day doesn’t mean you won’t face problems people have in most other jobs, such as co worker and management issues, short staffing, low budgets and stress.
Despite its shortcomings, being a zookeeper can be one of the most rewarding and life changing experiences you can ever have and for the right person, the good far outweighs the bad. Picture sitting in a cubicle every morning listening to the hum of a water cooler and the clicking of keyboards in an otherwise silent office space, waiting for a coworker to say hi to you just so you can engage in a time wasting bout of useless small talk. Now picture putting your steel toe boots and uniform on, walking outside only to be greeted by the hooting of gibbons, the howling of wolves and the bellowing call of a donkey, all eagerly awaiting your arrival and their morning food. Now although I’m being slightly facetious and have never actually worked an office job a day in my life, the latter of those scenarios should sound much better then the former or you might as well stop reading this guide.
But you should also picture putting on heavy winter steel toes, trudging through the snow, being greeted with several feet of snow in-front of a gate you need to open in order to feed your animals. Feeling the cold slowly nip at your fingertips as you push a wheelbarrow full of food and water buckets across a field, due to the fact that your fancy automatic drinker has frozen for yet another winter. Still on board?
In this article I aim to breakdown exactly what you should be doing in order to become a zookeeper, breaking it down to four main steps:
- Background of Animal Experience
- Getting your foot in the door
- Become a Zookeeper!
Step 1: Background of Animal Experience
This is one of the most important steps/recommendations I have for people who want to become a zookeeper or just work with animals in general, you need to build a background of animal experience. One of the main things most facilities will be looking for especially during a probation period or during an entry level job will be just common sense around animals in general. People that move quickly, are loud, are nervous and try to pet an animal right away are likely not going to last long in any sort of animal care job. In order to become used to working with animals, you need to actually go out there and work with them!
For me, I was lucky, I grew up on a horse farm and consequently spent a lot of time around horses and wildlife so when it came time to move into animal care I already had a solid background of experience working with a variety of animals. So maybe your a high school student and live in the city, there are still plenty of ways to work with animals and build that experience base. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or wildlife rehab, you could get a job at a pet store or even volunteer for your own local zoo. Whatever you can do to get some experience being around animals will help you immensely in the long run.
Step 2: Education
Quite often the least fun and most debatable requirement for getting many jobs is the education you need to qualify you for the position. Generally most Zoos require a university degree in biology or a college diploma with equivalent experience in order for you to become a zookeeper. Becoming a zookeeper isn’t that dependent on your education background and depending on how much experience you gained in step one you might be able to get away with minimal education such as a diploma program. If University is something you want to do then be sure to major in zoology, wildlife or general biology as a bachelors degree will qualify you for almost all keeping positions around the world.
Step 3: Getting your Foot in the Door
Now its the time you’ve been waiting for, its time to get your foot in the door! This is best done when you are still in school and can accept a lower paying entry level job to get into a zoo. Most zoos have a student zookeeper program or various entry level jobs doing interpretive work, and even landscaping and maintenance. The goal here is not necessarily to work with animals and become a zookeeper right away, although some student keeper programs let you do just that, the idea is to get a job at a zoo and meet the right people that are going to give you that job! I actually first started out as a maintenance worker at a zoo when I was in university, fixing exhibits and helping in the construction of various outbuildings and features of the zoo. Working in another department at a zoo may even benefit your zookeeping career by teaching you valuable and transferable skills you can use in your keeping career. For instance, the construction and maintenance skills I acquired from that job are put to use every day maintaining exhibits and building enrichment items for the animals in my care. Don’t get to hung up on the job, go out there and get your foot in the door with an open mind and an eagerness to learn and people will take notice!
Step 4: Become a Zookeeper!
Its the moment you’ve been waiting for! You’ve spent the last few years getting some experience working in animal care, you’ve got the education you need and you’ve got your foot in the door at a zoo, now its time to become a keeper! Hopefully by working at a zoo already you managed to talk to the keeping staff and even management about your interest in becoming a zookeeper, this will make it a lot easier to get in and stand out as a candidate. The best way to become a zookeeper is to keep your eye out for a part time position or a maternity leave position as the pool will likely be smaller for these positions which make them perfect for an inexperienced keeper to get the experience they need to achieve full time permanent employment. Apply for every single keeping job available and talk to the people that are going to be making hiring decisions about your interest and application to the job. Eventually your interest will be noticed and you will become a zookeeper!
Well I hope this article helps you in your quest to become a zookeeper. Zookeeping has been one of the most transformative experience of my life and has been an extremely fun journey. Becoming a zookeeper will allow you to work very hard but never really work another day in your life, you’ll create amazing relationships with animals and the many amazing people in the industry! Just remember, if your ever having a hard day or doubting yourself or your career choice, be sure to take a step back and look at the smiling animal and human faces around you.