I’ll start with the cliché, so you want to be a zoo keeper.  Ok, let’s say you do in that you meet the one essential pre-requisite- a love for animals.  Yes, that is a good place to start, but there are many fields that can begin with that determination.  Whether becoming a zoo keeper is right for you depends on your personality, professional goals, salary requirements, schedule and how hard you want to work.  Of course these are only a few of the considerations needed to decide if zoo keeping is right for you.

Just because you love animals doesn’t mean you will be a good keeper.  There are several ways to work with or around animals and zoo keeping may not be for you.  Interning or volunteering will help you see what being a zoo keeper is really like and help you decide if you really want to be a zoo keeper.  You can volunteer as a keeper aide in most zoos, which means you get to work side by side with zoo keepers behind the scenes.  Now, you will not get to pet, touch or otherwise put yourself in a situation to lose digits or limbs, but you will be in close proximity to animals and as a bonus, you get to pick up their poop(the animal’s, not the keeper’s, though you do have to take a little crap off them).   If you have a youngster that has interest in becoming a zoo keeper there are junior zoo keeper and job shadowing programs at most zoos.  The programs may go by different names, but if you contact the education department they can give you the appropriate information. 

As a zoo keeper you get to do a lot of cool things with animals, but you also get to clean up after them.  It’s a physically and emotionally demanding field that just doesn’t suit all animal lovers.  You may do better loving animals as a veterinarian, wildlife biologist, vet tech or park ranger.  It all depends on the conditions in which you like to work, what kind of education you have or want to pursue, how much you want to make and the schedule you want to work.  Zoo keepers do not make much money, around $30,000 give or take, depending on the market the zoo is in and whether it is privately owned or run by the city.  You typically get excellent benefits though.  Another consideration is your schedule.  Zoo keepers never get weekends off.  If you have seniority you might get Friday/Saturday or Sunday/Monday but typically it’s going to be two other consecutive days and you don’t get holidays off.  The zoo keeping field is highly competitive with a finite number of jobs available on the whole and even more so as you begin to specialize.  Typically a zookeeper takes the first job they can get, regardless of what animal or group of animals for which the position cares.  From there the keeper either develops an affinity for that group of animals and seeks a job specific to them later or takes the experience and searches out a job that does work with the animal to which the keeper wishes to dedicate their career.  Like I said, zookeeper jobs are limited which makes them highly competitive so you have to be prepared to move away after college if the only job you can get is across the country.  But how does one become a zoo keeper?

Some of you may be surprised to know that it is increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get hired as a keeper without a college degree.  Yes, you must have a degree to clean up poop.  My favorite story in relation to this is a friend, who was a PhD candidate in zoology. She was cleaning a pool at the zoo when a family walked by.  The father said to his daughter, see, this is why it is important you get a college degree.  In the old days, someone with an affinity for animals and a strong work ethic need only apply and for good measure know someone already working there.  These days a degree in the life sciences is requisite to even get your resume in front of the powers that be.  Without the basic requirements your resume will not even get past human resources.  There are exceptions that grant experience to replace college credit on a year to year basis, but that is typically AZA (American Association of Zoos and aquariums) experience.  People who take the experience route, like me, typically begin at non-AZA facilities or small AZA zoos.  It makes it difficult to convince those doing the hiring that your experience can translate to the high standards at an AZA accredited zoo.  It can be done, but it takes a lot of hard work.  Increasingly, zoos want a fresh college graduate who has completed an internship at a zoo, possibly even their zoo.  No amount of reading Jane Goodall books will prepare you for the amazing behavioral complexity of working with chimpanzees though.  College doesn’t teach you animal training by means of positive reinforcement, which will be a standard responsibility on a daily basis, nor does it teach you how to observe behavior in such a way that you can tell when an animal is sick or agitated- that comes with experience.  A college degree does however open the door to the zoo world.  There are schools that train you specifically to be a zoo keeper.  If you are absolutely sure zoo keeping is for you, this may be a good route.  For a good list of schools that will aid you in achieving a degree that will help you get hired as a zoo keeper go to http://aazk.org/zoo-keeping-as-a-career/ .  This is the American Association of Zoo Keepers website and a wonderful resource for those who want to learn from keepers about what keepers do.  You can also check out the AZA website at www.aza.org.  At the top of the page you will see a link for jobs.  Zoos post open jobs and internships there daily. 

If you want to be a zoo keeper, you really need to find out what exactly zoo keepers do, not just what you think they do.  Volunteer or apply for an internship and get experience of the day to day responsibilities of a keeper.  If you are already in college majoring in a life science, check out the internship program in your respective department, they may have a program already set up with your local zoo.  Check the AZA website for internships over the summer and have a great experience traveling to a different state for the summer and working with animals.  If you have already graduated and have a degree in accounting, worry not.  Volunteer at the zoo in which you desire to work, in the department with the animals in which you have an affinity and build up some experience.  Most zoos will consider volunteer experience when hiring a keeper position.  It helps when you are applying to the zoo at which you volunteered if volunteer experience is all you have.  The important thing is to build experience.

 If you’ve done your research and you’ve decided that being a zoo keeper is absolutely right for you, then start taking the steps to make it happen.  Being a zoo keeper is one of the most unique jobs out there.  If it’s right for you, it can be the most amazing experience of your life.  If you have questions or are interested in getting more information and resources on becoming or being a zoo keeper, please leave a comment below and I will address your question as quickly as possible.