Become a Professional Zookeeper: Education Requirements and Career Info
Learn how to become a professional zookeeper. Research the job duties and the education requirements and find out how to start a career in zookeeping.
Do I Want to Be a Zookeeper?
Zookeepers care for animals in settings such as zoos and aquariums. Common work duties might include cleaning enclosures, feeding, observing, and recording behavior, constructing enrichment items, training the animals, administering some veterinary care, and educating zoo visitors. Some zookeepers work with more than one animal group; others specialize and may only work with primates or carnivores.
These professionals obviously spend a lot of time working with animals and are sometimes at risk for bites, scrapes and scratches. They may also have to work irregular hours, including nights and weekends. Still, the job can be a rewarding one for those who enjoy working with animals and educating groups of people.
Zookeepers usually need a bachelor's degree in biology, zoology, zoo technology, or some field related to animal management. One may also earn a specialized two-year degree in the field of zookeeping at a community college. Some of these degrees are easily transferable to certain bachelor's degree programs affiliated with the two-year programs. There are some master's degree programs in zoo management, but typically a bachelor's degree is all that is required for most zookeeping jobs. The following table lists common education and experience requirements for becoming a zookeeper.
|Degree Level||Majority in field hold a bachelor's degree, an associate's degree from certain programs is also an option*|
|Degree Field||Zoology, animal science, any life science**|
|Experience||Entry-level positions may substitute education for experience, higher-level positions (e.g. lead keeper) may require 1-5 years of experience in the field in addition to education***|
|Key Skills||Strong skills in decision making, independent thinking, observation, record keeping, and ability to manage animals and perform a certain amount physical labor***|
|Computer Skills||Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint, and Word****|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **University of Florida, ***Job postings by employers (July 2012), ****American Association of Zoo Keepers.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's or Associate's Degree
The typical education required of zookeepers is a bachelor's degree in one of the life sciences, which includes biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and zoology. Depending on the program, a student may be able to choose elective courses to specialize his or her degree in a certain area, such as herpetology, aquatic biology, or animal behavior. This specialization may determine what kind of position one might acquire at a zoo later on.
A different option is to earn an associate's degree in zoo technology at a community college that works with a local zoo. These programs emphasize hands-on education, which is very valuable when entering the field of zoo keeping. Courses in animal training, which are not offered through most traditional bachelor degree programs, may be available in these programs. Some of these associate's degrees are guaranteed to transfer to certain zoo-related bachelor's degree programs.
- Research courses offered in different biology programs. Each school will have courses in different specialties. A student who is very interested in pursuing primate behavior should decide on a school that offers courses in the subject and has faculty that is active in researching the subject.
- Volunteer or intern at a zoo or animal care facility. Experience in animal handling is very important in the field of zoo keeping. If not enrolled in a program that offers courses in animal handling or training, one can get this experience by volunteering or interning at a local humane society, wildlife rehabilitation center or zoo. An internship might count for college credit as well.
Step 2: Get Zoo Keeping Experience
Knowledge and experience in animal handling is crucial in the field of zoo keeping. Aspiring zoo keepers usually start out volunteering or working an unpaid internship. After a time, the volunteer or intern will gain more experience working with different animals and earn positive references from supervisors. This will help in acquiring a paid internship.
Paid internships are commonly available to those still in college and recent graduates, and are sometimes a prerequisite to an actual job position with a zoo. Often, zoos that are looking to hire a new zookeeper will give first priority to those who have interned there. The zoos that do this know first-hand that the intern works hard, knows how the zoo is run, and has intimate knowledge of certain animals at the zoo.
- Get involved early. The sooner one starts getting experience with animals the better. One could start in high school or during college. The advantage of doing this type of work during college is that some zoos have internship programs developed specifically for college students. These programs support students in getting experience, college credit, and sometimes even a good paycheck.
Step 3: Earn a Higher Position
Once a person successfully finds a job as a zookeeper, he or she may move up to positions such as lead keeper or curator. This takes time and experience. Senior-level jobs may be more supervisory in nature and require more time in an office, but responsibility and pay may be higher with these positions. Seniority also might mean a better work schedule; many zookeepers just starting out are required to work evenings and weekends.
- Become an expert in a certain area. As zookeepers work with and gain more knowledge of certain animals, they might be able to become more involved in research.This work might involve working with researchers both in the zoo and in the animal's natural habitat. Many senior-level zookeepers are very involved in conservation research for the animals they care for at their zoo.
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