Zookeeper Job Description
Whether working at zoos, aquariums or animal parks, Zookeepers are responsible for overseeing the well-being of animals and maintaining their facilities, often forming a close bond with the creatures they care for. In addition to interacting with animals, Zookeepers educate the public about animals and conservation.
A Zookeeper typically works as part of a team of keepers, specializing in one or more groups of animals. Most Zookeepers can expect to work both indoors and outdoors and perform a broad range of tasks, from cleaning up animal waste to contributing to academic animal research. Demand for zookeepers is forecast to increase 15 percent through 2022, creating more than 5,000 job openings each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Zookeeper Duties and Responsibilities
The duties of a Zookeeper may vary depending on the type of organization one works for, but there are several primary duties that are universal for most Zookeepers. We reviewed job online listings to identify the following core tasks and responsibilities
Feed and Groom Animals
Zookeepers prepare appropriate diets for the animals in their care, as well as create and adhere to feeding schedules. Ordering food supplies is generally part of this task as well. Bathing and general grooming also are the responsibility of Zookeepers.
Clean and Maintain Animal Areas
Habitats, enclosures and any other spaces the animals spend time in, such as training areas or cages, must be cleaned multiple times daily. Zookeepers are also tasked with identifying any areas in the exhibits that may need maintenance due to wear or damage.
Observe and Interact with Animals
A large part of the Zookeeper’s day involves observing animals and their daily behaviors. They must know how to identify when a particular animal appears unwell or injured. In captivity, animals often live longer than those in the wild and may be more likely to get ill. Zookeepers will also interact with the animals in their care, often providing toys and other stimuli, ensuring they receive adequate exercise and attention.
Train and Handle Animals
A Zookeeper is often responsible for training animals, either for educational shows and programs or, more commonly, for preparing the animals for medical and grooming procedures. Using hand signals, commands and other techniques, Zookeepers train animals to perform particular behaviors or activities. Wild animals can be unpredictable and, depending on the animal, this kind of interaction can be one of the more dangerous parts of the job.
Zookeepers often interact with the people who visit their workplaces, educating them about the animals they care for. This can include impromptu conversation while the zookeeper is performing his or her duties or more formal presentations.
It takes more than just a love of animals to be a Zookeeper. Zookeepers must exercise judgment, be detailed and observant, and be able to communicate well with coworkers and the public. Employers look for people with these following core skills.
Core skills: Based on job listings we looked at, employers want Zookeepers with these core skills. If you want to work as a Zookeeper, focus on the following.
- Understanding animal behavior
- Knowledge of animal handling and care techniques
- Experience with common grooming techniques, including caring for coats, cleaning ears and clipping nails
- Ability to meet the physical demands of the job, such as lifting heavy objects, bending and kneeling
Advanced skills: While most employers did not require the following skills, multiple job listings included them as preferred. Add these to your Zookeeper toolbox and broaden your career options.
- Ability to give educational talks to the public
- Experience administering basic health care and medical treatments for animals, such as injections
- Background in animal conservation
Zookeeper Q & A
Does a career as a Zookeeper sound intriguing? It’s a rewarding job that involves a wide variety of duties, but cuddling animals is not one of them, says Linda Lombardi, a former Zookeeper who now writes for VetStreet.com. We asked Lombardi to tells us what being a Zookeeper is all about. Here’s what she had to say.
What’s the most rewarding part about being a Zookeeper?
There’s always something different happening and something new to learn. Yes, you do a lot of cleaning, and that can be mindless and repetitive, but that’s definitely not all there is to it.
What is the biggest challenge faced by Zookeeper?
The truth? A wise fellow keeper once said to me, people don’t go into working with animals because they are good with members of their own species. So getting along with co-workers can be tricky. Don’t be so obsessed with working with animals that you forget that you are working with other people, who you need to have your back in an emergency.
What skills do you use every day?
What makes the job interesting is that you use so many skills, such as observational skills watching your animals, using tools, computer skills for recordkeeping, and people skills for interacting with the public.
Who succeeds in this job?
To start, someone who is energetic and enjoys spending most of the day in motion doing a variety of tasks. Attention to detail is very important: In the wild it’s important for animals to hide when they are not feeling well, so the only indication you get that an animal is sick may be that it takes two seconds longer to stand up. Flexibility is also key, because the only thing you can predict about animals is that they will be unpredictable, so you need to be able to respond to the unexpected without freaking out.
How should someone prepare for a career as a Zookeeper?
Most ads for keeper jobs nowadays ask for a college degree in a related field, but hands-on experience is also critical. Unfortunately like in a lot of fields these days, that often means unpaid internships. Volunteer animal care experience can also be helpful, and if you don’t have a zoo nearby where volunteers work directly with animals, you could look for a wildlife rehabber. More jobs require animal training now, so experience with that can also be helpful, but don’t expect to get your foot in the door just based on your personal pet care experience.
Are there any misconceptions people have about Zookeepers?
People say you must love animals. There are a lot of easier and less strenuous and dirty ways to love animals, and if you think love involves cuddling, you’re definitely not going to get any of that. You also hear parents say to their kids, “That’s what you’ll end up doing if you don’t do well in school.” Definitely not! zookeeping is a lot more than pushing a broom nowadays and most keeper jobs require both degrees and experience and are very hard to get.
We found some great resources on the Web for those interested in becoming Zookeepers. This list full of learning opportunities and ways to engage in the world of Zookeepers.
On the Web
Adventures of a Zookeeper – Zookeeper, Elise Newman shares her day to day adventures as a Zookeeper.
Keeper Notes – This page on the San Diego Zoo’s website is full of articles by Zookeepers.
@ZooKeeperRick – San Diego Zookeeper Rick shares stories and information about his profession.
@ZookeeperProbs – A humorous account for Zookeepers to share the fun and challenging parts of the job.
@tozookeepers – The Toronto Zoo’s Zookeepers update this page with daily photos and news about the zoo and animals.
American Association of Zoo Keepers – Founded in 1967, the AAZK now has over 2,800 members representing almost 250 animal facilities.
Association of Zoos & Aquariums – The AZA is a global association dedicated to animal welfare and conservation efforts. Their site is full of useful resources and information.
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