Jamie Huss - Zoo Director
Elizabeth Emerick- Assistant Zoo Director
Shawne Sheldon -Retail Manager
So You Want to be a Zookeeper?
The Zoo staff receives many inquiries from kids and adults interested in learning what it takes to be a zookeeper. We also receive questions regarding careers in related fields, like wildlife management, forestry, conservation, and ecology. We're gratified that so many people like animals and want to work with them. And we're happy to help people understand how to prepare for a career in zoos, aquaria, and other wildlife organizations. Here are some of the most often asked questions:
Frequently Asked Questions About Zookeeping
1. How much would a zookeeper make at a zoo like Washington Park Zoo?
A starting zookeeper might make between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. These salary ranges, however, vary throughout the United States depending on the size of the zoo and how the zoo is supported. Most zookeeping positions do not follow a regular Monday through Friday work week – working days usually include weekends. At the WPZ, zookeeper positions offer competitive benefits such as sick leave, holidays, vacation time, pension plans and medical plans.
2. What kind of education and/or background does a zookeeper need?
For zookeeping positions, a high school diploma is required. More zoos are now hiring zookeepers with a college degree in a natural science (biology, zoology, wildlife management, animal behavior, marine biology). While not always required, a college degree is advantageous in the competitive field of zookeeping. However, in the zookeeping field, experience is valuable – you will find it difficult or impossible to get hired as a zookeeper without experience. Some ways to gain zookeeping experience include volunteering, doing internships or taking on seasonal or temporary zookeeping positions.
Although zookeeping is not a high-paying career, nor is there as much room for advancement as there might be in a corporation, there is stiff competition for zookeeping positions. Most zookeepers have put in many years of volunteer or low-wage work before obtaining full-time, permanent zookeeper positions.
3. What is the danger of attack from animals? What do keepers do to protect themselves and prevent injuries?
It is important to remember that zoo animals, while they live in captivity, are not tame and could cause serious injury. Some zoo animals, depending on how they were raised, may be accustomed to humans. Unlike a wild animal that might flee from a person, a captive animal accustomed to humans might approach a person and could easily cause injury. Due to safety issues close contact between zoo animals and zookeepers is very limited and is strictly managed.
Zookeepers must be constantly aware of the safety hazards of their job. They must use all of their senses to know what is going on around them at all times. Zookeepers must be very attuned to the behavior of the animals in their care and must be very observant in order to notice any physical or behavioral changes in the animals. They must also be creative, patient and have sound common sense and good problem-solving abilities. Good zookeepers are extremely dependable and responsible. Some areas of zoos have emergency buttons that can be pushed if a keeper is injured or bitten. It is important for keepers to be conscientious about locking locks and double-checking them.
4. What are useful subjects to take in high school?
As many biology and other science courses as possible would provide a good foundation for a career in a zoo field. Spend some of your free time reading or using other media to learn about animals, plants and the natural world.
5. What do zookeepers like best about their jobs?
The personal and professional satisfaction zookeepers find in their jobs varies from person to person. For many zookeepers the satisfaction of caring for animals that represent some of the last of their species on earth and helping to conserve these species through captive management programs is the greatest reward of the job. Being instrumental in the lives of these animals and helping their species to survive is very gratifying.
For safety reasons, close contact between keepers and animals is very limited and strictly managed. However, even with limited contact, the relationships that develop between keepers and the animals they care for are often strong and can also be a rewarding aspect of the job.
6. What do zookeepers like least about their jobs?
Depending on the particular job and on the person, zookeepers have different likes and dislikes about their work. However, many zookeepers encounter similar conditions in their jobs that are difficult, repetitive and just not much fun. These include: working outside no matter what the weather conditions, cleaning up feces (poop), cleaning and scrubbing animal holding areas and exhibits, and preparing animal diets. These activities must be done once or twice a day, every day, and can become repetitive.
7. What types of medical situations do keepers handle? What types of medical procedures do the veterinarians handle?
The most important job for a keeper in relation to the health of the animals is to be observant. Any abnormal behavior, such as a change in eating habits, could be a sign of sickness or injury. Zookeepers must be extremely observant in order to detect any subtle irregularities in an animal’s behavior, physical condition or routine. These irregularities can indicate that something is not quite right with the animal.
If keepers do observe abnormal behavior, they may collect urine, feces or other samples to be analyzed by the vet. These samples are also collected and analyzed on a regular basis to monitor the health of all zoo animals. When animals need long-term routine medicine, injections, rehydration, force feeding or wound care, keepers may incorporate these duties into their daily routines. The veterinary staff performs routine examination on some species; emergency and short-term care, such as stitching or surgery; and more extensive intensive care if needed.
8. What are a keeper’s daily duties? What is involved in a typical day?
A zookeeper’s typical day may look something like the following; however, this would depend on what types of animals are cared for by the keeper. 7:30 a.m. - Begin the day by checking on the animals, making sure that all the animals are there and observing them for any abnormal behavior or signs of sickness or injury. Often when animals are sick, they will exhibit signs of illness in the morning and then the rest of the day we will:
- Prepare diets - Clean indoor and outdoor enclosure - Feed the animals
- Write daily reports for each animal - Enrichment for the animals
- Grounds keeping and exhibit improvements
Of course, each day is different from the next, with different projects to complete, meetings to attend, educational programs to present for zoo visitors, or unexpected events that occur. Accomplishing the daily duties often takes the majority of an eight-hour workday. Many keepers are also involved in conservation projects or educational programs for which they must find time during their daily routines.