I get stopped by many guests regularly because I have the coolest job on the planet. They want to know how they can be like me. How do you become a zookeeper, and what does it take? This question doesn’t have a simple answer, as each animal care professional has taken a different path to get to where they are, but there are a lot of similarities. Most know they want to do something with animals. Some know specific species they want to work with. It starts in the early years volunteering to gain experience. Opportunities exist with local wildlife rehabilitation facilities, zoos, humane societies and farms. Some places have age restrictions to volunteer on your own, but can use families to help with group projects. Volunteering doesn’t mean cuddling with something fuzzy (although rarely it might). Usually volunteering involves assisting staff at the facility with tasks that they don’t have as much time to spend on and are tasks that any skill level of helper can assist with. These tasks can include washing dishes, laundry, sweeping, mopping, diet preparations, enclosure cleaning, answering phones or answering questions from visitors to the facility. If you are committed to volunteering regularly and build trust with the staff, they begin to allow other opportunities, like being able to feed some individuals, observe animal procedures and engage in some interactions. Just talking with the animal care personnel is a great way to network and learn more about the challenges and opportunities that exist within the field. They can provide feedback of how they got to where they are in their careers. (I bet they volunteered somewhere.)
Another common similarity among animal care professionals is their education. Most have or are in the process of attaining a degree. Many have a degree in the sciences (usually biological but also psychology). A lot of animal care professionals continue to build on that degree with certificate programs or even a Master’s program to continue to build skills. There are many specialties that keepers will focus on, like education, conservation, guest interaction, animal training, nutrition and medical.
A word of warning. We have the most glamorous job in the world; however, the reward is not financial. Most of us do it for the animals and the pleasure it brings to those who get to observe and learn from the animals.
Lead Keeper, Ambassador Animals