Working with and caring for animals is the heart of a zookeeper career. Their goal is to ensure animals within the zoos are looked after in the best possible way, providing food and support to the animals’ growth and development.
What is a zookeeper?
Zookeepers are crucial in dealing with the welfare of animals for zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums, and other animal attractions. A zookeeper typically specialises in working with one type of animal or a specific area within the zoo such as reptiles or penguins. It’s a role which offers hands-on experience to understand animals in your care and learn how they’ll thrive best.
As a degree isn’t essential, college is an alternative option for qualifications to be a zookeeper, which benefits your career.
Being a zookeeper isn’t only about animals, a significant aspect is engaging and educating the public about the inhabitants of the zoo. Zoos generally focus on research and conservation for the animals and planet, and this mantra is an area to develop your knowledge further.
A zookeeper job can vary depending on the department you’re working in. Although, they typically involve:
- Cleaning out animal enclosures and ensuring they’re secured safely.
- Observing and caring for animals, looking out for signs of ill health and distress.
- Preparing various animal foods and administrating medications.
- Brainstorming creative ideas to keep animals active and happy about their environments.
- Working with other trained professionals including vets.
- Building and repairing environments to ensure they’re close to natural habitats.
- Monitor conditions including temperature and humidity to ensure animals are. comfortable.
- Keep up to date with daily records of animals’ eating habits, behaviour, births, deaths and other events.
- Teach visitors about your animal insight through demonstrations with live animals, talks, tours and visitor experiences.
- Training animal behaviour to make medicating, feeding and monitoring simple and safe.
- Being a part of breeding procedures and caring for young animals.
- Supervising trainee keepers and animal care workers.
The zoo keeper's salary is similar across the UK and doesn’t generally alter much depending on which zoo you work at. On average, the zookeeper's salary in the UK is £21,357, which is the equivalent of £10.95 per hour. Entry-level positions start from the £20,000 mark, while the most experienced zookeepers can earn up to £26,930.
Zookeepers aren’t exclusively a graduate profession, however, they’re increasingly becoming qualified to a degree level and some to a postgraduate level. Degrees cover a whole spectrum of subjects to work as a zookeeper. The most obvious degree for a direct route in this career are zoology degrees. Although, any life science or animal-related subject including biology degrees, animal science degrees and animal welfare degrees can be an advantage.
Within the role of a zookeeper, naturally, with time, your on-the-job skills will develop and you will become more experienced.
Zoology degrees are common, however, for a postgraduate degree, specific universities offer zoo biology degrees or zoo conservation degrees. This higher level of qualification can give you a step up in a very competitive profession.
Alternatively, you can also do a foundation degree or an HND (Higher national diploma) in various subjects including a zoology diploma, veterinary science, animal or zoo management and animal behaviour and welfare.
As a degree isn’t essential, college is an alternative option for qualifications to be a zookeeper, which benefits your career. Many colleges will offer zookeeper courses involving animal management, welfare or biology. For example, the Level 3 Extended Diploma in Animal Management or Level 3 Diploma in Animal Care or Animal Science.
Training and development
Within the role of a zookeeper, naturally, with time, your on-the-job skills will develop and you will become more experienced. This could lead you to train entry-level zookeepers or take on management roles.
There’s the option to complete the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) whilst working in the zoo. Many zookeepers offer this to trainee zookeepers and it’s run in partnership between BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and Sparsholt College. It’s a two-year distance learning programme including conservation, nutrition, restraint and transport of animals, enclosure management and more specialist skills. This course gives you a more in-depth insight into the workings of animals, the zoo and how you can best care for them.
Aside from university and those who didn’t choose that path, zoo work experience is crucial for your career development.
There is also the option of going down the route of in-situ conservation or scientific research. Working on scientific papers and moving more into the theory side of zoology can open up doors for presenting opportunities. You can find yourself presenting at events run by large organisations such as BIAZA.
In a social and caring role for animals, there are many skills a zookeeper should have including:
- Strong and knowledgable observation skills to monitor the wellbeing of animals and spot any issues.
- Confidence in handling and approaching animals of all sizes.
- Good health and a high level of fitness to maintain physical work for long periods, in every climate.
- A driver's license - may be needed if working in a larger zoo or safari park to get around.
- Strong communication skills to speak confidently to large groups of visitors of all ages.
- Great working in a team with those onsite and beyond.
- The ability to remain calm in stressful situations.
- Can work based on your initiative.
- Be flexible around your working pattern and open to change.
A zoo apprenticeship is a great way to gain hands-on skills and qualifications while at the same time being a zookeeper. There are plenty of zoo apprenticeships available in this sector including an intermediate apprenticeship in animal care and welfare or an aquarist advanced apprenticeship. Research and see which zookeeper apprenticeship suits your goals the most. Zoos are also keen on zookeeper experience when hiring new zookeepers, hence why many university programmes offer work placements as part of their courses.
Aside from university and those who didn’t choose that path, zoo work experience is crucial for your career development. Many zoos rely on animal lovers and conservation activists to volunteer and provide care for the animals - and this is where you can come in. It provides the perfect opportunity to gain the skills required to work in a zoo. Search your local zoos and other animal attractions such as sanctuaries, stables or kennels for details of the voluntary opportunities, work placements and internships available. Organisations including BIAZA are also handy for volunteering and work experience opportunities.
Zookeepers are crucial in dealing with the welfare of animals for zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums, and other animal attractions.
As part of a zookeeper’s role is working with the public, any experience interacting with the public can be an advantage. For example, working with animal charities in helping them promote animal welfare either online through social media or directly to the public. You can deliver leaflets, speak to the public at local events on the stands or create a community online to get the message out. With an array of animal organisations available, you can do your bit for work experience and make a difference for the local community.
Over time, most zookeepers will progress into managerial positions, taking charge of larger groups of animals or entire departments. This includes positions of the senior keeper, head keeper, senior head keeper and a managerial role in the zoo. The speed of your progression is dependent on the zoo and how many people work there. However, it’s important to note that progression is typically slower in this role than in other jobs due to a low staff turnover. This is why you may have to consider moving further afield to speed up progression into higher roles.
There’s also the opportunity to move into the path of conservation research and education, looking at the more scientific route of how you can benefit the overall welfare of animals and their environment. With a degree and experience, you could also become a curator. That involves being solely responsible for the animals living environments, finding new animals to home in the zoo and designing new enclosures.
- Animal Keeper average salary in United Kingdom 2022 — Talent.com Retrieved 2nd September 2022.