Zoo Career Options and Salaries

Zoo vet operating on crocodile
••• Michel Gunther/Biosphoto/Getty Images

Did you ever wonder what a particular zoo position pays? Many career seekers dream of working at a zoo but are uncertain whether they could make a living. Let's take a look at some popular zoo positions and their typical salary ranges:

Animal Care

Veterinarians - Maintaining the health of a collection’s animals and providing emergency care is critical when an animal is sick or injured. Routine duties include performing surgeries, assisting with difficult births, cleaning teeth, taking x-rays and ultrasounds, suturing wounds, and evaluating animals that have shown significant behavioral or physiological changes.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarians earned an average yearly salary of $88,490 per year in 2015. Board-certified specialists in zoological medicine can expect to earn much higher salaries due to the advanced education required. In 2015, there were 164 board-certified specialists in zoological medicine according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Veterinary technician - This individual is tasked with assisting zoo veterinarians with treatments and procedures. Routine duties for a zoo vet tech include preparing surgical sites, assisting with surgeries, changing bandages, taking samples, running lab tests, and giving injections.

Specialty certification in the field is available to those with at least 10,000 hours (5 years) of documented experience in zoo medicine. Zoo vet techs can expect to earn between $35,000 and $45,000 per year, which is on the top end of the general veterinary technician compensation range.

Zookeepers - Duties may include feeding, assisting with veterinary care, monitoring behavior, cleaning animal enclosures, giving medications, assisting with demonstrations, and answering questions from the general public. Zookeeper positions are not noted for being particularly high paying opportunities, but they are still hard to come by since career seekers are attracted to the hands-on interaction with exotic animals. Most keeper positions pay between $20,000 and $30,000 per year.

Commissary keepers - Preparing animal diets as directed by the zoo nutritionists and veterinarians. They take inventories and order supplies as needed, assist with unloading deliveries, regularly disinfect the kitchen food prep areas, properly store food products, deliver animal rations to keepers or distribute them to the animals directly, and give tours of the kitchen to school groups. Commissary keepers usually earn a salary in the same range as animal keepers, about $25,000 to $30,000 per year.

Commissary managers can earn as much as $70,000 per year.

Development

Zoologists - Conducting research studies, developing captive breeding programs, and analyzing data from the zoo’s collection of animals fall under this set of responsibilities. Subspecialties in the field of zoology include mammalogy (mammals), herpetology (reptiles), ichthyology (fish), and ornithology (birds). Zoologists generally earn between $60,000 and $70,000 per year, depending on their level of education and the nature of their work.

Educators - Tours and lectures to zoo visitors are provided in an effort to promote wildlife conservation. Some presentations may involve handling of live animals (often parrots, turtles, and small mammals). Zoo educators may also be tasked with developing their own original educational materials and assisting with advertising and marketing campaigns. Salaries would be around $30,000 per year.

Zoo Management and Administration

Curators - This member of the management oversee keepers, veterinarians, and other members of the support staff as they provide care for the animals under their supervision. They are involved with all day to day decisions, developing research projects, and acquiring new animals for exhibits and breeding programs.

Curators may specialize further as curator of a specific group of animals (i.e. reptiles or hoofstock), exhibits, education, conservation, research, or as the general curator (supervising all other specialty curators). 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, curators earned a median annual salary of $46,710 per year in the most recent salary survey of 2015. The highest 10 percent of curators reportedly earned more than $87,380 per year.

Registrar - This position involves detailed record keeping for each animal in the zoo’s collection and completing the paperwork necessary by law to keep and transport zoo animals. Zoo registrars work closely with keepers and curators to maintain a comprehensive log of each animal’s behavior, veterinary history, pedigree, and dietary needs. Zoo registrar salaries can vary from $30,000 to $50,000 per year based on the individual’s level of experience and the funding available to each zoo.