Zoo commissary keepers prepare and distribute nutritionally balanced zoo animal diets.
Zoo commissary keepers must prepare a variety of animal diets each day, making adjustments and adding necessary supplements as directed by the zoo’s nutritionists and veterinarians. Diets may frequently change due to special health issues, illnesses, pregnancies, or individual animal quirks, so commissary staff must work closely with zoo keepers and curators to keep diet sheets and “cookbooks” up to date.
A key responsibility for the commissary keepers is delivering all animal rations to the exhibits on a strict schedule, either handing the items off to a zoo keeper or distributing the food themselves. The method of food distribution is often a part of an animal’s behavioral enrichment program, so food may be hidden inside objects, scattered across a wider area to encourage foraging, or frozen inside blocks of ice.
The commissary keepers must be careful to follow food safety and preparation guidelines, ensuring that the zoo kitchen is kept up to inspection standards at all times. A wide variety of commercial-grade kitchen equipment must be properly used and maintained. Walls and equipment must be regularly and thoroughly disinfected.
Commissary keepers also maintain an inventory of supplies and order more food items from vendors as needed. Once delivered, the commissary staff is responsible for unloading the food products and storing them in appropriate areas (freezers, refrigerators, warehouses, and barns). Food products that arrive regularly in the commissary may include bales of hay, grains, meats, live insects, rodents, fish, pellets, bird seed, biscuits, fruit, vegetables, and much more.
Zoo commissary keepers also provide food preparation demonstrations to school groups that arrive as a part of “behind the scenes” tours led by zoo educators. They may also allow students to assist in some of the basic food preparation duties.
Commissary keepers spend the majority of their time in the food preparation kitchen and storage areas, but they are also exposed to varying weather conditions while delivering food to animal enclosures. The work day for the commissary staff usually starts very early in the morning, before dawn, and ends in the mid-afternoon. Commissary keepers are commonly required to work some hours on weekends and holidays, and these necessary shifts may be accommodated through a rotating schedule.
Opportunities for commissary keeper positions may be found in a variety of animal facilities including zoos, aquariums, animal parks, marine parks, and rescue facilities. A commissary keeper can eventually rise to a management role, such as commissary manager or curator, after achieving the requisite experience and education.
Education & Training
A high school diploma or GED is usually the minimum educational requirement for any zoo commissary keeper positions. A year of hands-on experience in food preparation or completion of an approved training course in food service is usually preferred. A four-year degree in the biological sciences is often the minimum requirement for managerial level positions in the commissary.
Some zoos offer internship programs that enable students to gain experience in this field of work. These valuable opportunities add a measure of practical experience to a future commissary keeper’s resume, and they also give the student a chance to network with industry professionals.
Compensation for zoo commissary keepers generally ranges from $12 to $16 per hour, depending on the keeper’s level of experience, their length of employment at the facility, and the geographic location in which the zoo operates (some regions tend to offer slightly higher salaries due to higher costs of living in those areas).
While zoo commissary keeper salaries were not separated out from the more general category of zoo keepers, PayScale.com cited a zoo keeper salary range of $16,055 to $37,222 (for an average of $26,639). Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com each reported a similar average zoo keeper salary of $29,000.
Zoo commissary managers can expect higher hourly rates ranging from $16 to $25 per hour or more. SimplyHired.com cited a salary of $68,000 for zoo commissary managers in 2013.
While the salary is not particularly high for zoo commissary keeper positions, most zoo positions are seen as highly desirable career opportunities and attract multiple applicants. Most zoos have a staff of 5 to 15 commissary keepers, with the exact number of commissary staff members dependent on the size of the facility and the needs of its animal inhabitants. The fairly static number of zoo facilities in operation combined with high demand for zoo related positions will likely limit overall growth in this profession for the foreseeable future.