Zoo Curator Job Description and Career Profile

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Zoos and aquariums are a great place to learn about animals. The main purpose of these facilities is to promote the education and conservation of wildlife in a controlled area easily accessible to the public. After all, most people don't have the opportunity to see animals in their natural habitats.

There are a number of different people who work in these facilities. A zoo curator is one of those people. They are responsible for managing a zoo’s animal collection and staff members.

Duties

Zoo curators are responsible for overseeing all aspects of animal management. Duties generally include making decisions involving animal husbandry, diets, veterinary care, quarantine procedures, enrichment activities, animal transportation and research projects. They are also involved in the selection and acquisition of new animals for the collection. Curators must read reports from various keepers and compile that information for zoo records.

Curators also supervise all zoo employees including keepers, educators, veterinarians, support staff and volunteers. They are frequently involved in managing the hiring, training and scheduling of zoo employees. Curators are also responsible for ensuring their facility meets all state and federal regulatory requirements, obtaining and maintaining permits, and keeping guests and staff safe while they are on the premises.

A curator may be required to work a flexible schedule from time to time, though since this is a largely administrative role, the hours tend to be fairly regular. As with many animal-related careers, some night or weekend hours could be necessary, depending on the nature of the position. Curators may be “on call” to deal with emergencies or staffing issues as they arise.

Career Options

A general curator oversees the zoo’s entire animal collection, manages the facility’s staff members and completes various administrative tasks. An animal curator oversees one specific group of animals in a zoo’s animal collection such as reptiles or mammals. Multiple curator positions may be available in a variety of areas at larger facilities. These additional curator positions are often in areas of conservation, operations, exhibits or research.

It is possible for curators to obtain positions with a variety of employers such as zoos, aquariums, animal parks, marine parks and conservation centers. Curators may also advance to the position of director — though in many parks, the general curator also is responsible for the duties associated with a director role.

Education & Training

In most cases, a zoo curator must at least have a four-year degree in zoology, wildlife biology or in a related field. A master’s degree or doctorate is usually preferred, though advanced degrees are not necessarily required. Managerial and business training is also desirable. Most successful applicants for curator positions have several years of prior experience working in a supervisory role, preferably with a zoo, aquarium or another animal-related organization.

For people who want to get right into a curator position, it's important to get animal-handling experience as early as possible, since most zoos and facilities require it. One way to do so is by taking on an animal or zoo-related internship. There are many internships an aspiring curator can pursue during their undergraduate and graduate studies. Here are several internships offered in the U.S.:

  • The Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio offers animal keeper internships with winter/spring, fall, and summer sessions.
  • The Denver Zoo in Colorado offers zoo keeper unpaid internships with birds, hoofstock, carnivores, primates and fish or reptiles. The zoo also has a sea lion and seal program.  
  • The Conservators’ Center in North Carolina offers wildlife keeper internships where students can work with carnivores like tigers and other big cats.
  • The International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Texas is the first sanctuary certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

    A varied background can greatly strengthen an applicant’s resume. Many general curators start their careers as zookeepers, zoologists or animal curators, and work their way up the ladder.

    Professional Groups

    Many zoo curators are members of professional groups like the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), an organization that boasts members in all levels of zoo management from keepers to curators and directors. The AAZK was founded in 1967 and has more than 2,800 individual members from 48 of the 50 states. There are also members from 24 other countries and five Canadian provinces. Combined, the members represent about 250 animal-related facilities.

    The International Zoo Educators Association (IZEA) is another professional membership group that accepts curators as members. The goal of the IZEA is to improve the quality of zoo education and to assist zoo educators in creating quality educational programs for the public. As many curators are involved with educational programs for the public, they may find it useful to be a part of this group.

    The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is dedicated to advancing the conservation, education and scientific efforts of zoos and aquariums across the world. The organization represents more than 230 facilities and institutions across the U.S. and the world.

    The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) aims to unify the global zoo and aquarium community. There are about 400 members worldwide who work in zoos, aquariums, associations and other groups. Collectively, the group promotes conservation, management and breeding of animals in captivity.

    Salary

    Compensation for zoo curator positions can vary widely based on the size of the institution and the specific duties involved. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), curators earned a median annual wage of $53,770 per year ($25.85 per hour) in May of 2017. The lowest 10% of curators earned less than $29,210 per year ($14.04 per hour), and the highest 10% of curators earned more than $94,880 per year ($45.62 per hour).

    General curators can expect to earn higher end salaries based on the level of managerial responsibility that this position entails. Curators with many years of experience or those with specialized skills or training can also expect to earn top dollar on the salary scale.

    Job Outlook

    Competition for any position at a zoo or aquarium is keen, as there are many more interested applicants than positions available. The BLS projects curator positions at zoos will grow about as fast as the average for all positions — approximately 13%. With no significant growth in the number of zoos and aquariums expected in the near future, competition should continue to be strong for curator positions at existing facilities. This is also due to increased public interest in science and animal behavior.