What Does a Zoo Curator Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills & More

Image is a woman zoo curator holding a baby elephant, tiger, and polar bear in her arms with a snake around her neck. The scene is busy with other animals, including flamingos, a lemur, a monkey, a lion, zebra, giraffe, and vulture. Text reads:

Image by Lisa Fasol © The Balance 2019

Zoo curators are responsible for managing a zoo’s animals and staff members. 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.

Zoo Curator Duties & Responsibilities

Zoo curators are responsible for overseeing all aspects of animal management and some staff management. Duties generally include:

  • Selecting and acquiring new animals for the zoo
  • Making decisions involving animal husbandry, diets, veterinary care, quarantine procedures, enrichment activities, animal transportation, and research projects
  • Supervising exhibit designs to make sure animals' needs are met
  • Reviewing reports from various keepers and compiling that information for zoo records
  • Supervising zoo employees, including keepers, educators, veterinarians, support staff, and volunteers
  • Managing the hiring, training, and scheduling of zoo employees
  • Ensuring the facility meets all state and federal regulatory requirements
  • Obtaining and maintaining permits
  • Keeping guests and staff safe while they are on the premises

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.

Zoo Curator Salary

Compensation for zoo curator positions can vary widely based on the size of the institution and the specific duties involved. 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.

  • Median Annual Salary: $53,770
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $94,880
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $29,210

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Education Requirements & Qualifications

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

  • Education: 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.
  • Internship: 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.
  • Experience: 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.

Where to Get an Internship

There are several zoo-related internships offered in the U.S., including:

  • 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.

Zoo Curator Skills & Competencies

Beyond education and training, a zoo curator should possess certain skills so they can effectively perform their duties:

  • Communication skills: Zoo curators must be able to effectively write and explain care guidelines for animals, as well as other zoo regulations.
  • Interpersonal skills: This job requires coordination with veterinarians, keepers, and other zoo workers, and other professionals outside of the zoo.
  • Leadership abilities: They must use management skills to lead employees and make decisions about animal care and exhibits.
  • Physical strength and dexterity: Although curators don't have as much direct contact with animals as other employees at the zoo, they must be able to work with them and help as needed.

    Job Outlook

    Competition for any position at a zoo or aquarium is keen, as there are many more interested applicants than positions available. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects curator positions at zoos will grow at about 13% between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the average for all jobs.

    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 an increased public interest in science and animal behavior.

    Work Environment

    Curators can expect to work both in an office and on the grounds of the zoo itself. Depending on the position, curators can also work at aquariums, animal parks, marine parks, and conservation centers. 

    Work Schedule

    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 need to be on call to deal with emergencies or staffing issues as they arise.

    Professional Groups for Zoo Curators

    Becoming a part of a professional group for zoo curators could help you in your quest for a job. These include:

    • American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK)
    • The International Zoo Educators Association (IZEA)
    • The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
    • The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA)