Get Career Info on Being a Zoo Director
Zoo directors lead the management team in overseeing zoo operations including animal and personnel management, facility maintenance, and development.
Zoo directors are responsible for supervising all aspects of zoo management. Areas of focus usually include managing park operations, creating budgets, implementing policies, hiring management staff, sourcing additional funding, and overseeing development of the facility. A director also usually acts as the chief spokesperson for the zoo in media relations.
Zoo directors collaborate with departmental directors and curators, who in turn supervise the other zoo staffers such as keepers, educators, veterinarians, support staff, and volunteers. Directors are responsible for ensuring that all day to day operations run smoothly and that animals are cared for in accordance with all applicable regulations. In a smaller zoo, the zoo director might also be the curator and be responsible for the care and the exhibitions of the animals.
Zoo directors tend to work regular hours as this is an administrative and managerial role, but they must also be available to deal with any emergency situations as they arise. Some evening and weekend hours may be necessary depending on the zoo’s schedule and to accommodate special events. Directors may also be required to travel to represent the zoo at conventions or other professional events.
Director positions are available at a variety of animal institutions such as zoos, marine parks, aquariums, animal parks, and wildlife centers. Some larger zoos have directors of individual departments (such as development, marketing, or research) who work under the supervision of the general director. Some smaller zoos have a general curator that also takes on the duties of a director.
Education & Training
A zoo director must usually have at least a four-year undergraduate degree in zoology, wildlife biology, animal science, or another closely related field. Many directors hold advanced training above and beyond an undergraduate degree, having pursued either a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. in a relevant field.
Significant managerial experience, business training, financial management skills, and communications skills are also necessary qualifications for a zoo director. Many zoo director job postings specify that they desire applicants that have between five and ten years of experience working in a senior management role. Most zoo directors work their way up through the zoo hierarchy, often becoming a curator or working in a departmental director position before becoming the general director. As a result, hands-on experience working with animals is critical to becoming a zoo director.
Zoo directors must also be very familiar with all U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) guidelines that govern their facility’s operation and the humane care of the collection’s animals. The director must ensure that their institution is in compliance with all federal, state, and local regulations.
For those interested in pursuing any zoo career (including zoo director), it is highly advantageous to complete a zoo internship during the course of academic study. These programs help aspiring zoo directors to gain valuable hands-on experience, which greatly strengthens their resumes. Internships can also connect a candidate directly with top industry professionals, which adds additional networking value to the overall experience.
Experience in animal husbandry can provide relevant exposure to a wide variety of animals including exotic wildlife. Also, volunteering at a local animal shelter, a veterinarian's office, or a farm can provide the necessary animal experience.
Zoo directors may choose to join professional groups such as the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), an organization that includes members from the entire zoo staff ranging from keepers to upper-level management. The AAZK currently has a membership of more than 2,800 individuals that are employed in the zoo environment.
Compensation for zoo director positions can vary widely based on the size and scope of the hiring institution, the geographic area where it is located, and the specific duties that are required of the director.
The salary range for director positions can vary from $75,000 at smaller institutions to more than $100,000 at mid-size and large facilities. Directors with many years of experience or those with advanced training can expect to earn top dollar on the salary scale.
Directors may also be offered additional forms of compensation such as a performance bonus, use of a zoo vehicle, guest passes to the facility or other such perks.
Competition for any position at a zoo or aquarium is usually keen, and upper-level management positions always draw many qualified applicants with a great deal of experience. With no significant growth in the number of zoos and aquariums expected in the near future, competition should continue to be strong for director positions at existing institutions.
Director candidates with significant experience or advanced degrees will continue to enjoy the greatest level of success when searching for senior management roles in this industry.