What Does a Zookeeper Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Maritsa Patrinos © The Balance 2019 

Zookeepers are the most visible members of the zoological park team. This career path doesn't offer a particularly high salary, but jobs are highly sought due to the unique opportunities and experiences that the field provides.

Many zookeepers specialize in a specific area, such as working with birds, big cats, elephants, or aquatic species. They might also assist with reproductive procedures and raise young animals to propagate endangered species kept in their zoo.

Overall, about 241,500 animal caretakers worked in the U.S. in 2016, but this includes some who did not work at zoos.

Zookeeper Duties & Responsibilities

Zookeepers are animal professionals who are responsible for maintaining the health of their charges as well as ensuring proper maintenance of their habitat. The duties of a zookeeper usually include:

  • Feeding the animals
  • Administering medication
  • Cleaning and maintaining the animal’s enclosure
  • Reporting unusual changes in behavior to managers or veterinarians
  • Assisting with veterinary procedures
  • Keeping detailed records

Zookeepers play a role in educational programs offered to the public in many zoos and parks. These programs promote conservation and give keepers the opportunity to share their knowledge about their animals. Lectures might include demonstrations with live animals, depending on the species.

Zookeeper Salary

Overall, nonfarm animal caretakers are not at the pinnacle of best-paying professions, but the profession offers many other rewards.

  • Median Annual Income: $23,760 ($11.42/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Income: More than $37,250 ($17.91/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Income: Less than $18,160 ($8.73/hour)

Education, Training & Certification

You can benefit from both education and related experience if you want to enter this field.

  • Education: A zookeeper typically has a degree in an animal-related field such as animal science, biology, or zoology. Coursework in animal behavior, anatomy and physiology, reproductive physiology, and biology is useful.
  • Experience: Successful applicants for zookeeper positions also generally have extensive experience working with animals in veterinary clinics, kennels, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, stables, aquariums, or zoos.

Zookeeper Skills & Competencies

You should have several essential qualities to succeed at becoming a zookeeper.

  • Patience: You'll be dealing with not-necessarily-tame animals who may not be on their best behavior.
  • Physical fitness: This job requires kneeling, climbing, crawling, and even running. You'll have to be able to lift heavy food and straw bales.
  • People skills: You'll also be handling visitors and monitoring their behavior for safety.
  • Attention to detail: Is an animal sick and need care? You'll have to notice the subtle signs. You'll also be measuring out food and medicines, and measurements must be precise.

    Job Outlook

    Employment of animal care workers in general is expected to increase by 22% from 2016 through 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and this is much faster than the average for all occupations.

    Even though the salary isn't particularly high for this position, it's fairly difficult to land a job as a zookeeper nonetheless. Competition is expected to remain strong due to the limited number of zoos and strong competition for existing positions. This career might not show such significant growth compared to other job options in the animal industry.

    Some zookeepers advance to managerial roles within the zoo, or they eventually go on to pursue careers in veterinary medicine.

    Work Environment

    Keepers are often required to perform physical labor in varying weather conditions. They can be bitten, scratched, kicked, or otherwise harmed by frightened or wild animals that aren't accustomed to human contact. Caution and skill can help keep you safe.

    Work Schedule

    Zookeepers must be prepared to work evenings, weekends, and holidays because zoo animals need care 24/7. About 40% of all nonfarm animal caretakers worked part-time in 2016, but those part-time hours were not necessarily normal business hours.

    How to Get the Job

    AN OPTION FOR EDUCATION

    One well-known educational program is the Zoo Animal Technology Program at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida. The college has a 10-acre teaching zoo on the grounds and is open to the public. It's accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA). The associate's degree program requires five semesters, including summer sessions, and includes over 1900 hours of hands-on experience working in the teaching zoo.

    MORE HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

    Another noted educational option is the Exotic Animal Training Management program at Moorpark College in California. This associate degree program is 22 months, and students gain hands-on experience working in a zoo setting while also attending classes. Students are required to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. The program graduates about 50 students per year and boasts that it has graduates working at most of the major zoos, animal parks, and in Hollywood.

    Comparing Similar Jobs

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