Zookeeper Job Description and Career Profile

What a Zookeeper Does and Where They Work

••• RollingEarth / Getty Images

Zookeepers are the most visible members of the zoological park team. While this career path does not offer a particularly high salary, jobs are highly sought after due to the unique opportunities and experiences that the field provides.

Duties of Zookeepers

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, 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, and educating the general public.

Zookeepers must be prepared to work evenings, weekends, and holidays as needed. Keepers are often required to perform physical labor in varying weather conditions.

Career Options for Zookeepers

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

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

Some zookeepers advance to managerial roles within the zoo or eventually go on to pursue careers in veterinary medicine. Potential career options include assistant curator, exhibit designer, fundraiser, animal trainer, researcher, and educator.

Education and Training for Zookeepers

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. Successful applicants for zookeeper positions also generally have extensive experience working with animals in veterinary clinics, kennels, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, stables, aquariums, or zoos.

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, open to the public, which is accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA).

The associate's degree program takes about two years (five semesters, including summer sessions) to complete and involves over 1900 hours of hands-on experience working in the teaching zoo.

Another noted educational option is the intensive Exotic Animal Training Management program at Moorpark College in California. This associate degree program is 22 months long, and students gain hands-on experience working in a zoo setting while also attending classes, and may earn special certification in Animal Behavior Management or Wildlife Education while completing the EATM.

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.

Job Outlook for Zookeepers

Even though the salary is not particularly high for this position, it is fairly difficult to land a job as a zookeeper. Competition is expected to remain strong during the next decade and beyond. Due to the limited number of zoos and strong competition for existing positions, this career is not expected to show much growth compared to other job options in the animal industry.