When you’re weighing potential careers, you might have to make some hard choices.
What really matters to you? Can you find a career that lets you follow a passion for something? Are you willing to go to school for years and take on student debt in order to earn the necessary degree to work in your chosen field? Are you willing to move to where the jobs are in your field? Does prestige matter? Is it more important to follow a meaningful passion or to make a lot of money?
Zookeeper Assistants Enjoy the Most Meaningful Work
While the zoo profession may not be the most lucrative one, the job satisfaction reported by zookeepers is extremely high. In fact, a study of zookeepers revealed the profession to be unique among modern jobs because it was the only one in the secular sphere considered a “calling.” Despite being physically demanding and not highly paid, there’s something meaningful about zookeeping that satisfies the soul.
This is not the type of manufactured job-satisfaction hype that managers try to pass off as meaningful to their uninspired staff tirelessly working away their lives in cubicles. Zookeepers and zookeeper assistants find reward and joy in a career working with animals where every day brings something different. Many say that they knew from the time they were young children that they were destined to work with animals.
Zookeepers are so committed to their calling that they will move across the country for a job, make personal sacrifices like spending Christmas day scooping poop and chopping vegetables for animal diets and work outside in the most uncomfortable weather, often carrying heavy things like full water buckets.
(Fun fact: Sylvester Stallone once worked at the Central Park Zoo cleaning lion cages and Brooke Shields interned at the San Diego Zoo during high school.)
Responsibilities of a Zookeeper Assistant
Zookeeper assistants do much of the same work as a zookeeper, just under supervision. Among other things, zookeeper assistants:
- Clean, repair, and maintain habitats
- Exercise, groom, bathe, feed, and water the animals in their care
- Observe animals closely so that they learn their routines and habits and can pick up subtle cues that might indicate a problem
- Interact with zoo guests, educating them and monitoring their behavior and safety
- Keep written records about the animals in their charge
- Move/shift animals between their indoor and outdoor enclosures
Zookeepers and their assistants must pay attention constantly. Safety should always be a priority. Locks and latches must always be secured. Barriers must be kept up minimizing contact between human and animals. Zookeepers have to be prepared ahead of time so they know what to do in emergency situations, such as an escaped animal or an injury.
Hygiene is also very important in zoos. Proper procedures prevent the spread of diseases between animal species or between humans and animals. Different personal protective gear may be necessary, depending on the species. Just know going in that there’s a lot of cleaning and scrubbing in zoo work!
Zookeepers Get to do Some Really Cool Stuff
Sure, they sometimes get to play with baby monkeys and tigers, but they also get to do the nearly impossible job of bringing species back from the brink of extinction! Zookeepers help conservation biologists as they follow Species Survival Plans for saving everything from big cats to tiny toads. Zoos have been responsible for saving the black-footed ferret, the red wolf, the California condor, Prziwalski’s wild horse, and Pere David’s deer, among other species.
Increasingly, better zoos are training animals to help in their own care. Instead of having to physically manhandle or force an animal to do something, which is frightening and stressful for all involved or resorting to a tranquilizer dart, zookeepers patiently work with their charges. When they are young, big cats learn to present their paws for nail trimming; giraffes are trained to lift their hooves for inspection. Animals can learn to calmly accept shots, get eye drops, or have their teeth cleaned without stress.
Environmental enrichment is another large part of a zookeeper’s job. Enrichment provides a creative outlet for zookeepers as well as the animals themselves. Zookeepers want to encourage natural behaviors like hunting and foraging for food. Being able to mimic things the animals do in the wild keeps them engaged and learning. Enrichment activities seek to find challenging ways of getting at food. Instead of glopping down a giraffe’s food to be gobbled up in seconds, for instance, some zookeepers are beginning to fabricate tree trunk “puzzles” that force a giraffe to use its 18-inch tongue to get dinner.
Several years ago, it was discovered that big cats of all breeds go crazy for Calvin Klein’s “Obsession for Men.” Many zoos ask for donations of the perfume, which for enrichment is spritzed on balls, toys, trees, leaves on the ground, etc. The carnivores rub their cheeks against the scent for minutes at a time, entranced and sometimes, drooling. It’s a cologne form of catnip!
The search for engaging new enrichment activities is a never-ending quest for zookeepers and their assistants. A lot of time is spent brainstorming and crafting, and the results engage animals and delight zoo visitors.
Requirements for a Zookeeper Assistant
When it comes to being a zookeeper assistant, positive personality traits matter. The best zookeepers possess friendly, patient, reliable, detail-oriented, and observant characteristics.
A zookeeper assistant can technically get by with just a high school degree, but because the demand for these jobs is high the chance of getting a job is slim unless you have something on your resume to attract attention to yourself.
What Can You Do to Help Yourself Get a Zoo Job?
For starters, educate yourself as much as possible. Read and learn as much as you can about a variety of species, their habitats, and species conservation. Learn as much as you can about the zoo where you want to work and visit in person beforehand.
In addition to learning as much as you can, try to get experience working with animals. You may be lucky enough to live near a zoo that offers internships, seasonal work or volunteer opportunities, but these are very competitive. Fortunately, there are lots of places to get work or volunteer experience. Get as much experience as you can, and don’t be shy about listing it all on your resume! Some places you might get animal experience include:
- vet clinics and animal hospitals
- animal shelters
- wildlife sanctuaries
- wildlife management facilities
Make sure you know when zoo jobs are posted by signing up for apps that provide job alerts using the keyword “zookeeper” or “zoo jobs” or other related terms. Check the job boards on these three main national sites:
- The Zoological Association of America
- The American Association of Zookeepers
- The Association of Zoos and Aquariums
If you are really serious about zookeeping, think about enrolling in the online Zookeeper Assistant Program at Animal Behavior College (ABC). The course takes about eight months and includes stages on animal habits, health, behavior, species conservation, breeding, animal husbandry, zookeeping safety, visitor education, and more.
ABC has been providing online education in animal careers for 25 years and has an excellent reputation. Students love the amount of support the staff provides as they work their way through the program.
Above all, be patient! This is a career that can take a while to break into but it is oh so worthwhile! If you love exotic animals and you dream of a job that affords opportunities to get up close and personal with them in ways most people never will, you owe it to yourself to stick with it.