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Zoo Keeping Careers

Before you read further. Are you really sure that a Zoo Keeping Career is what you are after? It is not like other jobs because it is not simply work. It is a vocation, a way of life. Forget about making money, forget about becoming famous, forget about 9 to 5 and long holidays. Be prepared to face extreme cold or intense heat, rain, hail, snow, gales and lack of sleep. You are guaranteed to work long hard days when you have a hangover or headache and would have much preferred to have stayed at home in bed. It is highly likely you will have to skip holidays or days off at a moments notice. Don’t expect applaud or thanks or even sympathy because you will not get any.

Still Interested

then read on. 

What you will get is job satisfaction. The chance to contribute to our understanding of animals and an important role in ensuring that they remain on this planet for future generations to enjoy. You will have the chance to work outdoors in the best of weather too, when those in other lines of work are shut up in their suffocating offices. You will become a member of a big zoo `family`, assured of a welcome wherever you go. Whereas there will be repetition in your daily routine, no two days will be exactly the same. You will not get bored. You will become party to one of the worlds best kept secret.... that zoo keeping is the worlds best profession! You will feel good about yourself. Well most of the time anyway. Why take my word for it, try Zoo Chat, the cyber meeting place of the worlds keepers. Okay, most of them are letting their hair down at the end of the day, but some useful information is exchanged too and friendships forged. Ask them about their work. Say Sciurus sent you! For answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about zoos go to Ask the Keeper.

Getting work as a zoo keeper today is something of a ‘Catch 22’ situation. Most advertisements you will see will say “City and Guilds” or “Animal Management Certificate” preferred. They will also ask for a certain number of years experience and refer to a specific vacancy i.e. Primate Keeper, Elephant Keeper or similar.

The problem is that the “City & Guilds Animal Management Certificate” is only obtainable on successful completion of the National Extension College’s Animal Management Course and the only way to complete the course is to be working in a zoo. This is because there is a practical element for which regular assessment is essential. Ideally the course is to be taken over two years plus, though less is possible, dependent on your zoo tutor. Completion in under 8 months is neither practicable nor desirable as assessments are normally made every two to three months.

Zoos obtain their staff by several different approaches :

1/ By advertising in `Cage & Aviary Birds`, `New Scientist`, `Ratel`, ` International Zoo News` or other specialised journals or the local press. Just recently the internet also.

2/ By referring to unsolicited application letters held on file.

3/ By promoting trainees to full time positions.

4/ By internal promotion from other departments i.e. horticulture.

5/ By taking on volunteers or temporary employees who have shown potential.


Some zoos will use all of these methods dependent on the posts they are trying to fill. Though they are few in number there are one or two collections which will not take on staff who have worked anywhere else. These zoo directors prefer to have inexperienced employees which they can train in house. Typically they have a high turnover, though this is not evident as most of the staff are taken on locally and so not widely advertised.


As more university graduates appear on the already saturated job market more and more keeper positions are being taken up by them. Zoo directors will usually overlook the lack of practical experience or zoo qualifications in favour of a suitable degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The zoo keeping profession has never been accepted as such. The old stereotype of s@*t shoveller is still there. It is looked upon as a job of work akin to farming. Apart from sharing animal husbandry as a major part of the work the similarity ends. Farming is profit motivated, Zoo Keeping is not. Hopefully as the academic calibre of the average keeper rises due to graduate input there may be more of a shift towards an official and well deserved recognition of Keeping as a Profession.


Improving your chances of getting a Keeper job.

Although most zoos will be looking for experienced and academically able staff you can improve your chances by amassing various other skills. If you already have keepering experience then so much the better, however the following will be a big help.

(a) Get yourself a driving license. It is surprising how often zoos will need a driver, it is often asked for in advertisements for keepers, particularly by smaller zoos.

(b) Learn to drive a tractor. Again this is something many keepers have to learn to do. If you are already versed in the art in reversing a trailer you get yourself an extra point.

(c) Learn First Aid. Any attraction which is open to the public needs a first aider, someone accredited by the Red Cross or St Johns Ambulance in the First Aid at work course. Zoos have to pay to train their own staff. This costly in both time and money so if you have already got this potential employers will look more favourably upon you.

(d) Learn to shoot. Get yourself a firearm certificate. Any zoo which holds large and/or dangerous animals will be required to have a procedure for dangerous animal escape. This will normally involve the use of fireams. If you already have a certificate this is another plus.

(e) Become computer literate. Although larger zoos will have their own records officer the smaller zoos usually do not. Being familiar with a computer and the main software packages would stand you in good stead.

(f) Build up a range of useful skills. Take a look at the various short term courses advertised by zoos or other animal related organisations. `Practical Incubation` would be an extremely useful one and is generally run each year.

(g) If time and money are no object then some very useful courses are run by the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust i.e. The Jersey Summer School or their Certificate in Endangered Species Management. Demand for places are high so get your name down early. Similar courses are run periodically by Edinburgh zoo.

(h) Get some experience in wildlife rehabilitation. Ask the RSPCA for the address of nearest rehabber. These people could do with the help, so the benefits go both ways.

(i) Look at seasonal zoo employment. Many of the larger zoos will take on temporary employees during the summer. Although there is no guarantee of you being kept on full time, it is possible, it has happened.

(J) Become involved. If a particular species holds your interest, find out if there is a Taxon Advisory Group for it. Check out the chairperson and volunteer to do research on behalf of the TAG. Most of the people involved are overstretched and could do with the help. It is a toe on the ladder, and if you prove useful it may mean moving up a few rungs.


How do I take the City & Guilds Animal Management Course if I am not working in a zoo?

Anyone can take the course. It is simply a case of paying out your money and working through it at a pace that suits yourself. You may find once you have started in that it is not what you thought it was after all and therefore you have not lost anything but a bit of cash.

If you do find it interesting and would like to go on to taking the exam then it is essential that you get work in a zoo so that you can be practically assessed. You will also have to find someone in that zoo who is prepared to act as your zoo tutor and carry out the practical assessments.

This is a major stumbling block for young people with zoo career aspirations, particularly if there are no zoos in their locale. I can’t pretend that there is an easy answer to this one. Even if there is a zoo down the road it may not be in a position to take you on as a volunteer. Because volunteer you must, to make up the time and gain the experience for your practical assessments. This is going to mean at least one day per week over a period of two or more years. It is not going to be easy, but where there is a will there is a way. I know a lot of keepers who started out just this way. Giving up their work, moving away, getting part time employment somewhere else or selling their homes or cars to pay their keep. In one case living in a tent whilst they trained. These people did it! Fulfilled their dreams. You could too. Perhaps the measures you take do not have to be so drastic. There are number of colleges up and down the country which have links with zoos, or are situated quite close to one. These colleges may offer animal related courses, `Animal Care`, `Equine Studies` or something similar. Okay its not what you are after but it is of help. Enrolling on such a course may mean you can move, albeit temporarily, close to a zoo which may be prepared to offer you the voluntary work you so much need.

Zoo Career Links

Ark`s Animal Careers
AZA Zoo Careers
Perth Zoo Keepers
Montgomery Zoo
Marine Mammals
Canisius College
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