Zoo and Aquarium Curators and Directors


Education and Training Requirements

High School

High school students who want to prepare for careers in upper management in zoos and aquariums should take classes in the sciences, especially biology, microbiology, chemistry, and physics, as well as in mathematics, computer science, business, language, and speech.

Extracurricular activities for students interested in becoming zoo and aquarium curators and directors should focus on developing leadership and communication skills: these include student body associations, service clubs, debate teams, and school newspapers.

Postsecondary Training

The minimum formal educational requirement for curators is a master's degree. Course work should include biology, invertebrate zoology, vertebrate physiology, comparative anatomy, organic chemistry, physics, microbiology, and virology. Electives are just as important, particularly writing, public speaking, computer science, and education. Even studying a second language can be helpful.

Typically, an advanced degree is required for curators employed at larger institutions; many curators are required to have a doctoral degree. But advanced academic training alone is insufficient; it takes years of on-the-job experience to master the practical aspects of exotic animal husbandry. Also required are management skills, supervisory experience, writing ability, research experience, and sometimes the flexibility to travel.

A few institutions offer curatorial internships designed to provide practical experience. Several major zoos offer formal keeper training courses as well as on-the-job training programs to students who are studying areas related to animal science and care. Such programs could lead to positions as assistant curators. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides information about which schools and animal facilities are involved in internship programs.

A director's education and experience must be rather broad, with a solid foundation in animal management skills. Therefore, a good balance between science and business is the key to finding a position in this field. Directors need courses in zoology or biology as well as business courses, such as economics, accounting, and general business, and humanities, such as sociology.

Most directors have a master's degree; many at larger institutions have doctoral degrees. Directors continue their education throughout their careers by taking classes as well as by reading and learning on their own.


The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)  offers certificate programs in management and operations, education and interpretation, and other areas. Those wishing to earn the management and operations certificate must meet educational and work experience requirements.

Other Education or Training

The AZA offers professional training courses such as "Institutional Record Keeping," "Principles of Program Animal Management," and "Managing for Success: Organizational Development."

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

There are no certification or licensing requirements for zoo and aquarium curators and directors.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

The positions of curator and director are not entry level. Aspiring curators and directors must have at least several years of experience in lower-level positions (preferably as assistant directors and curators) in zoos and aquariums to be considered for these top-level careers.

Curators who work for zoos and aquariums must have a fondness and compassion for animals. Strong interpersonal skills are also extremely important in managing people, including conflict management and negotiating. Curators spend a lot of time making deals with people inside and outside of their institutions. They must have recognized leadership ability, good coaching skills, and the ability to create and maintain a team atmosphere and build consensus.

Curators also need excellent oral and written communication skills. They must be effective and articulate public speakers. They need to be good at problem solving.

Curators should have an in-depth knowledge of every species and exhibit in their collections and how they interact. Modern zoo and aquarium buildings contain technologically advanced, complex equipment, such as environmental controls, and they often house mixed-species exhibits. Not only must curators know about zoology and animal husbandry, they must understand the infrastructure as well.

Zoo and aquarium directors are leaders and communicators. Inspiring others and promoting their institution are among their most important tasks. Their most important traits include leadership ability, personal charisma, people skills, and public speaking ability.

Directors need to be politically savvy. They interact with many different groups, each with their own agendas. They must be able to build bridges between these various groups and put together a consensus. They need to be flexible and open-minded without losing sight of their role as advocate for their institution. Directors must have outstanding time-management skills, and they must be willing and able to delegate.

A fondness and compassion for animals is not all that is needed to become a successful zoo or aquarium director. Directors must also be articulate and sociable. They must be able to communicate effectively with people from all walks of life. Much of their time is spent cultivating prospective donors. They must be comfortable with many different types of people, including those with wealth and power.