Exploring this Job

High school students can explore the field of animal care in several ways. They can learn about animals by reading about them and taking classes in biology and zoology. Most zoos have Web sites containing information about the institution and its programs and career opportunities, as well as about the industry in general. Hobbies such as birding and wildlife photography can expand your knowledge of animals.

Many institutions offer classes about animals and conservation or educational programs where students can learn firsthand what a zookeeper's job is like.

Some have part-time or summer jobs that can give a good overview of how a zoo operates. Many zoos offer volunteer opportunities for teens, such as Explorers or Junior Zookeeper programs, which are similar to programs for adult volunteers but with closer supervision. Most volunteer programs require a specific time commitment. Opportunities vary between institutions and run the gamut from cleaning enclosures to preparing food to handling domesticated animals to conducting tours or giving educational presentations.

Prospective zookeepers can volunteer or work part time at animal shelters, boarding kennels, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, stables, or animal hospitals. They may get a feel for working with animals by seeking employment on a farm or ranch during the summer. Joining a 4-H club also allows hands-on experience with animals. Experience with animals is invaluable when seeking a job and provides opportunities to learn about the realities of work in this field.

Professional organizations have special membership rates for nonprofessionals. Reading their newsletters provides an insider's look at what zoo careers are like. Attending local workshops or national conferences offers an opportunity to network and gather information for charting a career path.

The Job

Zookeepers are responsible for providing the basic care required to maintain the health of the animals in their care. Daily tasks include preparing food by chopping or grinding meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit; mixing prepared commercial feeds; and unbaling forage grasses. Administering vitamins or medications may be necessary as well. In addition, zookeepers fill water containers in the cages. They clean animal quarters by hosing, scrubbing, raking, and disinfecting.

Zookeepers must safely shift animals from one location to another. They maintain exhibits (for example, by planting grass or putting in new bars) and modify them to enhance the visitors' experience. They also provide enrichment devices for the animals, such as ropes for monkeys to swing on or scratching areas for big cats. They regulate environmental factors by monitoring temperature and humidity or water-quality controls and maintaining an inventory of supplies and equipment. They may bathe and groom animals.

Zookeepers must become experts on the species—and the individuals—in their care. They must observe and understand all types of animal behaviors, including courtship, mating, feeding, aggression, sociality, sleeping, moving, and even urination and defecation. Zookeepers must be able to detect even small changes in an animal's appearance or behavior. They must maintain careful records of these observations in a logbook and file daily written or digital reports. Often, they make recommendations regarding diet or modification of habitats and implement those changes. In addition, they assist the veterinarian in providing treatment to sick animals and may be called on to feed and help raise infants. Zookeepers may capture or transport animals. When an animal is transferred to another institution, a keeper may accompany it to aid in its adjustment to its new home.

The professional zookeeper works closely with zoo staff on research, conservation, and animal reproduction. Many keepers conduct research projects, presenting their findings in papers or professional journals or at workshops or conferences. Some keepers participate in regional or national conservation plans or conduct field research in the United States and abroad.

Keepers may assist an animal trainer or instructor in presenting animal shows or lectures to the public. Depending on the species, keepers may train animals to shift or to move in a certain way to facilitate routine husbandry or veterinary care. Elephant keepers, for example, train their charges to respond to commands to lift their feet so that they may provide proper foot care, including footpad and toenail trims.

Zookeepers must be able to interact with zoo visitors and answer questions in a friendly, professional manner. Keepers may participate in formal presentations for the general public or for special groups. This involves being knowledgeable about the animals in one's care, the animals' natural habitat and habits, and the role zoos play in wildlife conservation.

Keepers must carefully monitor activity around the animals to discourage visitors from teasing or harming them. They must be able to remove harmful objects that are sometimes thrown into an exhibit and tactfully explain the "no feeding" policy to zoo visitors.

Taking care of animals is hard work. About 85 percent of the job involves custodial and maintenance tasks, which can be physically demanding and dirty. These tasks must be done both indoors and outdoors, in all types of weather. In addition, there is the risk of an animal-inflicted injury or disease. Although direct contact with animals is limited and strictly managed, the possibility for injury exists when a person works with large, powerful animals or even small animals that possess sharp teeth and claws.

Animals require care every day, so keepers must work weekends and holidays. They also may be called on to work special events outside their normal working hours.

In large zoological parks, keepers often work with a limited collection of animals. They may be assigned to work specifically with just one taxonomy, such as primates, large cats, or birds, or with different types of animals from a specific ecogeographic area, such as the tropical rainforest or Africa. In smaller zoos, keepers may have more variety and care for a wider range of species.