Only 240 zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks, and oceanariums in the U.S. are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Most facilities are located in or near large population areas.
Competition for jobs at zoos is intense despite the low pay and challenging working conditions. There are many more candidates than available positions. Most zookeepers enjoy their work, and turnover is low. The majority of new jobs result from the need to replace workers who leave the field. A limited number of jobs are created when new zoos open. Entry-level applicants may find it easier to start out in small zoos in smaller communities, where the pay is usually low, and then move on once they have gained some experience. There are many such small-town zoos in the Midwest.
The days when zookeepers were hired off the street and trained on the job are a thing of the past. Today, most institutions require a bachelor's degree. Practical experience working with animals is a must. This experience can involve volunteering at a zoo or wildlife rehabilitation center, caring for animals in a kennel or animal hospital, or working on a farm or ranch.
Part-time work, summer jobs, or volunteering at a zoo increases an applicant's chances of getting full-time employment. Many zoos fill new positions by promoting current employees. An entry-level position, even if it does not involve working directly with animals, is a means of making contacts and learning about an institution's hiring practices.
Zoos that are municipally operated accept applications through municipal civil service offices. At other zoos, an application is made directly at the zoo office.
Occasionally zoos advertise for personnel in the local newspapers. Better sources of employment opportunities are trade journals (AZA's Connect or the American Association of Zoo Keepers Inc.'s Animal Keepers' Forum), the Web sites of specific institutions, or special-interest periodicals. A few zoos even have job lines.
Most zoos have internal job postings. People in the profession often learn about openings by word of mouth. Membership in a professional organization can be helpful when conducting a job search.
Some zoos require written aptitude tests or oral exams. Applicants must pass a physical exam, as keepers must be physically able to do such demanding work as lifting heavy sacks of feed or moving sick or injured animals.
Job advancement in zoos is possible, but the career path is more limited than in some other professions requiring a college degree. The possibility for advancement varies according to a zoo's size and operating policies and an employee's qualifications.
Continuing professional education is a must to keep current on progress in husbandry, veterinary care, and technology, and in order to advance. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums offers formal professional courses in applied zoo and aquarium biology, conservation education, elephant management, institutional record keeping, population management, professional management, and studbook keeping. Attending workshops and conferences sponsored by professional groups or related organizations, such as universities or conservation organizations, is another means of sharing information with colleagues from other institutions and professions.
Most zoos have different levels of animal management staff. The most common avenue for job promotion is from keeper to senior keeper to head keeper, then possibly to area supervisor or assistant curator and then curator. On rare occasions, the next step will be to zoo director. Moving up from the senior keeper level to middle and upper management usually involves moving out to another institution, often in another city and state.
In addition to participating in daily animal care, the senior keeper manages a particular building on the zoo grounds and is responsible for supervising the keepers working in that facility. An area supervisor or assistant curator works directly with the curators and is responsible for supervising, scheduling, and training the entire keeper force. In major zoological parks, there are head keepers for each curatorial department.
The curator is responsible for managing a specific department or section within the zoo, either defined by taxonomy, such as mammals, birds, or reptiles, or by habitat or ecogeography, such as the Forest Edge or African savannah. The curator of mammals, for example, is in charge of all mammals in the collection and supervises all staff who work with mammals. Usually, an advanced degree in zoology and research experience is required to become a curator, as well as experience working as a zookeeper and in zoo management.
Many zookeepers eschew advancement and prefer to remain in work where they have the most direct interaction with and immediate impact on the lives of animals.
Tips for Entry
Visit https://aazk.org/zoo-keeping-as-a-career to read “Animal Keeping as a Career.”
Visit https://www.aza.org/jobs and https://aazk.org/job-listings/all for job and internship listings.
Attend conferences held by the American Association of Zoo Keepers and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to network, learn about industry trends, and participate in professional development workshops and seminars.
Contact zoos directly to learn more about job opportunities. The AZA offers a database of zoos at https://www.aza.org/find-a-zoo-or-aquarium.