How To Become a Zoo Keeper
I “met” Blaine through LinkedIn and loved the articles he was creating. I asked him to share his knowledge with all of you!
This is a must-read article for aspiring trainers! Yes, it is not directly about how to become a marine mammal trainer – but it does give you valuable insight on the process of entering the competitive field of animal care.
Interestingly enough, Blaine has not read Wear a Wetsuit at Work, yet, much of the advice in this article is echoed in my book. I urge you to take the time to read this article and take action! There are tons of resources in this article – use them!
Enjoy this exclusive content from Blaine Miller, Zoo Keeper and Animal Care Professional!
How To Become a Zoo Keeper
By: Blaine Miller
Hello aspiring animal care professionals! My name is Blaine Peluso-Miller, Keeper I at Abilene Zoological Gardens.
Let me first say that when I was asked to write a piece for Mr. Kittleson and marinemammaltrainer.com, the first thing that went through my head was excitement and a little anxiety mixed in as well; the second thing was what insight could I possibly offer about the animal care and the zoological field? I thought back to my experiences that got me into the zoo field, more importantly how I got onto this path. As a keeper, like everyone in our field, I get asked “What do I have to do to have your job?” on a semi-regular basis (about once or twice on an average day). It’s flattering and nice to know that people genuinely want to get into this field, but it is not an easy job, getting in is hard, and people are often enamored with what it actually takes to become (and be) a zookeeper.
But the answer to this question is neither simple nor easy, and a great deal of factors can determine one’s success in “breaking into” the world of zookeeping. The process is not black and white and no path will ever be the same as another. I’ve seen people get permanent zoo jobs with five weeks of experience, I’ve seen people with five years of experience without a permanent position and there are a few consistent factors that I have noticed personally (and have had discussions with other keepers) that will influence or hinder the budding career as a zookeeper. So, what should someone consider when they want to become a zookeeper?
Almost every job posting in every field requires a minimum of a Bachelor’s Degree. It is the same in the zoo field. Most job postings will read “High School Degree Required; Bachelor’s Degree Preferred” but this is rarely what most zoos/aquariums under the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) desire. Almost every zookeeper today holds, at bare minimum, an Associate’s Degree, an overwhelming majority hold a Bachelor’s Degree, many hold Master’s Degrees, and I even know a few PhDs and PhD candidates that are young in age and others that are young at heart. So, with nearly every potential candidate holding some form of advanced education one would think it would come down to the major. Yes and No.
Most zoos look for animal science based or life science majors (Biology, Zoology, Veterinary Technology, Marine Biology, Animal Behavior, and Wildlife Management) all seem to be consistent contenders when applicants are compared, but again far from always the case. I know keepers that have Psychology, Business, Chemistry, even Theater majors, so education, while incredibly important, does not always guarantee a job or even an interview for that matter.
Tips & Suggestions
Find the Right School/Program:
Look, I’ll agree that a four-year program is not for everyone, but finding the right program can take a lot of pressure off the application process, you won’t have to worry about being screened out simply because of a “lack” of educational credentials, if a four-year degree is simply not for you, look for more creative solutions, here are some programs that I’ve seen:
Specialized Education and Programs Geared More Towards the Field:
- Santa Fe Teaching Zoo offers an Associate’s Degree Program and runs their own AZA Accredited zoo on site- giving its graduates both a specialized education AND the needed experience to get into the field.
- Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training Management (EATM) Associate’s Degree Program offers the same opportunities along with the potential to earn certification credentials in Animal Behavior Management or Wildlife Education on top of the degree.
- Pikes Peak Community College offers an Associate’s program in Zookeeping and Zoo Technology.
- Delaware Valley University has a four-year program in Zoo Science that works with major AZA Zoos in the Pennsylvania Area (Philadelphia Zoo, Lehigh Valley Zoo).
- The Animal Behavior Institute (ABI) offers online professional certifications in a variety of animal fields (zoo, rehab, animal assisted therapy, laboratory, training and enrichment), while these are non-degree certification programs, the courses available cover a wide variety of topics that can further the education of graduates. These continuing education courses can only help and one only needs a high school diploma to apply (although college course exposure will help a great deal).
- Never Stop Self-Educating: It goes to without saying that this field is constantly evolving and new things are being learned every day. Professionals in both in-situ and ex-situ work have learned more in the past decade that have changed how we work and care for animals in zoos and in the field. Attend workshops, seminars, and webinars, find literature on taxa, species, ecology, animal training. We live in the digital age! You will find something that will at least give you some type of insight no doubt.
Job experience… the largest piece of the puzzle and the most difficult obstacle to overcome. You hear it all the time: You need a job to get experience, but you need experience to get the job. The Permission Paradox. In the zoo field, this is by far the most difficult thing to get past and sometimes the most frustrating. But fret not, everyone has to start somewhere and every experience can be valuable for a career as a zookeeper.
It starts with animal-based work: kennel worker, wildlife rehabber, animal/natural educator, stable worker to name a few. It all depends on how you spin your experiences to be valuable to a potential employer, highlight the similarities and the skills that can directly transfer into zookeeping: education/interpretation of the public, behavioral training for domestic species, ecological studies and field research, exposure to large domestic animals (horses, cows, sheep, donkeys, etc.) all can be useful in building a foundation for a zoo-based career.
Tips and Suggestions
- Grit, Grind, and Repeat: You have to have exposure to the “real zoo job”. People think that keepers “play” with animals all day (don’t ever say the word “play” either, while what keepers do with their animals does look like playing, interactions with collection animals, depending on their use in a facility’s education role, could be relationship building, desensitizing to aversive or unpredictable stimuli, husbandry training, etc.). But the reality of the job is that it’s a lot of grunt work: scrubbing exhibits, washing dishes, making diets, construction and maintenance work, landscaping, cleaning up food and feces. If a keeper spends 10-15% of their workday directly working with their animals that’s a lot.
- If you don’t mind backbreaking work in the worst of weather conditions, holiday work, coming in when you are under the weather, or on a weekend or vacation day, because the animals don’t care if it’s raining, snowing, if your favorite band is in town, or if it’s Christmas; all they know is that you are supposed to be there to feed and care for them. If none of that intimidates you off the bat, you’ll be just fine.
- Find a Zoo Job: Following the Grit, Grind, Repeat tip. You need “zoo experience” right? Do your research. Go onto the AZA or the AAZK website, go to a zoo’s homepage, look for internships, or simply start volunteering. Get into contact with who you want to become… the keeper staff! Every zoo/aquarium should have some type of internship, volunteer, or docent program to offer the general public. With this line of work you will be hard pressed to land a keeper job if you haven’t worked at zoo in some way and odds are to get your experience you will be unpaid. Internships (both paid and unpaid) are just as competitive as the entry-level jobs themselves since the chances of being hired from an internship are pretty good either at the current zoo or another shortly thereafter. Interns will literally bounce from department to department and zoo to zoo and just repeat the process, building their portfolio, until they are offered a job at the place they are currently interning or another zoo hires them. The best tip I can offer is if you are young (middle school, high school aged) is to start early see if your local zoo offers a “Zoo Teen” or similar learning instruction program. Programs like this put the youth directly with keepers and learn from them, literal job-shadowing, doing a keeper’s daily job. This will give you a leg up prior to college and it gives you exposure to the people, the role, and the reality of the job and if you have already worked for a zoo it will open a lot of doors.
- Be Prepared to go ANYWHERE: In this field, you have to go to where the jobs are because if you don’t I can guarantee that someone else will. If you live in a city that has their own zoo, and that is the only zoo you want to work at, you probably won’t work at that particular zoo anytime soon because everyone will have the same idea. When people get into this line of work, they don’t get out often because of the difficulties just to get in, even if they retire, move to a different zoo, advance to a more administrative role, or jump career paths entirely. Those roles are usually filled internally quickly or externally by someone who has the exact needed experience, the direct contacts, and glowing references from other zoos. You have to be prepared to move halfway across the country or halfway around the globe at the drop of a hat if the opportunity is presented to you because a position may not open up again at that zoo for some time and it may be the immediate foot in the door you need to start your career.
This is probably the most important thing that you can do. Zookeepers are a small, very tight-knit group of people that dedicate their entire lives to the animals we care for, to conserving species, to educating the public, and to protecting the natural world. Trust me on one thing. Everyone knows someone, and if they don’t, they know someone that does! Myself personally, when I did my time with Six Flags Great Adventure I met awesome keepers, built great relationships, and made amazing friends. It was a seasonal job so I was done after the summer, got offered a job at Abilene Zoological Gardens soon thereafter; three of my other co-workers went on to get jobs at other zoos shortly after myself. One went to OdySea Aquarium, one to Zoo Atlanta, the other to Turtle Back Zoo. So, by being employed at one place even for six months, I now have direct contacts to three different organizations and they have one (and always will) with me wherever I end up. You never know who you are going to meet and you never know who they (or yourself) will become and people have long memories. Professional and personal opinions go a long way and you could lose an opportunity because people use their networks, hard. If they have to find out about someone they are considering on hiring, they are going to hop on Facebook, they are going to spin their rolodex, fire off emails, or just call their contacts at the place(s) that you worked at some time in your career because everyone is a friend more often than not. If they hear something they don’t like, they have other candidates to consider.
So, what do you really need to know about getting into the zoo field? It isn’t all sunshine and roses it is a hard, dirty, back-breaking job. The hours are long, the job is often thankless, the pay livable but stretched. You need intelligence, a keen eye, a sixth-sense, a thick skin, and a great deal of patience and tact, but most of all you need to love it, all of it because at the end of the day the animals are your responsibility; they are your charges and they need you to take care of them because they are not going to care for themselves.
For the people that dedicate themselves to this field this is not just a job to us; it is not even a career. It is a duty and a service to protect our planet, the animals and to educate others so that we may save ourselves.
And it is a duty that I for one take very seriously. That is why I chose to dedicate my life to this field and my craft because if I can inspire even just one person to love the beautiful creatures that we share this planet with as much as I do then I have succeeded. I think that needs to be all of our attitudes and perhaps one day all of our work, our sacrifices, will have made a difference.
I wish you all the best and hope to see you in the field!
Blaine Peluso-Miller is a keeper at Abilene Zoological Gardens in Abilene Texas working with exotic birds, small mammals, and primates from the New World. He graduated from Delaware Valley University with a B.S. in Biology-Zoology and holds a Zoo and Aquarium Science Certificate from the Animal Behavior Institute.