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What does a zookeeper do?
A zookeeper is sometimes also known as an animal keeper or just a keeper. They look after many animals in various settings, such as zoos, aquariums, bird gardens, safari/ animal/wildlife parks, sanctuaries, and other animal attractions. They can specialise in caring for one type of animal or several and may also work in a specific enclosure, e.g. carnivores or birds. Therefore, what zookeepers do will depend on where they work and their specialisms.
A zookeeper’s main aim is caring for animals, looking after their health, safety, well-being and welfare and ensuring they have the best possible life in captivity. Zoos and animal attractions are usually also tourist attractions, and some may also carry out conservation work, so zookeepers have an important role in educating visitors and conserving animals.
Zookeepers will carry out many tasks, including designing and building enclosures, preparing food, feeding animals, administering medications, cleaning enclosures, observing and checking animals, looking after sick animals, creating and providing enrichment, inspecting and repairing enclosures, giving talks to visitors, etc. The role may also involve administrative and computer work, e.g. keeping animal welfare records.
Zookeepers will work with animals (of course) and many people, including head keepers, team leaders, other zookeepers, trainee keepers, volunteers, students and support staff. They will also liaise with external stakeholders, such as visitors, vets, veterinary nurses, nutritionists, researchers, zoologists, local authorities, government agencies, zoo inspectors, universities, etc.
Zookeepers can work for private organisations, non-profit and NGOs, local authorities and charities. They can work at different-sized establishments, from small family animal parks and sanctuaries to zoos and safari parks. They can be in urban, semi-rural and rural areas around the UK, and there may be opportunities overseas.
A zookeeper’s responsibilities will depend on where they work and their specialisms.
Some examples of common duties for zookeepers can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Designing, creating and building enclosures that mimic the animal’s natural habitat as much as possible.
- Creating and providing species-appropriate enrichment to animals.
- Preparing various types of food for the animals, e.g. hay, pellets, meat, insects, fruit and vegetables, etc.
- Feeding animals the correct food and portions and ensuring they are eating/drinking.
- Training animals so that handling is easier and safer.
- Administering medications.
- Cleaning enclosures and equipment.
- Changing bedding and correctly disposing of old and soiled bedding.
- Regularly checking enclosures for damage and signs of wear and making any necessary repairs.
- Monitoring and maintaining conditions, e.g. temperature and humidity.
- Observing animals regularly and checking for injuries, disease or signs of distress.
- Looking after any animals that are injured or sick as per the vet’s advice.
- Working and liaising with professionals, such as vets.
- Adhering to biosecurity procedures.
- Giving information, presentations, workshops, demonstrations and talks to visitors and answering their questions.
- Keeping records, e.g. eating/drinking, medications, births, deaths, behaviour and other events where necessary.
- Supervising trainees and students.
Some zookeepers may get involved with conservation programmes, which require them to help with breeding and raising young.
Zookeepers can expect to work around 37–40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work and their specialisms. Most roles tend to be seasonal or fixed-term contracts. There may also be flexible job options such as part-time and job share.
Being a zookeeper is not a 9–5 job, as animals need daily care. Zookeepers will need to work unsociable shifts, e.g. evenings, weekends and bank holidays (including Christmas and other religious holidays). They may have to be on call for emergencies, so they may also have to work early mornings and nights.
Some zookeepers may need to travel to different sites and locations on site to see animals, which can lengthen their working day. Overnight stays may be necessary for some circumstances, and there may be overseas opportunities for some zookeepers.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a zookeeper, especially if an individual is a caring person who loves looking after and helping animals. It is rewarding, as zookeepers will develop close relationships with the animals they care for and help them to live longer, healthier, happier lives. They can go home at the end of the working day knowing their job makes a positive difference to animals and, in some cases, the conservation of species in the wild. Educating visitors about animals and seeing them take an interest can also be fulfilling.
It is a fascinating job looking after animals, and there is so much to learn. The more knowledgeable a zookeeper becomes, the more sought after they are and are likely to have good job security. Individuals can also gain notoriety and become famous for their work with animals and internationally renowned.
Even though some tasks can be repetitive, boredom will never be a problem for zookeepers. They may care for and interact with different animals within an enclosure. One moment, they could be carrying out routine feeding or cleaning regimes; the next, they may face an emergency or give a talk to visitors. Zookeepers will also meet lots of different people every day.
Even though there are positives to being a zookeeper, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- Mental demands – being a zookeeper can be mentally demanding. Individuals must cope with seeing sick and injured animals and witnessing animals euthanised or those that have died, which can be distressing and upsetting. Building close relationships with animals can be emotionally challenging, especially if moved to another zoo. Zookeepers also deal with the public, which can be stressful, especially if visitors are not following the rules or are upsetting the animals.
- Physical demands – being a zookeeper can also be physically demanding, and individuals need to be physically fit. They will often have to work long and unsociable shifts. They usually work outside and are on their feet for long periods in all weather, including snow and rain. They may also need to lift and hold struggling animals and may also need to access them in cramped spaces, at height or in other challenging situations. Zookeepers usually need to wear a uniform and personal protective equipment (PPE), which can get hot and uncomfortable.
- Health and safety risks – there is no denying that working with animals, especially large or venomous ones, is inherently dangerous. Zookeepers will face many hazards during their work, such as aggressive animals (biting, scratching, kicking, etc.), bodily fluids, animal waste, parasites and pests, diseases/infections, hazardous substances (i.e. pesticides, medicines, cleaners, disinfectants, etc.), manual handling, use of tools, equipment and machinery, slips, trips and falls, work at height, etc. There have been instances of zookeepers being killed, but these incidents tend to be rare.
- It’s a dirty job – being a zookeeper is definitely not the most glamorous of jobs. Individuals must be willing to get their hands dirty. They will spend much time cleaning enclosures, which will mean removing soiled bedding and faeces, disinfecting, hosing and scrubbing. They may also need to deal with sick and injured animals, so it is not a role for the squeamish.
- Training, competition and low salaries – most zoos and animal attractions will require individuals to have a degree, which is not cheap and can take many years. There is a lot of competition for zookeeper jobs, as many people want to work with animals, and some are willing to volunteer and work for free. The salaries for zookeepers tend to be low, especially when starting this career.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. The role is physically and mentally demanding, and they face many health and safety risks. There is also a lot of competition, and salaries can be low. However, there are many positives too. Individuals who become zookeepers love caring for animals and ensuring they are healthy, safe and happy.
When considering whether to be a zookeeper, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a zookeeper
Some of the personal qualities a zookeeper requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for animals and their health, safety, well-being and welfare.
- An interest in conservation and education.
- Good physical fitness and manual dexterity.
- Caring, calm, compassionate, approachable, understanding and empathetic.
- Confident in handling animals of various sizes.
- Motivated, responsible, self-disciplined and determined.
- Knowledge of animal biology and behaviour.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Customer service skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Observation and recording skills.
- Organisation and time management skills.
- Presentation skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
- The ability to work well with others and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to work under pressure, be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to be emotionally resilient.
- The ability to use IT and software packages.
There are many routes to becoming a zookeeper. Individuals could go to university or college, enrol on a private training course or do an apprenticeship. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.
An individual does not need a degree to become a zookeeper. However, having an undergraduate or postgraduate degree can help individuals stand out from the crowd.
Some examples of degree topics that may be helpful are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
- Zoo biology.
- Marine zoology.
- Animal management.
- Zoo management.
- Animal science.
- Veterinary science.
- Animal conservation and biodiversity.
- Animal behaviour and welfare.
The entry requirements will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying. They will typically need two/three good A Levels for an undergraduate degree or a certain number of UCAS points to get into university. Postgraduate degrees usually require a 2:1 or 2:2 in a relevant undergraduate degree or a degree in another subject and appropriate experience. Some institutions also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.
Undertaking a college course can help individuals become zookeepers.
Some examples are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
- A Level Biology.
- Level 2 Diploma in Animal Care.
- Level 3 Extended Diploma in Animal Management.
- Level 3 Diploma in Animal Care or Animal Science.
- Level 3 Diploma in Zookeeping.
- Level 3 Work-based Animal Care.
- T Level in Animal Care and Management.
Individuals usually need:
- Level 2 – two or more GCSEs grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent.
- Level 3/A Levels – five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, including English, maths and science.
- T Levels – four or five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent (including English and maths).
Some examples of courses are on BIAZA, e.g. the Diploma in Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals.
Private training companies may also offer courses. It may also be worth enrolling on low-cost online short courses to see if a career as a zookeeper is of interest. That way, if it is not, it will save an individual a lot of time and trouble. However, they should still get practical hands-on experience, as this is what most zoos will look for in individuals when they apply for roles.
Individuals are not guaranteed success with courses and qualifications. However, it will demonstrate to employers and companies that they are keen on the job and may give individuals a competitive edge. Always check the entry requirements before applying.
There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become zookeepers, e.g.:
- Level 2 animal care and welfare assistant – equivalent to GCSE (intermediate).
- Level 3 keeper and aquarist – equivalent to an A Level (advanced).
- Level 4 animal trainer– equivalent to a higher national certificate (HNC).
Individuals will usually need the following:
- Intermediate apprenticeship – some GCSEs, usually including English and maths, or equivalent.
- Advanced apprenticeship – five GCSEs, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), including English and maths, or equivalent.
- Higher or degree apprenticeship – four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A Levels, or equivalent.
Opportunities are found on Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Indeed.
Getting a role in zookeeping is highly competitive. Therefore, individuals should undertake relevant and varied work experience (either paid or voluntary) to increase their chances of getting a job.
Where possible, individuals should try and obtain work experience that involves working in a zoo or at another type of animal attraction. Practical experience helps individuals understand what is involved in working with various animals, builds their knowledge and skills, and allows them to appreciate the mental and physical demands of the job and environment.
Alternatively, individuals could get experience in handling various animals in the following settings:
- Wildlife rescue centres.
- Animal welfare centres and rescue homes.
Some roles may be paid jobs, but most will be voluntary. Animal charities, e.g. the PDSA, the RSPCA and the Blue Cross, have volunteering roles. There is also information on volunteering and local opportunities on BIAZA, Do-IT, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.
Individuals should also get experience working with the public, as they will be required to interact with visitors and give talks. They could volunteer with an animal charity in a public-facing role. Even paid jobs in customer service can be beneficial.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training companies can provide relevant training courses.
Some examples of courses that may be useful for individuals looking at a career in zookeeping include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Hazardous substances.
- Manual handling.
- Slips, trips and falls.
- Work at height.
- Work equipment (PUWER).
- Work-related stress.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Workplace first aid.
- Customer service skills.
- Time management skills.
- Resilience training.
Individuals could also consider community college courses to gain further knowledge and experience with animals, e.g., dog grooming.:
Professional bodies, charities and associations, such as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), the Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers (ABWAK), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the National Farm Attractions Network (NFAN), zoological societies, e.g. the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and others, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become zookeepers and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed for zookeeping roles. Jobs can be found on websites such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, EAZA vacancies, BIAZA careers, ABWAK careers, Jobs in Zoos and others. Also, look at individual organisations for paid and voluntary roles, e.g. Chester Zoo, West Midland Safari and Leisure Park, Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and others.
More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also advisable as it keeps individuals’ knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Zookeepers will usually need a criminal record check, as they will come into contact with children and vulnerable people.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme
Some zookeepers will need a full driving licence (preferably with no points), as they will travel around zoos or safari parks to care for the animals. Some roles will provide a company vehicle for this, but others may require individuals to use their own, which must have business insurance.
Where do zookeepers work?
Zookeepers can work for many different employers, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Charities, e.g.:
– Zoological societies.
– Wildlife rescues.
– Small sanctuaries and wildlife centres.
– Conservation trusts.
- Local authorities.
- Private organisations, e.g.:
– Attraction operators, e.g. Sealife and theme parks with animal collections.
– Leisure park operators.
– Animal experience providers.
- Private owners, e.g. family businesses.
They can work in various places in urban or rural locations, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Petting zoos.
- Birds of prey centres.
- Bird gardens.
- Butterfly houses.
- Theme and leisure parks (animal collections).
- Animal sanctuaries.
- Zoological gardens.
- Breeding/conservation centres.
- Safari parks.
- Game reserves (mainly overseas in Africa, Australia and America).
- Wildlife rescue centres.
- Wildlife parks.
- Mobile zoos (travelling to various events).
Zookeepers may work indoors in enclosures and other areas, such as offices. They may also work outdoors in all weather.
There may also be options to work overseas for some individuals.
How much do zookeepers earn?
What a zookeeper earns is highly variable and will depend on the following:
- Their role and specialisms.
- Their location (those in London will earn more).
- Their qualifications, training and experience.
- Who they work for.
- The size of the attraction.
- Their employment type, e.g. seasonal or fixed-term.
- Their working hours, e.g. full-time or part-time.
As many zookeeper opportunities are with charities, salaries tend to be relatively low compared to other careers.
Some examples of average salaries include (these figures are taken from numerous sources and are a guide only):
- Starting salaries – around £14,000 a year.
- Experienced zookeepers – £18,000–£20,000 a year.
- Head zookeepers – £25,000+ a year.
According to Indeed UK, the average salary for a zookeeper in the UK is £20,019.
Many jobs are seasonal, and some have an hourly rate.
Types of zookeeping to specialise in
Zookeepers can specialise in various areas. They could work in specific settings, such as zoos, safari parks, aquariums, bird gardens, etc.
They may also care for specific groups of animals, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Reptiles and amphibians.
- Aquatic animals.
They can specialise further within each group and work in specific enclosures, e.g.:
- Big cats, e.g. tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars and leopards.
- Primates, e.g. orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, gibbons, lemurs and baboons.
- Ungulates (hooved mammals), e.g. horses, zebra, cattle, giraffes, camels, sheep, hippos and rhinos.
- Nocturnal, e.g. bats.
- Dogs, e.g. hyenas, foxes and wolves.
- Rodents, e.g. mice, rats and gerbils.
- Mongoose, e.g. meerkats.
- Birds of prey.
- Wildfowl, e.g. ducks, swans and geese.
- Other exotic or native bird species.
Reptiles and amphibians
- Tortoises and turtles.
- Frogs and toads.
- Crocodiles and alligators.
- Insects, e.g. butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, ants, cockroaches, stick insects and mantis.
- Sea lions.
- Other fish.
- Others, e.g. jellyfish and octopuses.
Some zookeepers may specialise in more exotic animals, whereas others may focus on UK wildlife.
All specialist zookeeper roles require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities, and some jobs may need additional qualifications and training. All zookeepers need a passion for animals and knowledge of their biology and behaviour. They must be comfortable approaching and handling animals, carrying out numerous husbandry tasks, and speaking to the public. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for and the type of work a zookeeper wants.
If zookeepers do not carry out their role effectively, safely and competently, it can result in animals not being cared for properly, which may cause injury, illness or worse. Zookeepers and the public can also be at risk of injury and even death in some cases. Therefore, whatever the type of role, zookeepers must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Standards, codes, methods, laws, equipment and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, zookeepers must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives zookeepers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, and progress in their careers.
Joining a professional body, charity, or association, such as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), the Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers (ABWAK), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the National Farm Attractions Network (NFAN), zoological societies, e.g. the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and others, can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. They may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for zookeepers. With more training and experience, they could move to a senior zookeeper, team leader or head keeper position, which may require relocating to other parts of the UK, as roles are scarce. They could also go from a small animal attraction to a large zoo/safari park or look after groups of animals or multiple sections. Alternatively, they could work with large or exotic animals with more complex needs.
Knowledge, skills and experience in zookeeping can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a zookeeper may want to become a curator or manager in a zoo or work in education or conservation research.
Zoos and other animal attractions face controversy, as there are ethical questions regarding keeping animals captive. Therefore, a zookeeper’s role could look very different in the future, and it is important to keep up to date with any changes when considering this as a career.
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