Keeper Chat

A friendly resource for prospective zoo professionals, as well as curious passers-by.

Anonymous asked: I've just applied for my firs paidt zoo keeping job - a trainee elephant keeper! I'm really excited and I've used your resources on job interview questions to help prepare me, but I was wondering if you've ever worked with elephants and have some insights into what it will be like? I have only worked with Giant Pandas before.

aaronblogswhales:

keeperchat:

Hi!
I have never worked with elephants, but I know it’s highly specialized, and depending on the facility it can be a pretty different style of zookeeping from everything else.  

Especially in AZA facilities, elephant programs tend to be extremely training-focused.  I also think it’s fair to assume that the physical labor side of the job will be very intense.  

Any elephant keepers want to reblog & chime in?

I am not an elephant keeper (though i do plan on trying my look with them within a year or so), however, to the anon, just know there is a lot of controversy surrounding the captivity of elephants. Well that goes for almost all animals, but elephants are a big one. It may be overwhelming sometimes as i’ve be told. Especially when it comes to the way the animals are trained. If they use protected contact and positive reinforcement, free contact and bull hook as an aid in training with a mix of positive reinforcement (usually not harming the animal), or a bull hook used to scare the animals (using physical aggression). 

But I hope the anon gets it! Elephants are fascinating, and their is probably soooo much they will be exposed to! :P


Good points, thanks!  Gonna add a couple things.

1. In AZA zoos, free contact is phasing out.  All AZA institutions either already are protected contact with their elephants, or are moving in that direction.  If you’re non-AZA, your mileage may vary.  Which leads to the next point —

2. Yes, there is a lot of controversy regarding elephants in captivity, and I’m not gonna touch that right now, except to emphasize that when people think of the vague concept of “captive elephants,” what comes to mind is usually a circus or some sort of performance situation.  I can’t speak to what those animals’ lives are like because I simply don’t know, but unfortunately there are some horror stories floating around that leave a bad taste in people’s mouths (for good reason).  But in a facility that has the resources to give their elephants a good quality of life (this includes space, facilities, veterinary care, a solid training program, and even professional development for the keeper staff), these animals are extremely well cared for by knowledgeable and dedicated people who love them.  And considering that both Asian and African elephants are in serious trouble in the wild, due to land use conflicts and poaching (mostly driven by the ivory trade), well… if you’ve read through this blog at all, then you know how I feel about the importance of captive populations at the present time.

More resources:

96Elephants is a campaign led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (a.k.a. the Bronx Zoo) to save elephants by ending the ivory trade.

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives is an incredible book by Thomas French, a journalist who spent several years writing about Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, FL.  The book focuses a lot on the controversy surrounding captive elephants.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has any emotional investment in zoos, positive or negative, and I especially recommend it to anyone who wants to dig deeper into the elephant issue.

whitejenna asked: Started keeping in '01, just NOW making over 30K a year, at a small zoo in Illinois.

Thanks!
For everyone asking about how much money keepers make - there’s some helpful perspective for you.

(Also please refer to this post.)

Anonymous asked: I've just applied for my firs paidt zoo keeping job - a trainee elephant keeper! I'm really excited and I've used your resources on job interview questions to help prepare me, but I was wondering if you've ever worked with elephants and have some insights into what it will be like? I have only worked with Giant Pandas before.

Hi!
I have never worked with elephants, but I know it’s highly specialized, and depending on the facility it can be a pretty different style of zookeeping from everything else.  

Especially in AZA facilities, elephant programs tend to be extremely training-focused.  I also think it’s fair to assume that the physical labor side of the job will be very intense.  

Any elephant keepers want to reblog & chime in?

Anonymous asked: Hey there! I wanted to let you know first off that I am in love with your blog! Also, I wanted to ask you what would be a better choice for my career. My goal is to become a marine mammal trainer, but right now for animal experience I am volunteering at a zoo with the elephants and giraffes (although as a teenager, not very hands on but experience nonetheless). I have the opportunity to switch to harbor seals, but it is going to be so hard to leave! Would you suggest bouncing around areas?

Hi and thank you!

First, to emphasize this point for anyone else who’s reading: you’re a teenager and a volunteer.  These are important distinctions and my advice to you is based on them.  So, with that being said, here are some things I think you should consider.

1. “Bouncing around areas,” i.e. getting lots of varied experience with lots of different species, is particularly valuable when you’re just starting out.  That’s because when you eventually start applying for jobs, you’ll have the best chances if you adopt a strict “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality.  When you’re starting out, you often have to take what you can get, and what you can get might very well depend on what experience you already have, however small that may be.  

2. Marine mammals are tricky, though, because they’re a real and true specialty.  If it’s really your dream to work with them, then I would think that the more experience you have with them, the better, and the sooner you start, the better.  Does that contradict what I said in point #1?  Kind of, yeah.  Like I said, tricky.  

3. BUT.  You said that it would be “so hard to leave” the elephants and giraffes.  Consider why that is.  Is it really still your dream to work with marine mammals?  Or is that just the motivational train you’ve been riding, and now that you’ve actually worked around other animals, you’re realizing that you may have other interests?  If you’re reading this and you’re like, “Heck no techno, elephants are cool but they’re just my giant gray stepping stones,” then there you go.  But if you have a sneaking suspicion that there may be more room in your heart than you thought for terrestrial critters, then… I think you owe it to yourself to keep an open mind.  I know more than one keeper who started out convinced that they wanted to work with one group of animals, then completely changed their mind and never looked back.

4. Final point.  Lucky for you, my initial disclaimer still stands.  You’re a teen volunteer.  What that means is that whatever choice you make now isn’t going to be the one thing that makes or breaks your career.  If you feel like switching to seals, switch to seals.  If you feel like sticking with elephants and giraffes, then stick with them.  If you have a chance to go to even another area, go!  Or stay!  Whatever!  What would I do if I were you?  I would switch to seals, and here’s why: it’s the perfect opportunity to a) Start getting that varied experience I mentioned in point #1, and b) See if working marine mammals is really as cool as you think it is.  Boom.

The important thing is that you’re in there volunteering.  That’s a great start and it will help you in the long run, trust me.  

Good luck, whatever you decide!

Anonymous asked: I'm interested in being a zookeeper someday and I was wondering how often one has the opportunity to work with other groups of animals in a zoo. I know typically you're working with one specific group, but in your experience is there many opportunities to work with animals outside your specified group? I'd like to experience working with as many different kinds of animals as possible.

This is going to vary A LOT.  To a certain extent, you can customize your personal experience to your liking, but a lot of it is still going to depend on the size of the zoo, the way the animal collection is divided, the other keepers you’re working with, and a number of other factors, including good old-fashioned chance.

For instance, I’m a carnivore person (as in, I like working with carnivores, not that I’m a person who is carnivorous… although…), and I currently work with lots of carnivores, including big cats.  But I have also worked with (and currently work with) birds, hoofstock, reptiles, and rhinos.  This is because the jobs I have accepted (including my current job) all just happened to be the right choice for me at the time.

I think there are pros and cons to either choice, whether you specialize in one taxon right off the bat, or rack up experience with a big variety of species.  And like I said, sometimes you’ll be able to steer yourself in the direction you prefer, but other times it’s wiser to just take what you can get, particularly when you’re just starting out.

In general, bigger zoos are more likely to have more specific divisions (i.e. a Bird Department, Primate Department, etc., where the keepers stick to one area).  Smaller zoos are more likely to have keepers who are kind of jacks-of-all-trades, floating around between areas and/or working areas that encompass a wider variety of animals.  There are exceptions, though, and it will also depend on how the animal collection is distributed throughout the zoo.  You’ve got your more traditional zoo setup where the cats are with the cats, the snakes are with the snakes, the monkeys are with the monkeys… and then you’ve got the geographical setup, where you might find the same keepers caring for both Sumatran tigers and orangutans because both are Asian, or caring for both Brazilian tapirs and maned wolves because both are South American… and then there’s the ecosystem setup, where you might have a “tropical rainforest” or “desert” section which includes all types of animals from that particular ecosystem from all over the world.  And the only way to find out which way a particular zoo works is to ask!

Hope that answers your question!

Anonymous asked: Hi! My ultimate goal is to work with big cats, but I know those positions are highly sought after and hard to get. I've noticed that most job postings require feline or carnivore experience. But I'm kinda in the rut of "can't get a job without experience, can't get experience without a job" as the experience I have is in the form of volunteering and an internship with small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Any advice on how to bridge that gap and get the experience I need?

Hello!
This is a really common catch-22, not just for people in the zoo world, but for basically anyone trying to get a job these days.

The good news is, you’ve already started down the right path by volunteering and interning - even if it’s not with the animals you want to eventually work with.  I’m a big cat person too, and I started with birds.  It’s not impossible!  It just takes persistence, patience, and really good timing.

The best way to “bridge the gap,” so to speak, is to stay in the zoo field however you can.  If that means volunteering and/or internships right now, then that’s what it means.  But keep gaining that animal experience, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you right now.  Trust me, it’s not. 

And then - here’s the important part - apply for jobs and do not let “experience requirements” stop you (within reason).  I mean, obviously you shouldn’t apply for a senior keeper job, or a position that requires five or more years of very specific experience.  But look at those jobs that ask for one year of exotic animal experience, or those entry-level or seasonal positions.  There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t apply for those, even if your experience level doesn’t quite measure up.  Make sure your resume and cover letter are a really convincing advertisement for all the things you have done and do know, and then get those applications in!

You will experience a lot of rejection.  I certainly did.  The vast majority of us do.  Do not let that discourage you.  All it takes is ONE person to take a chance on you, and you’re in.  

Good luck!

zookeeperdream asked: hi! first of all, it made my day to read all those things that only a zookeeper knows! great blog! i've always dreamed about being a zookeeper and i already know how it really works (i had a clue but your blog answered all my questions so thank you for that :) ). i only have one more question and i'd love if you could answer it: how does the "hierarchy" of the zoo work? like i know that there are different types of keepers and i'd love if you could tell me what they do and all that. thank you :)

Hi, thanks for the question!

The hierarchy will depend on the zoo.

Usually you have a General Curator who’s at the top of the Animal Department (the only people above the General Curator would probably be the CEO and/or Zoo Director).

Under the General Curator, you might have additional curators (sometimes divided by department or area - i.e. Curator of Birds, Curator of Primates, etc., or there might be curators overseeing certain exhibits or sections of the zoo).

Under those curators, you might have Assistant Curators.

Then Supervisors and/or Lead Keepers, who may or may not split their time between office work and keeper work.  Some do more of one than the other.

Then you might have Assistant Supervisors and/or Assistant Lead Keepers, who would definitely spend more time doing keeper stuff than administrative work.  They’re sort of like the liaison between the keepers and the supervisors.

And then you have the keepers!

All of the above ranks vary significantly between institutions.  Some zoos, especially smaller ones, might not have any levels between General Curator and Keeper.  Others might sub-divide even further.  Generally speaking, the higher up the chain you go, the less time you spend doing keeper work and the more time you spend in an office.

Anonymous asked: hey! i just wanted to tell you that i'm iiiin loooove with your blog! it inspires me so much and instantly makes me feel happy and hopeful about my future 'cause i realllllllllllly wanna be a zookeeper! so thank you for that :) i was wondering how often you answer asks bc i wanna keep updated :)

Hello and thank you so much!!
This question serves as a perfect transition to my apology for this blog being dead lately.  I’m sorry!  Real life happens! 

But I’m still here and over the next few days I hope to do some MAD catch-up on my Ask backlog.  If you’ve submitted a question that I haven’t addressed yet, thank you for your patience!  I appreciate all of you, I really do!

I try really hard to keep this blog up to date with posts at least a few times a week, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.  Thanks for sticking with me anyway!

Anonymous asked: Okay, I know that zookeepers don't make good money, but I'm okay with that. But I am realistic and would like to know that if I pursue this career I will have SOME money. A quick google search brought up the average salary as about 20K. PLEASE tell me this is false and it's usually more? (You don't have to share your salary, obviously.)

Hi friend!  I refer you to this post.  Hope that’s helpful!