Keeper Chat

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

Anonymous asked: What made you decide to be a zookeeper? I'm going to be a college freshman in the fall and having lots of trouble deciding if I should major in Zoology or Wildlife Conservation. I'm not sure if I want to work in a zoo or as a wildlife biologist doing population surveys and similar stuff. I'm leaning more towards zoo work, but people act like in order to get hired, you need 10 years of experience and a PhD. Any advice on how to choose between these two paths? I refuse to do animal testing.

Hi!
Okay, first, you do not need 10 years of experience or a PhD to be a zookeeper.  You should have a bachelor’s degree and maybe an internship or two, and/or a seasonal position.  It’s true that the field is extremely competitive, but if you’re very patient and very persistent, you will get in.

Check out my previous post on Wildlife Biology vs. Zoology in terms of coursework and career options.  (Wildlife Conservation would probably be very similar to Wildlife Biology — both involve population management and genetics.)

My major was Wildlife Biology.  I wanted to be a zookeeper before I started college, and I wanted to be one because I had always loved animals and wanted to be around them, and when I first volunteered at a zoo for a brief time at the age of 16, it just clicked with me.  I loved the work (difficult and dirty though it was), and  I loved getting to know the animals and seeing them every day.  I’m also super passionate about wildlife conservation, and after some self-reflection I decided that my particular skills and strengths are better suited to a zoo setting than to field work, and since I would still be able to work on conservation projects as a zookeeper it was kind of a no-brainer.

I have never done animal testing and am not sure you’d have to in either major (though Zoology is more likely to include dissections, which is different but worth noting).  The closest link to animal testing I could think of would be if you used your Zoology degree to get a job in a laboratory where animal testing happens, which of course you do not have to do.

always0900 asked: I looked into zoo keeping & I was wondering if you are actually able to work with the animals alot (like walks daily, and petting them etc) or if you just get to clean the cage and barley spend time with the animals?

First, a sincere thank you for reading, and for your question!
Now I need to get serious for a minute so put on your listening hats, people.  I don’t mean to be harsh but this gets under my skin.  And this isn’t the only question I’ve gotten along these lines, so it applies to many.

One of the main reasons this blog exists is to clear up confusion like this. 

1. “I was wondering if you are actually able to work with the animals alot [sic] (like walks daily, and petting them etc)”
If “working with animals,” for you, invokes images of walking them and petting them, then you do not want to work with animals.  You want pets.  There is a difference.  Pets are there to be your companions, to hang out with you and go for walks with you and let you hug them when you’re sad.  Zoo animals are not pets.  I will say that again, louder: zoo animals are not pets.  Keepers owe their animals respect — this includes respecting their space; respecting their boundaries; respecting that what the keeper wants to do is not always what the keeper should do for the good of the animal; and respecting the fact that they are (captive) wild animals, not pets.  As a keeper, I love my animals and would do anything for them, but I’m there for them, not the other way around.  It’s my job to make sure they’re safe, healthy, well fed, enriched, and appropriately managed.  Nine times out of ten, that does not involve walking them or petting them.

2. “…or if you just get to clean the cage and barely spend time with the animals?”
First, hopefully the animals aren’t in cages, but in species-appropriate holdings and naturalistic exhibits.  Even when things aren’t as naturalistic as we’d like, “cage” is generally not a term that is used in the modern zoo industry.

Second, what makes you think that cleaning and spending time with the animals are mutually exclusive things?  I get to spend time with the animals because I am the one who does everything for them, including cleaning up after them and keeping their space well-maintained.  That’s what “working with animals” is.  It’s cleaning, fixing things, preparing food, moving animals around, training them, keeping after their health, devising new ways to entertain and engage them, and coming up with creative solutions to all the random issues that pop up every day, from clogged drains to broken feeders to overgrown weeds to uncooperative animals.

I’m not going to lie — I do experience a lot of ridiculously cool moments with the animals on a regular basis.  While I may not be walking or petting them, I do get to be up close and personal with them all the time.  But my main point here is that zookeeping is about 20% really cool amazing stuff that makes people jealous when you tell them about it, and 80% difficult dirty exhausting thankless work.  For me, and for many others, that 20% more than makes up for the other 80% (and honestly, that 80% isn’t always bad — sometimes cleaning can be therapeutic, and projects can be fun, and it’s all good exercise and beats sitting at a desk, in my opinion).  But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if you want to be a keeper because you’re imagining yourself petting tigers and hand-feeding giraffes all day, you’re in for a rude surprise because that ain’t real life.

Shout out to all the people who:-Stand by the big cat exhibits yelling any variation on "Here kitty kitty!"-Insist that they ~*understand*~ the big cats because they are a ~*sensitive soul*~ or  ~*were a tiger/lion/leopard in their past life*~-Try to tell me that the big cats are communicating with them on an existential level because they’re not breaking eye contact *snortlaugh*-Ask if they can have a big cat as a pet, and when told no, insist that they’re sure they would be able to tame them, they don’t look dangerous (yeah excuse me wait until that mouth opens sweetheart)-Get mad that the cats are sleeping and ask me, “Can’t you just go in there and wake it up?”

Shout out to all the people who:

-Stand by the big cat exhibits yelling any variation on "Here kitty kitty!"
-Insist that they ~*understand*~ the big cats because they are a ~*sensitive soul*~ or  ~*were a tiger/lion/leopard in their past life*~
-Try to tell me that the big cats are communicating with them on an existential level because they’re not breaking eye contact *snortlaugh*
-Ask if they can have a big cat as a pet, and when told no, insist that they’re sure they would be able to tame them, they don’t look dangerous (yeah excuse me wait until that mouth opens sweetheart)
-Get mad that the cats are sleeping and ask me, “Can’t you just go in there and wake it up?”

(Source: sickhumor)

collegeofswagriculture asked: Sorry I just asked you a question; I'm the agriculture education major. I don't remember if I asked this, but I'm minoring in Poultry & Avian Sciences (in the college of ag). Will this help? Or do zoos not really like domestic\agricultural animal experience?

Depends on the zoo!
I’m not sure what Avian Sciences entails, but if it branches out from agriculture at all and into the realm of general birds, then it would certainly look nice on an application for a bird keeper job.

Domestic/agricultural animal experience can help you break into the zoo field; you just need the right opportunity at the right time.  And once you’re in the zoo field, with your foot in the door as an intern or seasonal or whatever, then the same rules apply to you: gain zoo experience, move up the ladder.

Anonymous asked: This might seem like an odd question, but in your experience have you found it beneficial to seek experience working with a wide variety of species or focus on a particular subset in a zoo setting? Say for example, just focusing on multiple carnivore internships and keeper positions, or looking outside of that and seeking experience with many more species such as birds, hoof stock, primates, and carnivores. I'm just curious as to what zoo's normally like more when examining applicants. Thanks!

Hi!
This is a generalization based on my personal experience and opinion, so please take it with the caveat that all zoos, keepers, and jobs are different.

I would recommend starting out general and moving into specifics later in your career, if at all.  The thing is (and this important so it’s getting bolded so pay attention), when you’re trying to break into the field, it’s sort of a “you get what you get and you don’t get upset” situation for most people.  The luxury of actually being able to choose — “Hmm, do I want to work with reptiles or hoofstock?  Sea lions or primates?” — is so rare for newbies, it’s practically unheard of.  Bottom line: you’re lucky if you get offered a position at all, let alone if you get to be picky about it.  My first paid zoo position was with birds, yet I’ve wanted to work with carnivores my whole life.  But I took that bird job, I took it very seriously, learned as much as I could, and kept trying to move over into the world of mammals — and wouldn’t you know it, eventually I got there (took a little more than a year, which is the blink of an eye in zoo time).  And even now, I don’t only work with carnivores (my area is gigantic and includes everything from small primates to rhinos).  But again, all this experience is serving me very well.

You never know what opportunities are going to come up, and what sort of experience will help you go after them.  If your experience base is more expansive, you’ll be better suited to contend for all sorts of positions.  If you’ve limited your experience to just one thing — let’s say primates, for the sake of an example — then you’re setting yourself up to do a little more gambling.  On the one hand, if a primate job comes up, you’ll have tons of relevant experience and be ready to go.  On the other hand, if it’s a primate job that also requires you to work with lots of other species… or a non-primate job at a zoo you really want to work at… well, then your chances might not be so good.

All that being said, it’s not unheard of for zoos to hire people who don’t have experience with a particular set of animals, to work directly with those animals.  I always think it’s weird, but it happens, and it’s happened to me and to my friends.  You just never know what they’re looking for.  And that’s why the moral of the story is, apply for anything and everything that you can; take jobs that you think will give you great experience; and while it’s okay to start out trying to go in a certain direction, don’t be discouraged if that direction doesn’t work out at first — just take what you can get and work towards where you want to be.  It’s much easier to get a zoo job that you want when you already have a zoo job that you don’t really want, than it is to get any zoo job when you don’t have one at all.

Best of luck!

Anonymous asked: How long does a seasonal keeper position typically last? I have an interview coming up for a seasonal position and the start/end date wasn't discussed in the job description.

Make sure to ask that in your interview ;)

Most zoos hire seasonals for the summer, i.e., ~Memorial Day — ~Labor Day (in the U.S. at least).

And remember, kids — many a seasonal position has led to a permanent position!  If you can get your foot in the door via a seasonal keeper job, you are doing real REAL good.

Anonymous asked: Hi! I'm sorry for asking this anonymously, my facility is a bit funny about posting about work on social networking and I'm not sure if this classes as revealing too much information. I was wondering if your followers had any information on Bactrian camel pregnancy? We have a 4 year old male and female and we've been a bit suspicious that our female might be pregnant, but we can't find out any info on it so we're having to play it by ear. Any info would be really gratefully received!

eruditionanimaladoration:

zookeeping:

eruditionanimaladoration:

keeperchat:

Hi!
I’ve never worked with camels of any kind, but I have worked with a lot of hoofstock.  For the larger animals (i.e. giraffe-large… camels are also pretty big, maybe it’s similar for them?), it can be pretty hard to tell when they’re pregnant, and the signs we usually look for come very late in the pregnancy: swelling and “winking” of the vulva, holding the tail up, and “bagging up” (i.e. udders start filling with milk).  Before then, you can sometimes tell by body shape and size if you’re VERY familiar with what the animal looks like normally.  And of course you have the option of ultrasound, which, depending on your vet staff, your training program, and your camel’s attitude, may or may not be a realistic possibility (it’s definitely not for us!).

Anyone else have any tips about Bactrian camel pregnancy?  Reblog and add comments!

Signal Boost. We have been notorious for being off on giraffe birthdates…. Maybe zookeeping might know… She’s got a bit of experience with camels

I worked with dromedaries and quite a few things that keeperchat mentioned does happen with the dromedaries..but like they mentioned it can take a while to notice signs AND it’s not 100% (for example: we had a female holding her tail like pregnant camels often do, but ended up not being pregnant - most likely hormones were telling her to act that way) although in the beginning months if you were more familiar with the process people could tell. Let me ask my old bosses see if they’ve got any tips.

While female bactrians can reach puberty as early as 1.5-2 generally it is around 4 years old so both the female and male are in theory able too, but usually young bulls might take a while to really figure it out. 

If you want to anon question me I’ll keep you updated with what info I get.

Gotta love my animal bloggers

Thanks for the additions, y’all!!
Hope this helps my Camel Keeper Anon :)

critterfacts asked: I haven't read through all of your answers, as I have just come across the blog today. I am working my way into a zoo career and have some confidence issues with large birds and snakes (of all sizes). I want to get more confident with them as I know my fear of them is a tad irrational. Have you found any ways that helped you gain confidence with animals like this?

Hi!
First, if you know that your fear really is based on a lack of confidence (as opposed to a true phobia, which might need to be approached in a different way), then the good news is that you can overcome it!  Let’s break some things down.

1. There is no rule that says you have to work with large birds or snakes.  Of course, it’s best to be ready for anything.  I’m not the biggest fan of snakes, either, and I prefer to have nothing to do with them — but if my curator suddenly decided that my area was going to get some snakes, I would be fully prepared to buckle down, learn how to take care of snakes, take some deep breaths and have a few mental pep talks with myself, and just do it.  Birds are a little harder to avoid, as many zoos have multi-species exhibits and birds are sort of ubiquitous and fit in everywhere.  Even if you’re a dedicated great ape or hoofstock keeper, you still might have birds in your area.  All that being said… you can always just select jobs that will allow you to avoid the animals you want to avoid, though I don’t think that’s the best plan as it could severely limit your options.

2. The best way to gain confidence around animals is to be around the animals.  This sounds sort of counter-intuitive, but believe me, it’s the way to go.  I didn’t learn to confidently manage large antelope until I had some practice getting in there and squaring off with them face-to-face, on my own.  A lot of the apprehension, for me (and probably for you), comes from not knowing what to expect from the animal.  But once you understand how to read their behavior and what they’re likely to do, it’s a lot easier to approach them.  And the only way to learn the animal is to be around the animal.

For your particular issues, do you have any friends who have pet snakes (small ones!) or birds that you could hang out with for a bit?  That might help you get used to the way they move, feel, and behave, which will remove some of the element of the unknown.  You could also try going to the zoo and watching these animals in their exhibits for a good long time.  Find a reptile house or a couple of vultures, and just study the animals for awhile.  Try to let it sink in that they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and it’s not scary — it’s just what they do, and your job is to learn how to act and react around them doing what they do.

Hope that’s helpful!

Thanks for the Controversy: What Anti-Zoo People Have Taught Me.

A kinda snarky article with some good points - worth a read!
(Thanks to thismodernmonster for the submission!)

Anonymous asked: Hi! I'm sorry for asking this anonymously, my facility is a bit funny about posting about work on social networking and I'm not sure if this classes as revealing too much information. I was wondering if your followers had any information on Bactrian camel pregnancy? We have a 4 year old male and female and we've been a bit suspicious that our female might be pregnant, but we can't find out any info on it so we're having to play it by ear. Any info would be really gratefully received!

Hi!
I’ve never worked with camels of any kind, but I have worked with a lot of hoofstock.  For the larger animals (i.e. giraffe-large… camels are also pretty big, maybe it’s similar for them?), it can be pretty hard to tell when they’re pregnant, and the signs we usually look for come very late in the pregnancy: swelling and “winking” of the vulva, holding the tail up, and “bagging up” (i.e. udders start filling with milk).  Before then, you can sometimes tell by body shape and size if you’re VERY familiar with what the animal looks like normally.  And of course you have the option of ultrasound, which, depending on your vet staff, your training program, and your camel’s attitude, may or may not be a realistic possibility (it’s definitely not for us!).

Anyone else have any tips about Bactrian camel pregnancy?  Reblog and add comments!