Keeper Chat

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

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?

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!

jjuttup asked: Just curious as im an aussie keeper, but what makes otters dangerous? Are they cunning or something?

While otters aren’t ever (at least that I’ve seen!) classified on the “code red” level of danger (code red otter… can you imagine!!), a lot of zoos don’t allow interns/volunteers to work with them because they do have a NASTY bite.  Like, absolutely nasty in a straight-to-the-hospital sort of way.

Anonymous asked: imagine that i want to work with dolphins or sea lions and train them. i know that i should study marine biology but what about the training part? what do zoos look for in trainers? what kind of things should i be envolved with to get more experience in training? thank you :D

I highly recommend The Middle Flipper.  She’s a marine mammal trainer and her blog is excellent; the info over there will probably help you much more than I can!

bearlytame asked: I've been a seasonal relief keeper for about 9 months now. I'm making a species list of everything that I've worked with, and I've gotten stuck. Since I'm a seasonal keeper, I'm not allowed to work with any of the more "dangerous" animals, such as the otters, tiger, sun bear, etc. However, I do help out on occasion with cleaning and diet prep, just not shifting and training. I was wondering if I could/should add these animals to the list. What do you think?

If it’s a personal list for your own satisfaction, then your criteria can be whatever you want!  The phrase “work with” is so vague when it comes to animals.  Have you “worked with” bears if you’ve merely chopped their diet, or would you not consider yourself to have “worked with” them until you’re at a routine immobilization helping to rearrange a bear’s anesthetized body?  And what about everything in between those two extremes?!

Personal choice, my friend.  For what it’s worth, I usually say I’ve worked with a species if I’ve spent significant time (i.e. more than a day) doing something directly related to their care.

On a resume or job application, that’s a different story, and I would make your level of involvement clear (for example: “Did abc for hedgehogs and goats.  Did xyz for tigers and sun bears”).

Anonymous asked: hi! great blog! :) i looove animals and i'm 100% sure that i want to work with them.. being a zookeeper is a huge goal for me but there are some things that i'm unsure of. i'm not really physically strong (though i think of myself as mentally strong) but i'm only 15 years old so i have time to work on it, right?? i am also a bit shy.. i get super nervous in my oral presentations but since i'll be talking about animals and i'll be sure about what i'll be saying, it's fine, right? thanks :)

Short answer: yes, these are both things you can work to improve on and a little bit of honest effort will take you a long way.

Further reading in previous posts:
Physical fitness and zookeeping
Public speaking and zookeeping

Thanks for the question!