Hey you! Love animals? Want to take care of them? Read on!
Animal keepers have one of the best jobs in the world. We get to take care of animals every single day, and give them the best lives they can possibly have under human care. Whether you’re working with pets, zoo animals, or wild animals, the world of animals is a unique and fascinating one. But how do you get from a love of animals to taking care of them every day?
A college degree is really important. Most animal keepers have a four year Bachelor of Science in an animal based degree. The science degree doesn’t have to apply to a specific animal. Helpful degrees include Biology, Zoology, Ecology, Animal Sciences, Wildlife Biology, Wildlife Management, Marine Biology, Wildlife Conservation, Veterinary Sciences, Animal Psychology, and more. The point of a degree is to build the basic knowledge of animals, their life history, and their relationships to each other, their environment, and even to people. It’s also to learn important scientific skills, like experimentation, reading and understanding scientific papers, and critical thinking.
Even more important than a degree, in all honesty, is experience. Most zoos, aquariums, and animal facilities request at LEAST two years of animal experience to hire into a keeper position. Although many facilities will specify paid experience, any experience you can get is important and helpful. The easiest way to get experience, especially when you’re young, is volunteering. Places like animal shelters or animal based non-profits are good places to start. You’ll get familiar with cleaning standards, daily tasks, and animal behavior. The longer you stick around, you’ll likely be given the more complicated tasks and responsibilities.
Another way of gaining experience is internships. Many zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries provide internships, even if you have no previous experience. You can find these internships on websites like the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) or on the website of the facility itself. These internships are often unpaid, but some facilities do pay or may offer a stipend. Some provide housing. Some require you to already have a degree, while others may have an age limit or be offered during a school term. They will often last for months at a time, like through the summer. The schedules can vary from half days to whole days, three or four days a week or five or six days a week. All facilities will require vaccinations, with the minimum being TB and Tetanus. Internships may be specific to a certain animal, like big cats, or a section of a facility, like the Americas. Opportunities like this allow you to prepare diets, train and handle animals, give vitamins and medications, and complete paperwork. All internships provide great experience and an opportunity to make important connections.
There are several types of jobs that can count as experience as well. A job at a pet store can count. A Lubee keeper had a previous position at a dog grooming facility. Past interns have had experience as dog walkers, pet sitters, and domesticated animal trainers.
Some animals will require specific experience. Intelligent animals like elephants or dangerous animals like tigers might require more years of experience or different kinds of skills. Doing the research to find a safe facility, preferably accredited, that can get you the experience you want is important, but any animal is a good place to start and will get your foot in the door.
Most experience is good experience. Even a bad experience can be a good learning opportunity. Even if your goal may be to work with a specific species, a certain category of animal, or at a specific facility, it’s important to get as much experience as possible.
There are some special places in the US that operate as an education and experience program. One of these places is the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida. The teaching zoo program provides hands-on experience in every aspect of zoo animal management, and graduates leave with an Associate of Science in Zoo Animal Technology. They are the only teaching zoo in the US accredited by the AZA, which is the standard zoos in the US are held to. Four of the six Lubee keepers went through the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo program and they have alumni at Disney Animal Kingdom, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, the Georgia Aquarium, and other notable facilities all across the country. There are a few other teaching zoo facilities, in California and New York, which offer similar programs, but they are not AZA accredited.
Also very important to getting into the animal keeping field is getting to know people. Making friends and connections in the field you want to work in can be crucial for any job. It’s not uncommon for people to know each other from other facilities and past jobs in this field. Getting to know one person can lead to many open doors. Even getting to know someone working in guest services at an animal facility can help. Talking to teachers, mentors, and other students, going to career fairs, talking to keepers when you visit a facility, and interacting with social media can count as making connections in the field. Any of these can help you find a future job or reference.
Obviously, besides all this, animal keeping is a field that requires a love for animals, hard work, and lots of compassion. Animal keepers can work weird hours and often work over holidays. They can have days where everything goes wrong and just have to keep pushing through. Work often includes lifting heavy objects, squating, walking all sorts of terrain, and working with different types of food items, just to name a few things. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting. But there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a happy, healthy animal.
More than anything else, an animal keeper’s life is one of passion. Do you think you could do it?
To all our batty friends out there, stay curious and stay passionate!