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Career Advice

How to become a Zookeeper

Almost everyone loves a trip to the zoo, but for some people it’s more of a pilgrimage than a simple day out…and some find themselves staring enviously at the zookeepers, wishing that they too could have a job as fulfilling as caring for and interacting with animals day after day.

But surely the opportunities available at any one time in zookeeping are minimal? Well actually, not quite as zookeeperminimal as you might think!

There are over 50 zoos and wildlife parks in the UK, all with high levels of staff and often conveniently located within commuting distance of the country’s largest cities, although competition is often high for roles which become available so you will need to be on the ball if you are to nab one for yourself…hopefully this guide will help you with that.

What is a Zookeeper?

Of course if you are reading this article then you already know what a zookeeper is, but as always we reckon its a good idea to go through the role in little more detail, so you are in possession of all the facts.

Well, basically a zookeeper is someone who takes care of the animals in a zoo, wildlife park, aquarium or in some cases, in the wild.  The Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers (ABWAK) outlines 5 key “freedoms” which zookeepers must seek to fulfil in a number of ways within their role, these 5 freedoms are;

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst

  • Freedom from discomfort

  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease

  • Freedom to express natural behaviour

  • Freedom from fear and distress

In order to ensure the fulfillment of these freedoms, some of the common activities which you could be expected to carry out on a daily basis are:

  • Preparing food for the animals and administering it to them

  • Ensuring that bedding areas are kept clean, comfortable and are well maintained

  • Cleaning out the animals’ habitats, pens and enclosures

  • Monitoring the animals to detect signs of disease, stress, injury and discomfort

  • Ensuring that enclosures and habitats are well maintained and any faults/damage reported/fixed in a timely manner

  • Assisting in the care of sick animals – often under the instruction/supervision of a vet

  • Working in a customer service capacity to the zoo’s visitors, answering questions and giving demonstrations

  • Monitoring accommodation conditions such as temperature and humidity to ensure that they are optimal for the animal they house

  • Taking daily healthcare records of the animals

As you would expect, working with animals can be quite unpredictable so you should be prepared to pitch in with anything else that might be required of you.

Skills and Personal Attributes

It goes without saying that in order to become an excellent zookeeper, a love of animals, a genuine interest in their care and concern for their wellbeing are absolutely essential.  Aside from this, there are a number of personal skills skilland attributes which you will find to be of great value in carrying out your day to day duties, the most important of which are:

  • Physical fitness – As a zookeeper there will be times in which your work will require a certain level of physical fitness, therefore many zoos and wildlife parks will include a medical as part of their recruitment process

  • Comfortable with working outside – Many of the animal enclosures in zoos are outdoors and therefore much of your time as a zookeeper will be spent outside and in buildings which are semi-exposed to the elements. In some countries, everyone would be happy to work outside, but remember that UK weather can be horrendous and you will be expected to work in freezing temperatures, blizzards, rain, wind and anything else that it can throw at you.

  • Not squeamish – If you are a squeamish person (with no hope of overcoming it) then a career as a zookeeper is not for you. You will often find yourself working within dirty environments in the presence of animal ‘leavings’, and feeding duties may cause you to come into contact with blood.

  • Willing to work anti social hours- The animals at the zoo do not magically disappear when the visitors leave at the end of the day, therefore working as a zookeeper means that you must be willing and able to work non-standard hours which will sometimes include nights, weekends and public holidays.

  • Not afraid of the animals – it goes without saying that nervousness around animals is pretty much a deal breaker when it comes to a career as a zookeeper.

  • A genuine interest in all animals, not just the ‘cool’ ones –  When imagining the life of a zookeeper it can be very easy to picture someone hand-feeding an African elephant from the back of a giraffe but in truth it isn’t like that. The ‘boring’ animals will be just as much your responsibility so your interest must be in all creatures and their welfare.

  • Good communication skills are also a big requirement of the role as you will be working as a member of a large team – or indeed a number of different teams. You will also have regular contact with the public so it is vitally important that you are confident and proficient in your verbal communication skills.

How to become a zookeeper

The hierarchy of zookeepers is fairly well defined with most people beginning as a Trainee Keeper followed by Keeper, Senior Keeper, Head of Section, Head Keeper and Senior Head Keeper. Career progression however can require movement from one zoo to another (often across long distances) since positions may only rarely become available.

Whilst there is no legal framework in place for the minimum standard of training and education which is required in how to become a zookeeperorder to work as a zookeeper, many zoos and wildlife parks will set their own essential and desirable criteria in relation to the role.

Zoos often ask for a minimum of 5 GCSEs in order to be granted a trainee position, however some also follow the guidelines outlined by ABWAK which recommend that all applicants should be expected to hold the Advanced National Certificate in the management of zoo animals offered by Sparsholt College and BIAZA. If you do not hold this qualification however, don’t panic as most zoos will accept you into a trainee position with the understanding that you gain this qualification within a certain timeframe.

The qualification is a two year City & Guilds course taken as home study, a series of essays on general zoo and species care topics, an exam, a specialist project and a portfolio of evidence of day to day practical bookkeeping skills.

Other qualifications you may want to consider through the progression of your career are:

  • NPTC (City & Guilds) Advanced National Certificate in animal care

  • BTEC Level 5 Higher National Diploma and Certificate in animal management

Or for a higher level of qualification you may wish to consider:

  • Foundation degree in zoo resource management

  • MSc in zoo conservation biology

Best of luck if you still wish to become a zookeeper. Otherwise why don’t you have a look at some of the other jobs in our career directory and see if any of them speak to you?

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