So, you want to be a keeper?
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like animals, and many, many people want to work with them. So, if you really want to pursue this career, how do you go about it? Here are answers to the frequently asked questions we get about becoming an animal keeper. To find out more about the variety of jobs people do at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, click here.
Education and experience are especially necessary for all of our animal positions. They are highly competitive and require skilled individuals who usually have a background in a related life science field such as biology, zoology, or behavioral sciences.
Being a keeper looks like a lot of fun. Is it?
People often have the image of a keeper only holding and cuddling an adorable baby, such as a koala or cheetah. But there is much more to the job—animals are not just cute, cuddly things. Working with animals can be dangerous, and there is injury potential to keepers and animals. You need to keep up with the lastest safety precautions and training on zoonotic disease prevention. The work can be hard, dirty, and tedious. You should have a realistic view of the job before making animal keeping your career objective.
Is it easy to get a keeper position?
Like any other popular job, there are more applicants than open positions, especially when it comes to big zoos like the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. Competition is stiff, and one must be persistent and patient before a position may even open up. It's not unusual for our Human Resources Department to receive hundreds of applications—often from existing Zoo or Park employees—for one animal care job opening. And those applicants still have to compete with applicants who are already keepers at other zoos around the world.
How do I become an animal keeper?
There is no single way to become a keeper, but the more education and hands-on experience you have, the better.
Education – While you’re in school, learn as much as you can in your science classes. In college, choose a degree program in animal-related fields like biology, zoology, botany, ecology, conservation science, or animal behavior. Take as many different courses in those areas as you can, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in your chosen field. (Here’s a BIG hint: the competition for jobs caring for animals is so strong that you really HAVE to have a college degree these days to be considered.)
Hands-on Experience – Find opportunities to work with animals. Some potential keepers have volunteered assisting Conservation Research scientists and technicians. Sometimes work-study opportunities are available for college students.
What are some other ways to gain animal experience?
Some places to look for volunteer jobs or internships might be:
- Veterinary offices
- Animal training classes (does your dog need obedience training?)
- Local Humane Society
- Local Park Service
- Wildlife rehabilitation centers (like those for wolves, bears, big cats, birds of prey, and even bats)
- Animal shelters
- Farms (for domestic animals, or even ostrich, llama, or butterfly farms)
- Pet breeders (those that breed specific kinds of dogs, cats, or horses)
- Horse stables and boarding facilities
- 4-H Clubs
Does it help to work in another capacity at the San Diego Zoo, such as an entry-level position?
It certainly doesn't hurt. There are many instances of former employees of the Zoo and Safari Park's gift shops, food service stands, or tour guide operations moving into animal-care positions. Just remember: these people also had the proper educational background and may have even obtained some animal-care experience through our internal job loan program or had hands-on experience working with animals.
What type of person makes a good keeper?
Besides education and some experience, attitude and personality play big roles, as well as a good work ethic, a positive attitude about themselves and work, good communication skills with both people and animals, and the ability to be innovative enough to find solutions to keep the animals stimulated.
Are there other jobs at the Zoo that will allow me to work with animals?
There sure are! Veterinarians, animal health technicians, laboratory technicians, field researchers, research assistants, animal behaviorists, animal trainers, and zoo educators work directly with animals.
I like animals and want to work at a zoo or aquarium, but not as a keeper. What other jobs are there?
If it’s your dream to work at a zoo or aquarium, don’t limit yourself to one thing. Find out what you’re good at, and find a way to use those skills to help wildlife. You can get a college degree in lots of different fields and find a job at a zoo, aquarium, research station, or conservation program that needs your skills. Keep in mind that most people who work at a zoo don't work with animals, and only about 10 percent of the jobs that open up include contact with animals. Some job examples include: accountant, security officer, architect, horticulturist, secretary, mechanic, caterer, computer programmer, graphic designer, librarian, public relations or human resources staff member, merchandising buyer, or editor. To learn more about other jobs at a zoo, click here.
Where can I get a "zoo" degree?
There are three associates degree programs in the nation designed to teach students to be professional animal keepers or trainers:
- Moorpark College, Moorpark, California
- Pensacola Junior College, Pensacola, Florida
- Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, Florida
Many keepers are registered veterinary technicians (RVT), having completed an animal health technician program at schools that include:
- Colorado Mountain College, Glenwood Springs, Colorado
- Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California
- Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut
- San Diego Mesa College, San Diego, California
Bachelors degrees in zoo and animal science are offered at:
- Friends University, Wichita, Kansas
- Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
- University of California, Davis, Davis, California
- Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo, California
Your favorite search engine can help you find more information on schools that offer animal-related topics and degrees. Good luck!
To get even more information about a career as a zoo keeper, visit the American Association of Zoo Keepers' Web site. If you are interested in more information about a career as a zoo veterinarian, visit the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians website.