Leah raises backyard chickens for the benefits to the garden and for fresh, organic eggs.
Becoming a Zookeeper
Does working with exotic animals sound like a dream come true?
Many young animal lovers will want to work for a zoo or become an “animal trainer,” without considering the educational requirements, working conditions, or future pay possibilities. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what the day-to-day duties of a zookeeper are — the career is not just playing with wild animals.
Additionally, there is a significant difference between becoming a zoologist with an advanced degree and working as a zookeeper with a two or four-year degree. Here is the lowdown on what to expect from a career as a zookeeper.
Required Education for Zookeepers and Zoologists
- Zookeepers: Zookeepers require a minimum of a two-year degree, but four-year degrees are preferred.
- Zoologists: A minimum of a bachelor’s degree is required to be a zoologist. While a zoology degree will allow an individual to acquire a basic animal handler position at a zoo, the room for advancement is limited. The higher paying research positions generally require an advanced degree.
- Bachelor’s Degrees: To obtain a bachelor’s degree in zoology, core academic courses are required. This involves (at minimum): general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology courses (including molecular biology, cellular biology, developmental biology, and biochemistry), physics, and calculus. Other, non-related coursework is also required—most universities have requirements in history, English composition, and so forth.
- Advanced Degrees: Obtaining a master’s degree or Ph.D. involves a lot of work. The student must be heavily involved in research, and become an expert in a specialized field (such as neurobiology or psychoneuroendocrinology).
Zoologist and Zookeeper Colleges
Zoology programs are highly competitive, particularly at the advanced degree stage. A few zoology programs are detailed below:
- Moorpark College: America’s Teaching Zoo. This two-year program is highly demanding and prepares students for work as animal handlers in a zoo. Students are required to attend classes, care for animals, and work at the teaching zoo. It is not possible to hold an outside job while attending this program. This highly competitive program requires basic college courses in public speaking, English composition, biology, intermediate algebra, and first aid, prior to applying. Volunteer experience at a wildlife rehabilitation location is recommended before applying to the program. The total cost for a non-resident is estimated at more than $20,000 a year.
- UC Davis: Animal Biology Program. UC Davis offers an undergraduate Animal Biology degree and graduate degrees (M.S. and Ph.D.). For the undergraduate program, the first two years are spent on core requirements like calculus, biological sciences, and chemistry. The last two years are spent designing a tailored curriculum to the student’s interests, culminating in a senior year practicum (a research project with a faculty mentor). Total non-resident fees for UC Davis add up to more than $34,000 per year.
- Humboldt State: Zoology Major. Humboldt State offers several undergraduate biology programs suitable for budding zoologists. All of the majors (botany, biology, and zoology) are broad enough to include the required coursework for future application to an advanced degree program. The zoology program requires calculus, organic chemistry, parasitology, genetics, and other coursework in the biological sciences. Tuition and costs for out-of-state students is over $27,000 per year.
- University of Florida: Zoology Major. Florida State offers three tracks for undergraduate zoology majors. 1. The Zoologist Specialization focuses on basic and applied research in the life sciences, and students are encouraged to participate in supervised research through the Individual Studies in Zoology. 2. The Pre-Professional Specialization is meant for students who intend to apply to medical, dental, optometry, or veterinary schools for graduate work. And, lastly, 3. The Education Program is intended for students who would like to teach life sciences at the community college level. The costs for undergraduate students living on campus exceeds $19,000
Zookeeper Working Hours
- Zookeepers must work during all times the animals need care. This is often on a revolving 24-hour schedule. Zookeepers may have to work the night shift or an early morning shift.
- In addition, zookeepers will have to work on major holidays and weekends. Getting preferred days off (such as Christmas or Saturdays) will require seniority at the place of employment.
- Zoologists working for the government will likely have more traditional hours, though the working hours will vary by the individual research project.
Zookeeper Pay vs. Zoologist Pay
- Zookeeper pay: The average annual pay for a zookeeper is at around $29,000, and may vary depending on what region you are looking at. This level of pay is very close to minimum wage. Individuals who would like to work for a zoo must keep in mind that with the low wages coupled with expensive student loan repayments, it might be worthwhile to become a zoologist with an advanced degree and get a research job with the government. Getting an expensive degree and working for a zoo may not provide enough income to cover the basic cost of living.
- Zoologist pay: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a zoologist was $60,670 in 2009. The amount of pay varies by the employer: zoologists working for the federal government earn more than those working for private industry. The geographical location will also alter the pay. For example, zoologists working in Oregon earned $63,080 on average while zoologists in Rhode Island earned $77,440 (according to 2009 figures). The level of education also determines the level of pay. A bachelor’s degree in zoology will earn less than an advanced degree. Note that zookeepers are not listed as zoologists for the annual pay statistics.
Getting a Zookeeper Job
Zookeepers earn very little money and require quite a bit of post-secondary education. Surprisingly, there is still a lot of competition for the available jobs. Despite the low pay, the supply of applicants is high, which puts downward pressure on wages and increases the amount of training and education the employer can demand.
Many zookeeper jobs require experience with animal handling prior to obtaining a job at a zoo. This means that the applicant should find a volunteer position with an animal rehabilitation program before applying for a position at a zoo. This could mean a year (or more) of work without pay, before obtaining a minimum-wage position in a zoo!
Working as a Zookeeper: Things to Consider
- Euthanizing food for animals: Many zoo occupants are carnivores. Job requirements can include euthanizing rats and rabbits for use as a food source for larger carnivores.
- Heavy lifting: Maintenance and repair of the animals’ enclosures is integral to a zookeeper’s career. Lifting heavy feed sacks, equipment, and other materials will require a strong constitution.
- Poop duty: Daily maintenance and cleaning of the animals’ enclosures is a very large part of a zookeeper’s job.
- Danger: Zookeepers must face the daily risk of animal-induced injury or disease.
- Lack of advancement: While some zookeepers eventually advance to management positions, the possibility of upward mobility in this career field is less than that of other jobs requiring college degrees.
A Day in the Life of a Zookeeper
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why don't zookeepers make a lot of money?
Answer: The wages for zookeepers are a result of the current market, skill level required for the position, and laws of supply and demand. As various zoos and animal rehabilitation facilities need to hire keepers, the number of eligible applicants frequently outnumber the number of available positions, keeping wages fairly low for the job. Higher skill levels (veterinarians and research positions with advanced degrees) demand higher salary levels.
Question: If I were to attend the 2-year zoo program at Santa Fe college what could I have as a salary?
Answer: The salary for a zookeeper with a 2 year degree has an average of about $65,000 per year according to salary.com in 2019, though this will also vary on the geographical area you are employed (expect a higher salary - and cost of living - in major metropolitan areas and a lower salary/cost of living in rural areas).
Question: Is it possible to become a Zookeeper without having any experience of working with animals or a college degree?
Answer: It would be very difficult to become a zookeeper without any experience or a college degree. I would recommend obtaining the requisite education and volunteering to accrue experience in animal husbandry as a first step on your quest to become a zookeeper.
Question: Is it too late to pursue a career as a zookeeper at age 32?
Answer: It is not too late to pursue a career as a zookeeper in your 30's, 40's, or beyond. Education is required, but age 32 is certainly not "too old" to pursue a new career track.
Question: Would it be possible to get a job as a zookeeper with no college education but have lots of experience?
Answer: This would depend upon the zoo and the pool of eligible candidates. If there is no one in the hiring pool with a college education and your experience is considered commensurate and acceptable by the zoo, then it would be possible. In most cases, there are plenty of people with the requisite education AND experience to fill available job openings at zoos around the nation, so it would be very difficult to obtain a position without any post-secondary education.
Question: How much do zookeepers make per year?
Answer: According to glassdoor.com, the average zookeeper salary was $22,600 - $45,100 per year in 2019.
Question: Do zookeepers work together?
Answer: Zookeepers generally work as part of a team within different areas of the zoo - as an example, it is common for a herpetologist to work with reptiles and amphibians along with several animal keepers and a zoo vet.
Question: What is the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship?
Answer: There are several key differences between an apprenticeship and an internship program. Most college students are expected to participate in an internship program and are sometimes offered a position within the company, but this is certainly not a guarantee. With an apprenticeship, you will end your hands-on training with a job in the organization. Internships are typically unpaid, often very generalized to the type of work performed, and brief. Apprenticeships generally are paid positions, last longer than an internship, and are specific to the future career of the individual. Unfortunately, apprenticeships are rarer in the USA than in Europe, and many young college students are left with an unpaid internship that offers no guarantee of employment after graduation.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 18, 2019:
Many zoos have volunteer programs, and this is a good place to start as a high school student. There are several colleges that specialize in zoology and zoo-related careers. The EATM program at Moorpark College in California is excellent (they have a teaching zoo and specialize in exotic animal training. Prior to applying to the EATM program, you must have successfully completed a minimum of five courses at the college level: Introductory Biology or Zoology, Freshman English Composition, Public Speaking, Safety/First Aid course, and Intermediate Algebra level math or higher. I hope this information helps, Kelsey!
Kelsey on April 09, 2019:
I’m still in high school but I have always wanted to work with animals and when I say that everybody says “well be a vet” and that’s not what I want to do. I want to interact with the animals. I’m hoping to one day be a zookeeper but I’m worried actually getting there. Any advice for education, building experience, etc?
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 10, 2019:
I hope you achieve your dream of becoming a zoologist, Paige. It is wonderful when your passion becomes your career!
Paige on January 10, 2019:
I have always loved animals and always will. I started off wanting to be a plain vet, then I went to wanting to be a zookeeper but now I’m thinking of being a zoologist. Either way as long as I get to work with animals, I’m happy
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on February 14, 2018:
It can be difficult to support a family on those wages, Ajani. A career as a vet is far more profitable, and might be something you could consider with your love of animals.
Ajani Wade on February 13, 2018:
Wow! This was so helpful, ive loved animals since I was a little boy and ive been researching different jobs where I can interact with animals. The main job ive been looking at currently though is Zookeepers!! It sucks how little they get paid though, sometimes I think to myself. “How am I going to provide for my family, with such little payment?” I think im finally starting to realize Life isnt easy.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 24, 2017:
I wish you luck in pursuing your career, Chloe!
Chloe Kopatz on October 24, 2017:
Ok thank you!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 22, 2017:
Most positions in a zoo will place you as a handler or carer for one species (elephant handler, herpetologist in the reptile house, etc.), Chloe, but you may find a position that will allow you to work with more than one species. Working in the nursery at a zoo, for instance, would allow you to work with several different animal species.
Chloe Kopatz on October 21, 2017:
I looovvveeeee animals so much!!!! I really want to either be a zookeeper or a zoologist but I want to interact with the animals and care for them and don't want to do a lot of work in a lab. Is it possible to be a zookeeper and specialize in more than one genre of animals? I wish to take care of ALL of these fascinating creatures. Thank you!
John Doe on May 23, 2017:
I am a zookeeper and its not easy
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 06, 2017:
I wish you luck, Noah! I hope you have a fulfilling career as a zookeeper!
Noah frost on March 01, 2017:
I'm 13 years old I love animals and I love biology and I've always wanted to be a zookeeper in the future I will definitely be a zookeeper wish me luck
Shawnae on January 27, 2017:
This looks like my kennel attendant job just working with larger more potentially dangerous animals. I would love to have a career in this field.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 18, 2015:
Many zookeepers have animal training as part of their job, particularly for medical procedures.
Francheska on October 15, 2015:
Can you trained animals and be a zookeeper too?
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 22, 2015:
It is a good career choice for those who love animals! Thanks for the comment, sanasiddiqui!
sanasiddiqui on April 22, 2015:
Great Hub. It is a job which can be done with people who are passionate about animals.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 26, 2015:
I love animals, too, Kristen! I do have a biology degree, but mainly work with software and paper.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 24, 2015:
Great hub. I love animals. But biology never worked out for me in college--lab included. Thanks for the information.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 23, 2014:
Hopefully people who enter this field will choose to work with an accredited zoo with the proper safety precautions, crysolite. Thank you for bringing safety to the forefront of the discussion, as it is a critical consideration!
Emma from Houston TX on July 02, 2014:
This is cool, but quite risky. Any one involved in zookeeping needs to be careful and watchful!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 12, 2013:
I hope the article is helpful to you, Hannah!
hannah on December 12, 2013:
thanks class project