Becoming a Zookeeper: Salary and Duties

Updated on July 4, 2015
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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).

Zookeepers may grow attached to the animals under their care: this may cause grief when animals are traded from one zoo to another.
Zookeepers may grow attached to the animals under their care: this may cause grief when animals are traded from one zoo to another. | Source

Zoologist and Zookeeper Colleges

Zoology programs are highly competitive, particularly at the advanced degree stage. A few zoology programs are detailed below:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 in 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 an undergraduate students living on campus exceed $19,000

Animal Keepers will make the food to give to the animals under their care.
Animal Keepers will make the food to give to the animals under their care. | Source

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 a 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!

While some people assume zookeeping involves a lot of direct animal contact, the job actually requires far more maintenance and cleaning than animal training.
While some people assume zookeeping involves a lot of direct animal contact, the job actually requires far more maintenance and cleaning than animal training. | Source

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 to 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

Questions & Answers

  • Why don't zookeepers make a lot of money?

    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.

  • Is it possible to become a Zookeeper without having any experience of working with animals or a college degree?

    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.

  • What is the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship?

    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.

  • Is it too late to pursue a career as a zookeeper at age 32?

    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.

Comments

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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      9 months ago from Western New York

      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.

    • profile image

      Ajani Wade 

      9 months ago

      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.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      12 months ago from Western New York

      I wish you luck in pursuing your career, Chloe!

    • profile image

      Chloe Kopatz 

      12 months ago

      Ok thank you!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      12 months ago from Western New York

      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.

    • profile image

      Chloe Kopatz 

      12 months ago

      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!

    • profile image

      John Doe 

      18 months ago

      I am a zookeeper and its not easy

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      20 months ago from Western New York

      I wish you luck, Noah! I hope you have a fulfilling career as a zookeeper!

    • profile image

      Noah frost 

      20 months ago

      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

    • profile image

      Shawnae 

      21 months ago

      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.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      3 years ago from Western New York

      Many zookeepers have animal training as part of their job, particularly for medical procedures.

    • profile image

      Francheska 

      3 years ago

      Can you trained animals and be a zookeeper too?

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      3 years ago from Western New York

      It is a good career choice for those who love animals! Thanks for the comment, sanasiddiqui!

    • sanasiddiqui profile image

      sanasiddiqui 

      3 years ago

      Great Hub. It is a job which can be done with people who are passionate about animals.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      3 years ago from Western New York

      I love animals, too, Kristen! I do have a biology degree, but mainly work with software and paper.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub. I love animals. But biology never worked out for me in college--lab included. Thanks for the information.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      4 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 

      4 years ago from Houston TX

      This is cool, but quite risky. Any one involved in zookeeping needs to be careful and watchful!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      4 years ago from Western New York

      I hope the article is helpful to you, Hannah!

    • profile image

      hannah 

      4 years ago

      thanks class project

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