Becoming a Zookeeper: Salary and Duties
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 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.
- 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 an undergraduate students living on campus exceed $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 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!
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
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
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.Helpful 9
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.Helpful 4
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.Helpful 1
Would it be possible to get a job as a zookeeper with no college education but have lots of experience?
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.Helpful 1
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.