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Getting a Job as a Zookeeper or Aquarist

Alex loves animals and is an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and an AS in Veterinary Technology.


Interested in Aquarist or Zookeeper Jobs? Where to Begin

Sometimes the hardest thing about dream jobs is figuring out how to get them. Often the best way to start is asking someone in the field how they got their start. This is where I can help. As an aquarist, I know what it takes to break into the zoo and aquarium industry. My advice is simple: study the right subjects in school, volunteer, participate in internships, and apply for everything.


No matter what you want to call yourself, keeper, aquarist, or trainer, school is important. Is a college degree needed to work with animals in a zoo or aquarium setting? This is a hard question. Technically the answer is no, but it does help set you apart and show that you have a good work ethic. Now that you have decided to get a degree, what do you get?

Many people working in zoos and aquariums have a degree in biology or zoology. If you want to be an aquarist, it might be more beneficial to consider marine biology as a major. If animal training is more of your goal, then you might want to consider psychology.

Each major has its pros and cons. For example, at most schools, biology programs cover a wide range of topics: cell biology, evolution, botany, zoology, etc. Specializing in a more specific major (marine biology or zoology) allows you to focus your studies in your field of interest.

As far as having psychology as a major, you need to be aware that most schools present psychology from a human perceptive. You will be learning a lot about human disorders and the principles of behavioral training.

Almost as important as picking a major is choosing a minor. Personally, I found that a major in marine biology and a minor in psychology best fit my needs. I figured it would give me the knowledge I needed about marine life as well as learning how the animals think and learn.

I was also insuring that I would be able to get a job with animals in another setting if I couldn't find a job as a marine mammal trainer (which I did not). There is a wide range of minors found in this field: scientific technical writing, geology, business, Spanish, and physics are just a few. Just like with majors there are plusses and minuses to each minor.

When it comes down to it choose a major and minor that you are passionate about. It also doesn't hurt to entertain the idea that most people that set out trying to get jobs in zoos and aquariums are not successful and to choose a major that will allow you to get a job doing something you would like doing. Think about it; if you couldn't work your dream job in a zoo would you rather sit at a desk and answer phones or would you rather work in a lab?


Volunteering and Internships

One of the best ways to get your foot in the door is to volunteer. Too often young people do not take this advice. My question to you is, how do you know this is what you want to do if you have never done it? Sure, most kids have dreams of being a dolphin trainer when they are young, but most never do. A good number find out, through volunteering, that it isn't just playing with dolphins and having fun all day.

Many facilities allow volunteers to work with the exhibits staff; typically, the magic age is eighteen. As a volunteer, you will typically learn the food prep for the section you are assigned. As the staff is able to trust you, and as you learn the job, you could get more tasks and possibly hands-on experience with animals.

Going back to the dolphin trainer example, it is almost sad how many volunteers never come back after their first smell of food prep. This is not a glamorous job. You will get dirty, you will smell, you will be hot/cold, and most likely wet for most of the day.

Wouldn't it be better to find out that you don't really want to work as a keeper before spending all of your time and money getting a degree for a job you don't even want? Of course it is—which is why you should volunteer. It doesn't matter if it is a zoo, aquarium, veterinary clinic, wildlife sanctuary, or a local farm, just volunteer.

Another great way to gain hands-on experience in this field is to intern. Most facilities require interns to have a year or two of college under their belt; some even want previous volunteering experience.

The main difference between volunteering and interning is that interns are typically given more responsibility than volunteers. Interns may be allowed to dive into exhibits, participate in training sessions, design new enrichment pieces, and so on.

It is strongly recommended to do at least one internship before leaving college—kind of like with friends, the more, the better. A lot of facilities want their potential hires to have volunteering experience, a college degree, and at least two internships.


What's Next?

Now that you have a degree, a couple of years of volunteering, and an internship or two, what do you do next? Apply for everything. It doesn't matter if it isn't exactly your dream job apply.

What is the worse that will happen? You never hear back. Best case scenario, you will get an interview, or even better, a job. You will most likely complete dozens of job applications for every interview you get. That is normal. Trust me; this is not a job you just get overnight. It takes time.

If you are not one of the few lucky enough to get a job right out of college, don't worry. It isn't uncommon to have a year or two between college and that first job. In the meantime, continue to volunteer and apply for the internships you are still qualified for. Don't give up! If you need to move back home with your parents and get a job in retail, do it. Whatever it takes, this is your dream, after all.

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Things to Keep in Mind

One really important thing to keep in mind is that this is not a field where you will get rich. The pay is typically around minimum wage, and jobs are hard to come by. This is a field that you do because you have a passion for animals and a dedication to giving them the best care possible.

It will also be very hard, most likely, to get your foot in the door. If you are lucky enough to get a job, chances are pretty good you will start part-time and have to work your way up to full-time. That's just how it is in this industry. Typically, it takes at least two years of experience before most facilities will even consider you for a full-time position. It's tough, I know. Stick it out!

It's often painful for some interns to grasp, but just because the group of people you intern with really like you and you do a great job does not mean that you will get a job at that facility. The vast majority of zoos and aquariums are run by a government: city, state, or national. They can't just make jobs appear because they like you. You will have to wait for one to open.

In the meantime, apply for everything! When a job does open, you might have some interview experience, or even paid experience in the field, to help you get your dream job.

Best of luck!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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