A day at the zoo with a zoologist finds him or her employed in one of three fields: Curating, directing, or zookeeping. The curator oversees the care and distribution of animals in the zoo, while the director does not work directly with the animals but rather performs more administrative duties, such as fundraising and public relations. Curators and directors work closely together to determine the best way to contain the animals, maintain their habitats, and manage the facility. They are far more active in the matter of running a zoo, though, and need to have additional business background. The zookeeper provides the daily care of feeding, cleaning, and monitoring the animals and their habitats.
Curators design the zoo’s budget, remaining mindful of the zoo’s goals. The educational programs they design for the zoo and the animals they procure for exhibition reflect these goals. The curator leads the zoo staff and delegates assignments to them. Often curators write articles for scientific journals and inform reporters for stories. Zoos often loan animals to other zoos, so a good working relationship with colleagues around the country is vital to the curator. Traveling to conferences and other zoos is part of the curator’s long workweek, too. Often animals are bred in captivity and it is the curator who locates potential mates for his/her zoo’s animals. A curator also makes the arrangements for an animal’s transport to a museum when it dies. Larger zoos employ a number of curators who specialize in specific areas.
The health of the animals is in the hands of the zookeeper who prepares the food according to each animal’s specialized diet. A zookeeper makes sure that they have enough water, feeds and grooms them, and cleans both the animals and their grounds. When animals transfer locations, the zookeeper attends to them and arranges their new environment. The zookeeper supervises the animals and records their activities continuously, so a zookeeper must understand nuances in animal behavior in order to keep accurate records. If the keeper notices any change in the animal’s behavior, he/she brings it to the attention of the veterinarian. The zookeeper often trains the animals to move in ways that can help veterinarians examine them. All of these responsibilities mean that zookeepers have ample opportunity to venture into the noisy and smelly animal cages, but they are hardly confined to the cages. They must answer the patrons’ questions and tactfully keep them from feeding or teasing the animals. Zookeepers in small zoos work with all the animals, while those in larger zoos specialize. Because animals must be cared for around the clock, zookeepers work a variety of schedules. When emergencies arise, like illness, the keeper may put in extremely long hours. Most importantly, the keeper must be able to develop a rapport with his charges and be infinitely cautious to avoid being injured by the animals.
Every zoo employee must first and foremost love animals. Beyond this requirement, a bachelor’s degree in a biological science is the best way to prepare to work in a zoo. Courses in subjects like zoology, anatomy, and virology are a good idea. More often than not, a curator must have a Master’s or doctoral degree. Don’t underestimate the value of English classes, either-writing articles provides a significant boost to the zoologist’s income. Since no zoo hires a curator without practical experience, it’s important to gain some practical knowledge and training while you work toward your degree. Most zoos and animal-care facilities have volunteer programs and internships; some even offer paid part-time positions.
A zookeeper also needs to have a college degree: Most hold degrees in biology or zoology and a Master’s degree if they want to advance in the field. Experience working with large populations of animals is also advisable, for example as a ranch worker or in a veterinary hospital. Many of the volunteer and paid training programs at zoos are specifically aimed at aspiring zookeepers. Some zoos require that their keepers pass written or oral exams, and all zoos have strict physical requirements for their zookeepers, since the work is usually physically demanding. There are two levels of advancement in zookeeping: Senior keeper and head keeper, though these positions usually exist only in large zoos. Beyond this, if zookeepers want to advance further they should look to curating.
Animals may stay the same, but the technology assisting in their care and study is rapidly advancing, so whatever their particular position the zoologists’ education is never completed. Zoo-related industries are highly competitive, and zookeepers, curators, and directors must stay up-to-date in their fields throughout their careers.