Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why Being a Zookeeper Isn't Always a Dream Job

I've declared this week, while I wait on The Writer's Voice to happen, The Week of Whys. You'll see . . . why . . . as we go.

Don't let the title of our first post fool you-- I love my job. LOVE. L.O.V.E. it.

But there are a lot of things about my job that people don't always understand or expect, and if you or anyone you know is considering a job in this field, I suggest you point them this way.

Zookeeping, and animal care in general, is a highly desirable field to work in. It seems obvious why, especially if you love animals. After all, zookeepers must do nothing but the fun stuff, right? They must just spend all day hugging penguins (scarier than it sounds) and riding lions (not a thing), right?

Er. Well. Not right.

Here's why being a zookeeper is a tough, tough job.

Animals get hurt, sick, old, and eventually, they die. There's simply no way around this truth. Even working with some of the best exotic animal vets in the world (which I do; I would trust our vets with my life and the lives of my pets, who are akin to my children), sometimes there's just nothing you can do. Zoo animals live on average up to 40% longer than their wild counterparts, but at some point even the most long-lived animal will simply succumb to time. We do everything we can, but it's not always enough. Accidents happen. Diseases happen. Fate happens.

This, is the hardest part. Rest assured, as sad as you may be to hear an animal at your local zoo has died, the staff that worked there, poured their sweat and blood and energy and love into that animal, are sadder.

It sucks, to work with an animal for years, sometimes since birth, and watch them grow old and die. We carry these hurts with us in tiny little pockets in our heart. No matter how long ago, we will always remember.

If you want to work in a zoo, be prepared.

Animals are hard to take care of. Well, this seems obvious, but it's not always. There really is no "easy" zoo animal. Some are easier than others, sure, but to give the animals the level of care our standards call for requires a lot more work than you'd think. I work with a lot of terrarium type enclosures that seem easy because they're small. But they all get completely stripped out, washed down, and replaced every day or every other day. Before, when I worked with penguins, we would completely melt the ice in a half to a third of the exhibit and blow in fresh snow every morning.

If you want to work with ocean animals, it's a bit easier as hoses and filtration tend to do a lot of the work for you. But there's still hundreds of pounds of fish to thaw, bucket, carry, and feed out.

There's so much diversity in land animals that pretty much every species requires different care. Every species gets its own daily menu at my zoo, and part of my job is "cooking" for all of them. Imagine working in a restaurant where the menu is different for each customer that walks in.

Frogs require wearing special gloves to prevent us contaminating them with a deadly fungus. Elephants can drop about 150 lbs of manure each, PER DAY. Some animals eat a thin slurry that gets everywhere and dries to the consistency of cement and has to be scrubbed off each and every morning. Antelope poo comes out in little balls that range from sunflower seed size to chocolate covered cashew size, and we have to rake it all up. Bales of hay weigh over a 100 pounds, and yes, we do have to move them on our own. We cut thick branches off of trees we farm for the purpose of feeding. We clean dishes, we sweep floors, we dust, we mop, we empty the trash. We have to work in weather that reaches below freezing and over 100 degrees, in the full sun, in the rain, on holidays, on weekends, early in the morning and late, late at night. Some animals can kill you. Some animals can make you very sick. Some animals can cripple you for life.

We never have soft hands.

When people ask about our jobs, we want to share, but sometimes, it's just overwhelming knowing where to start, what to say.

There isn't a lot of time for snuggles. What most people don't realize about zookeeping is that we spend so much of our day just taking care of the animals that we don't have much time left over for what we all got into the field to do: spend time with the animals. But, in a lot of ways, this is a good thing. My zoo concentrates on breeding, and animals behave more naturally without humans interfering all the time and influencing their behavior. They get the attention from us that they need, but this isn't the job for you if all you want to do is bond and play with animals.

You will still have to deal with people. A lot of people start out wanting to get into this field because they aren't "people" people. But, uh, bad news. You actually HAVE to be a people person to work in this field because a.) you will always work with the public in some capacity, and b.) you will still have to work with your co-workers. It will never just be you and the animals.

It's not an easy job to get. In fact, it's getting harder and harder to get into this field. There are plenty of sources out there for how to get into it, but the more research you do, the better off you'll be. More and more often, you have to be a jack of all trades to work here. Expand your horizons and apply, apply, apply. My own two cents? It's 90% about your attitude (after your qualifications). Be confident, but nothing is below you. If you don't believe me, see paragraph above again about spending most of our day cleaning up poo.

So. Still want to be a zookeeper? Good. If you've read this far and it still sounds awesome, then you're probably one of the right people for the job.

It IS rewarding. More on that later this week :)

Edit: check out my companion post here: Why being a zookeeper is pretty freaking awesome.

Interested in pursuing a career as a zookeeper? See my ultimate guide here.


  1. Sounds way too tough for me, but I'm awfully glad for people like you who take on the responsibility. :)

  2. This summer I did an internship at a zoo and this now makes so much more sense to me. Before the internship, I was as naive as most of the rest of the world, thinking zoo keeping was just getting to spend time with animals and doing some public education, but there is so much more to it. Everyday this summer I came home exhausted, however I never came home bored. Even a 'normal' day has its ups and downs and hard parts and exciting parts. One of the toughest things was watching one of our big cats be put down because he was very sick. I didn't 'know' him that well but it was sad to see such a beautiful animal go, but I could see how much harder it was for the keepers. It was especially hard on the ones who had been working at the zoo for many years and had been with him since his arrival. There were tears shed that day. Something I never thought of before my internship was how much a zookeeper might get paid, and what I've learned is it is not a lot. You guys have tough, strenuous jobs but still you don't make that much money, even if you have been working at your zoo for many years. There is just not much money in zoo keeping. However, I loved my internship and I learned so many great things. I am amazed by what wonderful people zookeepers can be. Being a zoo keeper requires a special person, who is both mentally and physically strong and the work you do for the animals is astounding.

  3. oh wow. you showed zookeeping in another light. i have a lot to think about now thx to you :)

  4. I agree with your points. Very well written, too. I was a Zookeeper for 8 years at different facilities and found it VERY competitive. The pay was also terrible. My first position paid $5.25 per hour. They gave me a WHOLE DIME above minimum wage because I had a B.S. from a Big 10 University. At another facility I was working with marine mammals and made $8.00 per hour. That was over a decade ago, but I'm sure things haven't changed much. I LOVED all my jobs with animals, but with the economy so bad lately I now encourage animal-loving kids and teens to become veterinarians because at least they will be able to afford housing on their own.

  5. Great article! I agree with the comment about the pay being crummy. Most zoos and aquariums also have an ARMY of volunteers and unpaid interns that do a ton of work which I believe keeps the pay down. When I had to take a sick day, they just had a volunteer help out to fill in at my zookeeper position except for the "dangerous" stuff.

  6. I worked for two years in the animal care field. I am a vet student now. I did not mind cleaning up poo, gutting habits, and mucking pools, no, it was more a lot of my co-workers that I didn't care for. In the facilities that I interned at and later on worked at (still for very low pay), the younger but experienced keepers treated the newbies like absolute garbage and had this "we're better than you" attitude because even my low level job was highly competitive. I was ignored and not treated with respect. I was so sad that I had to re-invent my animal dreams because of cruel people in the industry. I loved the animals, and toward the end of my short career, I did fall in love with the primary keeper in my department (not all of them were bad!) and we still talk to this day! I was having a hard time moving up the ladder and knew I needed a change and one that didn't require me giving up my dreams of helping animals. I'm glad you mentioned all of the above, and about the people. The field is so competitive and cut throat. I was cut out for the labor, but not for the dog-eat-dog nature of the field. I encourage all young people interested to keep this in mind. Veterinary school is tough, and I am going out of the country as well, but my colleges and professors are amazing and set you up for success, a far cry from my zoo education/zoo keeping jobs.

  7. This is not a job for me. When you say that imagine a costumer that walks in to your restraunt and every single person wants something different, it sound super hard.

  8. Those are bad things about your job? Sign me up right now! I'm ex military, so I had a job that was boring, difficult, soul-sucking and 99% political. I already keep exotic animals and I know it's not easy. It isn't rainbows and puppies all day, but nothing makes me happier than my reptiles. My chameleons in particular are demanding animals. They have specific needs and require much more work than a dog.

    Every night, I go to sleep with a sense of accomplishment. Every morning I wake up feeling lucky that I get to interact with such beautiful creatures. All of my reptiles have their own personalities and I love each and every one of them (even the grumpy ones.) Thank you for this blog. I want to be a zookeeper even more now.

  9. I work at the Branson Promiseland zoo in Branson mo. I love it and it is awesome

  10. can you give us some advice on how you respond to negative comments from the public. maybe they are concerned about the morality of your zoo and they accuse you of being inhumane. or do you have an example of a time where you had to deal with a negative comment or a rude question. thank you. very nice article.

    1. Hi there.

      This is actually best answered in something I've been working on behind the scenes, but I think I can post a concise version on its own, because I think it needs to be addressed. I'll have it up by the end of the day today. Thanks for commenting, and sorry you're getting those responses from the public.