So You Want To Be A Zookeeper

Hello, and welcome to my comprehensive guide to pursuing a career in zookeeping. This guide will also serve you well in other, tangential careers, such as animal training and zoo interpretation and education.

First thing's first: if you're not sure if this is the right career for you, please start with these posts on the blog:

Why being a zookeeper is pretty freaking awesome
Why being a zookeeper isn't always a dream job
How much money do zookeepers make? 
*NEW* How to deal with negative comments about zoos

And here's what a day in the life of a zookeeper is like.

Still interested? Buckle up!

A note: Please use the resources on this page. If you absolutely cannot find what you're looking for, feel free to email me: wickedmoon921 at gmail. (Also, while I'll try my best to keep this up-to-date, please comment on this page or email me if any of the links are broken!)

Strictly speaking, there are two main paths to becoming a zookeeper, though your best chances lie in the middle, where they combine:

If my amazing little MS Paint graphic answers your questions, you can stop here. If not, read on.


Kids, go to school.

At the very least, you will need to take a biology class, preferably college level. You can learn a lot of what you need to know on the job, and if you're like me (a life-long student), you may not need the structure of a degree program to get what you need out of the classes you take. However-- as someone who mostly took the Experience Only path, I will tell you this: it's a much, much longer path.

In the always-super-competitive job market that is animal care, interviewers are looking for any reason not to hire you. Sadly, no matter how much experience you have and/or self-teaching you've done, not having a degree is an easy way to check you off the list.

Besides which, the theory you'll learn in school will serve you well in your career. In my personal experience, on-the-job education tends to be only what you need to know. A degree program will give you well-rounded knowledge that lays the foundation for larger skill sets.

What program should you take?

Helpful majors include:

  • Any life science (biology, zoology, ecology, etc.)
  • Behavioral science (psychology, animal behavior)
  • Veterinary technician/ assistant
  • Agriculture majors focusing on livestock
  • Equine-related programs
  • Specialty exotic animal programs-- there are only a few of these in the United States
Any accredited college that offers a major like this will do (most every college offers a biology major). There are a couple universities that are well-recognized in the zoological field:

Also, there are some specialized two-year programs at other schools:

  • Moorpark Community College's Exotic Animal Training and Management program is probably the most well-known on the west coast. I have mixed feelings about this program. Several of their practices leave a bad taste in my mouth. If you read through their website and want to hear my opinion, email me. 
  • Feather River Community College has an Equine Studies program. I have long dreamed of attending this school, but have no personal knowledge of it. 
I'm sure similar programs exist elsewhere, but these are the ones I know and hear about regularly in my industry circle. 


Hands-on animal experience is extremely important, even if you already have the degree. Ideally, your degree program will include some hands-on experience, but if it doesn't you may want to supplement with one of these options before pursuing a zookeeping job. 

Most of the options for getting hands-on animal experience should be easily searchable online. Be aware that most animal facilities tend to be in very rural areas and if you live in an urban area, you may need to commit to a long drive. 

Be open to doing anything. If you've read my zookeeper dream job posts, you'll know that zookeeping involves a lot of dirty work. Balking at being asked to take out the trash or sweep the floor doesn't bode well for a career that involves a lot of that, whether it's your job title or not. A lot of places will ask you to do these things as a test to see if you're up to the task. Don't fail by being too good for anything. 

No matter which option you take, see the DO YOUR RESEARCH section before you apply for or commit to ANY facility.


Volunteering is an excellent way to get hand-on animal experience. The downside is that it can take a while to get to the point where you're able to do the hands-on stuff. Some facilities will let you dive right in, others will require a period of training and dedication to prove that you're willing to stick around even if you're not playing with animals all day (and that you're responsible and knowledgeable enough to do so). (I can't say I fault them). Here are the types of places you should look for to volunteer at:
  • Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation
  • Exotic animal rescues
  • Horse facilities
  • Animal shelters not run by extremist groups
  • Domestic animal rescues
  • Nature centers and education/ outreach facilities that keep animals
  • Local zoos


I admittedly am not the best resource for internships. These will most likely be found by internet searches or visiting local facilities' career sites.


These aren't always ideal, but if you can't afford to work and volunteer, or do an unpaid internship, etc., finding an entry-level animal care job outside of a zoological facility is probably your best option. Some places to consider:

  • Pet stores 
  • Horse facilities
  • Animal shelters not run by extremist groups
  • Domestic animal rescues
  • Vet tech or receptionist positions at animal hospitals
  • Nature centers and education/ outreach facilities that keep animals
  • Search Craigslist for other opportunities
There is one other option:


You can always try to get your foot in the door at a zoo by getting a job that has nothing to do with animal care. Many zoos love to promote from within and will provide on-the-job training IF you prove yourself worthy of that investment. I don't recommend going in without any animal experience at all, but it's not a bad way to get resources and networking that you might not otherwise be able to access. 

No matter which path you take, ...


The single worst thing you can do is work for a facility that uses harmful practices. A facility with a bad reputation will prevent you from working for better facilities later on, and will teach you unnecessary, outdated practices that may create dangerous situations for you and the animals. 

What constitutes a harmful practice?

This is a difficult question to answer. To most people, especially the public, animal care is subjective. We're trained to see things wrong with zoos because we're told if there's anything out of the ordinary, it's bad for the animals. But the fact is, if you want to be a zoo keeper, one of the first lessons you need to learn is that you can't attribute your own emotions or feelings about a situation to an animal. 

Animals don't use the same body language to express their state of mind as we do. While I personally believe it's only a matter of time before science proves that animals are capable of emotion, they don't have the facial cues we do, and you can't make conclusions on the depth of their care based on their appearance or even their behavior. Some of the best zoos in the world have smallish enclosures and animals that occasionally pace. 

Common misconceptions include:

  • Smiling, for primates, is a show of aggression or fear. A neutral face on a primate is actually a relaxed one, not a grumpy one.
  • Big cats, considered prone to what's called stereotypic pacing, will also pace their enclosures when in breeding mode, or when it's close to feeding time.
  • Inactive animals are acting perfectly naturally. Most animals spend most of their day resting. Lions, in particular, sleep up to 22 hours a day. They're not depressed just because they're lying down. 
  • Visible enclosure size is not always indicative of the options available to an animal. Most zoos have hidden back areas. 
  • Environmental enrichment (including training, socialization, toys, encouraging foraging, and so much more) can make a huge difference in an animal's well-being both mentally and physically regardless of their enclosure. 

Long story short, you can't go off of public opinion of a zoo (cough SeaWorld cough) or even your own personal opinion to tell if a facility or program is worth your time. 

Luckily, there are several organizations who have the inside knowledge and pull to do the work for you. 

When looking to volunteer, intern, or work at a large facility, the best place to start is a facility that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). They should also be USDA compliant. Most facilities will advertise this status on their website, but you can also go to the AZA's website to look them up.

The AZA (worldwide) and USDA (US only) have very strict standards that a zoo must follow to be accredited or certified by them. These usually relate to cleanliness, staff training, safety practices, physical accommodations, and animal welfare. A facility that's been vetted by one or both of these organizations has the industry stamp of approval. 

For smaller facilities, such as nature centers and rescues, this is much, much more difficult. The best advice I can give you is to search them online. Look at their website. Visit their facility if you can, and trust your gut. Don't look at whether or not the "animals are happy". 

Things to look for at small facilities:
  • Are the enclosures clean? Do they look like they're cleaned regularly? 
  • Are the enclosures in good repair? 
  • Do the animals have access to plenty of fresh, clean drinking water?
  • Do the animals have a clean, safe place to rest?
  • Do they keep records of their animals' health, diet intake, and behavior?
  • Do they provide education or interpretation of their animals for the public?
Small things that aren't necessarily required but help to tip you off to a good facility:
  • Are they non-profit?
  • Do they have a core staff with a low turnover? A facility that only has volunteers is a red flag.
  • Facilities that allow the general public to handle or take pictures while touching dangerous animals, even as babies. This includes big cats, primates, parrots, elephants, large reptiles, etc. 
  • Facilities that hit, starve, chain, harass, ignore, or withhold necessities of life or comfort from their animals.


  • Check your local zoo's website. Many of them list career opportunities directly on their site.
  • You can also search for zoo jobs through the AZA
  • For smaller facilities, you may need to set up a Craigslist search, or approach them directly via email or phone. 


Well, you've heard right. It's a tough job to get. The last time my position was open, my bosses received hundreds of applications. But there are some things you can do to help you stand out from the crowd:
  • Combine experience with education, as mentioned up top
  • Network: talk to people in the field
  • Get an unrelated job at the facility you want to work for (get your foot in the door)
  • Keep volunteering until you have the job you want. Rounding out your experience is never a bad idea. Don't be afraid to volunteer at as many different facilities as you can. I personally make a one-year commitment to each facility I volunteer at and have done so for the last seven years. Each facility comes with a new goal, i.e., I want to work with birds of prey, I want to work with cats, etc. 
  • Keep building your skill set (see below). The more skills you have, the better candidate you are. 
  • This isn't for everyone, but lastly: be willing to re-locate. Smaller facilities in smaller towns are typically more open to people with less experience and can give you the skills and resume building to move to larger facilities later. This path wasn't really open to me, but many people I work with have gone this route. 

  • Public speaking: much of zoo keeping these days involves giving tours and keeper talks to potentially hundreds or even thousands of people. Plus, public speaking courses will give you comfort in one-on-one interactions, as well
  • Informal science education and interpretation experience: for much the same reason-- you need to know how to take the fancy biology words you learned in college and at work and make it so everyone from 3 years and up can understand what you mean. 
  • General labor, maintenance, construction, plumbing- you can learn a lot of this on the job. Don't feel like you need to go out and get a license in any of these things, but if you have a pre-existing knowledge, it can't hurt to mention it on your resume.
  • Artistic tendencies don't hurt either! 

Don't see what you're looking for? Email me. 

This page is a living document. I'll update it as I add things to the blog and based on questions I get from you. 

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