Zookeepers are responsible for the care and well being of the animals kept in zoos. Duties typically include feeding and watering animals, cleaning enclosures and monitoring the health, mood and behavior of the animals under their care. Some zookeepers give informative talks to visitors and answer visitors' questions. Educational requirements vary depending on the zoo and the applicant's experience. No universal certification for zookeepers exists. However, certain certifications in other areas can make an applicant more attractive.
If your job duties include underwater activities such as cleaning the diving pool in the polar bear enclosure, you will need to be a certified scuba diver. Scuba certification typically requires that you also be certified in first aid, including CPR. Some zoos prefer candidates with first aid and CPR certification, even if the job does not require you to dive. Animal care certifications are also available at the postsecondary level, though these are typically designed for those who pursue careers in animal rescue facilities, animal hospitals and veterinary clinics. In addition, numerous professional organizations offer certification in grooming, training and other areas of animal care.
Some zoos, such as Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida, may be willing to hire zookeepers who have just a high school diploma, while other zoos require candidates to have at least a bachelor's degree. Desirable classes include zoology, biology, speech, forestry, math, English, animal science and ecology. Because the field is highly competitive, most zoos typically receive dozens of applications for a single vacancy. Therefore, even if a college degree is not mandatory at the zoo for which you want to work, having one can move your application from the reject pile to the short list.
In addition to certifications and education, most zoos prefer candidates who have experience working with animals. Extensive experience can sometimes substitute for all or part of the postsecondary education requirements. You might not be able to acquire experience as a zookeeper unless you volunteer at your local zoo or manage to earn an internship, though some employers pay you while you learn. For example, you might be able to work as a kennel attendant, pet sitter or dog groomer. Experience acquired on a farm or ranch or at a veterinarian's office, animal shelter, pet store or riding stable counts as well.
Desirable Personal Attributes
Certifications, degrees and experience are useless if you are incapable of or unwilling to perform the duties required. The job is quite physical in nature, so you will need to be strong and possess stamina. You might have to work in extreme temperatures or while it is snowing or raining. It also helps to have an affinity for animals, such as being able to tell when they are not behaving normally or are acting unwell. You should have patience, as animals sometimes refuse to cooperate just to suit humans, and perseverance, as some tasks have to be performed even if the animal is exhibiting a stubborn streak.
2016 Salary Information for Animal Care and Service Workers
Animal care and service workers earned a median annual salary of $23,040 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, animal care and service workers earned a 25th percentile salary of $19,540, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $29,490, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 296,400 people were employed in the U.S. as animal care and service workers.