Oct 10

So, You Want to Be a Zookeeper…

It’s back to school time again and with thoughts of schooling inevitably, come thoughts of careers. In my opinion, one of the most rewarding career paths out there is the one I have chosen to take. Here at Busch Gardens my title is Senior Animal Care Specialist, but most people call me a “zookeeper.”

Busch Gardens Keeper

The profession of zookeeper has been around for thousands of years. Rulers of ancient civilizations often kept giant menageries of animals, and as long as they had them, they have needed someone to take care of them.

Busch Gardens Tampa Keeper

As the look and role of a zoo has evolved over the centuries, so has the role of the zookeeper. Zoos have moved away from cages and bars to open air naturalistic habitats that are much nicer to look at, live in and work around! Busch Gardens is a frontrunner in developing world class animal habitats to bring the thrill of the natural world to our guests every day.

Busch Gardens Tampa Keeper

The role of a zookeeper may seem glamorous at times, but in truth it is hard, dirty work… and I love every second of it! If you care about animals the rewards are endless. There are few things in the work place more fulfilling than seeing the animals I care for happy and healthy.

Days usually start before the sun comes up. Animals need to be fed and cleaned up after every day no matter the weather. Wind and rain, sun and snow the keepers are out there. Don’t forget the holidays! Keepers generally take turns taking off the major holidays so that the animals always have someone there for them.

Busch Gardens Tampa Keeper

A typical day usually consists of coming in and checking out the animals first thing. There is also preparing and feeding diets, training sessions and of course the never ending task of cleaning poop! Keepers are generally responsible for maintaining the habitats their animals live in. Mowing lawns, landscaping, scrubbing rock work and cleaning out pools are a big part of our day.

Giving talks and interacting with our guests is also an important part of what we do. At cheetah run we give six presentations a day, connecting our guests with the animals we care for. One of the most common questions I am asked is: “how does one go about getting into this field of work?”

Busch Gardens Tampa Keeper

Get animal experience any way you can.

This could be volunteering at local shelters, rescues and zoos. Or of course getting an inside view of Busch by enrolling in our summer Adventure Camps is a great way to get a feel for the job. The camps offer many different opportunities to experience zoo life, at many different levels.

Busch Gardens Tampa Keeper

Education is key.

Zoo keeping is a very competitive field and many facilities will require a degree of some kind. I usually tell guests that some sort of “ology” degree is ideal. Many keepers now have psychology degrees which helps with the training and behavioral aspect of things.

If you know this is the path for you there are two colleges here in the US that offer specialized schooling for careers with exotic animals in “teaching zoo” settings. Moorepark College in California, offers the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program. And the Santa Fe College right here in Florida offers their Zoo Technology Program.

My advice for the aspiring zoo keeper is this:

Be willing to learn.

Every animal, whether it be a chicken or an elephant, dog or dolphin can teach you a valuable lesson when you least expect it. I got my start 10 years ago in the Children’s Zoo at the Houston Zoo and I am grateful for all the experiences and lessons I learned while there. I worked with MANY different species in Houston, both exotic and domestic. You might be surprised to know that some of my favorites will always be the goats!

There may be cheetah experts, or sea horse experts, but each keeper is an expert on their individual animals. No one knows them better and newbie keepers can learn a lot just by working a long side seasoned keepers. The American Association of Zoo Keepers is a great organization to join to network with zoo professionals around the country and to keep current with what is going on in today’s zoos.

Be willing to travel.

It may be your dream to work for a certain facility, but if you can get your foot in the door at a different one it can get your career on track that much faster. Also, you may be a cat lover, but if a job opens up in the primate section consider the opportunities that might lie in that direction. Many zoos also offer paid or unpaid internships. A good place to look for those is the jobs page for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Browsing through the listings here can also give you an idea of what different zoos are looking for in their positions.

Be willing to work on a team.

One of the most important parts of a zoo is its keeper team. Your fellow zookeepers can be your eyes and ears when you aren’t there, can help with big projects and give you support when you don’t even realize you need it. I don’t know where I’d be some days without my “crew!”

Busch Gardens Keeper

This is just a few of the things I have learned on my road to becoming a Senior Animal Care Specialist here at Busch Gardens. I would love to hear your stories of how you got your dream job, or if you have any questions about the zoo field post them here and I will try to answer them in my future blogs.

Photos by Matt Marriot