To pursue the highly-rewarding career of a zookeeper you'll need determination, dedication and a willingness to work hard

As a zookeeper, your responsibility will be the welfare of animals kept in safari parks, zoos, petting farms, wildlife parks or other animal attractions open to the public. Zookeepers also look after animals in private collections, though this is less common.

Most organisations housing animal collections have a focus on conservation, research and education. Although not exclusively a graduate profession, keepers are increasingly qualified to degree level, and often to postgraduate level.

Usually, you'll specialise in working with one type of animal, or in a particular section of the zoo, such as with great apes, penguins, African animals, reptiles or in an aviary. By focusing on one area, you'll grow to understand the animals in your care well, allowing you to provide them with the best opportunity to thrive within captivity.

Although animal welfare is a critical feature of the role, equally vital is your ability to engage with the public and educate them about the inhabitants of the zoo.

Responsibilities

Your responsibilities as a zookeeper will include:

  • keeping animal enclosures clean, germ-free and safely secured
  • preparing food such as pellets, fresh produce, meat or hay and administer medications
  • observing animals and check for any signs of distress or ill health
  • designing, building and repairing environments which are as close to natural habitats as possible
  • coming up with creative ideas for enrichment to keep animals active and interested in their environments
  • working with other professionals such as vets
  • educating visitors by sharing your animal knowledge through demonstrations with live animals, talks, tours, and visitor experiences
  • keeping daily detailed records of behaviour, eating habits, births, deaths and other events
  • assisting with breeding procedures and raising young animals, particularly with endangered species
  • training animal behaviour to make feeding, medicating and monitoring easy and safe.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for zoo keepers are between £12,000 and £14,000.
  • Experienced zookeepers can earn between £16,000 and £20,000.
  • Head keepers can earn higher salaries of up to £25,000 or more.

It's common to start this career in an unpaid internship, or short-term seasonal post at minimum wage. Caring for animals in captivity is incredibly expensive, and much of zoo income is reinvested in upkeep.

Salaries also reflect the lack of difficulty that zoos have in recruiting keepers, with large numbers of applications for advertised posts.

Many zoos and safari parks have staff accommodation on site which may be free or subsidised.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

As a zookeeper, you'll need to be prepared to work year round, and over weekends too. Animals require care and attention every day, including Christmas and other holidays. You're likely to be part of a 'call out' rota, meaning you'll need to be available outside of working hours in case of emergencies. Keepers often work unpaid overtime and need to be flexible about their days off, particularly if animals are unwell or births are expected.

Part time, seasonal and short contracts are common.

What to expect

  • You'll get the opportunity to build close and trusting relationships with animals and play a critical role in their conservation. Some keepers develop international reputations for their specialist knowledge.
  • It will be necessary to work long hours, over weekends and with early starts. Your daily tasks can be repetitive and physically demanding, with a large part of your role dedicated to hosing, scrubbing, sweeping and disinfecting enclosures.
  • In most animal collections, physical between keepers and animals is minimised. Over-handling or treating zoo animals like pets can change their behaviours, and impact on breeding success. Despite this, you may form strong bonds with the animals you care for, which can make it emotionally difficult when the animals are moved to other collections, or reach the end of their lives.
  • Zoos are spread out around the country, so you may need to relocate in order to progress, or to specialise in work with particular animals.

Qualifications

You don't need a foundation degree, HND or degree to be a zookeeper, as practical animal experience is paramount. However, most zoo keepers do have a degree, and increasingly new entrants to the profession are educated to postgraduate level in animal related disciplines.

Aspiring zookeepers can apply for apprenticeships or work their way into the profession by gaining transferable skills in other animal-focused roles. Having a degree in zoology, or a life science such as biology or psychology, can be advantageous. Another option would be to study for a degree in a related subject, such as animal science or animal behaviour and welfare. Several universities offer specific postgraduate courses in zoo conservation or zoo biology which can give applicants an edge in a fiercely competitive profession.

When looking at courses, consider the amount of practical hands-on learning provided, perhaps through placements or with animals on site, as zoos are particularly keen on experience. Many university programmes link with animal organisations or zoos. If opportunities are not provided through the course, investigate what might be available for you to do alongside your studies or during holidays.

Many zoos rely on animal lovers with a passion for conservation for financial and practical support. This includes volunteers, who provide care for the animals alongside paid staff.

The widespread interest in working with animals among people of all ages makes this a competitive area to break into. With a finite number of animal attractions worldwide, high numbers of willing volunteers and low turnover of paid staff, competition for vacancies is intense.

Skills

You will need:

  • confidence in approaching and handling animals of all sizes
  • scientific observation skills to monitor the wellbeing of animals in your care
  • a high level of fitness, good health and the ability to sustain physical work for long periods in all weathers
  • great communication skills and the confidence to talk to visitors of all ages, often in large groups
  • a driving licence, if you're working in a large zoo or safari park.

Work experience

It's extremely unlikely that you'll find paid work in a zoo without significant experience with animals. However, many zoos have a number of voluntary opportunities or internships on offer, which are usually detailed on their websites. Many other animal organisations rely on the support of volunteers and these can offer opportunities for gaining the practical skills required, such as working with domestic animals or native wildlife in vet practices, petting farms, sanctuaries, stables, kennels or catteries.

A critical aspect of working as a zoo keeper is the education of visitors. Visitors value your knowledge and learn about global environmental issues and the importance of wildlife conservation from your talks. Gaining experience interacting with the public in other settings will give you important skills for the role. Many animal charities offer opportunities to promote animal welfare directly to the public, or online, through social media campaigns.

Employers

In Britain there are about 350 zoos, safari parks, bird gardens and aquaria open to the public.

Zoos are found in urban and rural settings, although the trend is toward larger enclosures found in open range countryside zoos or safari parks. Animal collections also exist within other family attractions such as theme parks.

Zoos can be charitable or private organisations but all are regulated and inspected by the government to ensure they meet strict hygiene, safety and welfare standards.

Although primarily designed to entertain and educate the public, most zoos regardless of ownership have a strong emphasis on scientific research and species conservation. Due to this focus, there is a culture of collaboration amongst organisations both in the UK and internationally, with animals being transferred between zoos in order to mate, or to improve welfare.

In other countries, such as America, Australia and Africa, a game reserve model is often favoured, with large areas kept as natural habitats for entire ecosystems. Job roles on game reserves have much in common with keeper roles but usually include acting as a tour guide for visitors to the reserve.

Petting zoos are designed for children to feed and pet gentle domesticated animals such as goats, donkeys, sheep and rabbits. Petting zoos sometimes travel with fairs or other attractions from city to city.

There are also a number of private collections owned by wealthy individuals and celebrities who recruit keepers.

Look for job vacancies at:

Most zoos and animal attractions advertise vacancies, internships and voluntary opportunities on their websites. You may like to target organisations in a specific geographic area, or those with a particular species of animal. Smaller, lesser-known zoos or animal collections may be less competitive.

Many zookeepers start with temporary seasonal contracts over the summer months when visitor numbers increase and more staff are needed. These short contracts are often extended into permanent posts. You may also find success by starting off with other roles within zoos, such as education roles, or working in cafes or shops on site. Once within an organisation, you can show your enthusiasm and network with other staff who may be able to offer you other opportunities.

Professional development

Many employers will offer trainee zookeepers the opportunity to complete the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA), run in partnership between BIAZA and Sparsholt College. This two-year distance learning programme covers restraint and transport of animals, husbandry, nutrition, conservation, zoo legislation and enclosure management, as well as a specialist project tailored to your role, and a portfolio of evidence of day-to-day practical keeping skills.

There may be opportunities for you to become involved in scientific research, breeding programmes and in-situ conservation. Collaborating on scientific papers can provide you with opportunities to present at events run by organisations such as BIAZA or ABWAK.

Career prospects

Most keepers will progress to positions of greater responsibility with time and experience, taking charge of larger groups of animals, or whole sections. Progression will depend on the size of the zoo, but tends to be slower than in many other occupations, frequently taking years to move from one role to another. Staff turnover is low, meaning zookeeper vacancies arise infrequently.

If you're looking for faster progression, you may need to seek opportunities at other zoos. You could progress to the position of senior keeper, head of section, head keeper or senior head keeper. You could also move into education or conservation research, advance to a managerial role within the zoo, or move into research.

As our understanding of the inner lives of animals expands, and with growing evidence of anxiety and depression in animals caused by their captivity, questions around the morality of zoos are growing. There is increasing pressure for zoos to design more sympathetic enclosures, and to allow animals to live more naturally. It's likely the way zoos operate will continue to evolve in the future, and with it the role of the keeper.