When most people think of a zookeeper, they typically assume that zookeepers play with animals all day. More often than not, they think of the “dangerous” animals like elephants and tigers. In reality, a zookeeper’s job is very different from these assumptions.
In order to understand zookeepers, you must understand what a zoo is and why we even have them. A zoo — at least those that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) — is an institution that strives to provide excellent care for its animals and an unforgettable experience for its visitors. Zoos strive to create a better future for all living things.
Zoos play a key role in the education and conservation of nature and current environmental issues. Most importantly, zoos help to connect people with nature and encourage attitude and behavioral changes that help with issues that essentially affect us all. The mission of every AZA-accredited is to encourage an appreciation for the world’s wildlife and to help conserve it for future generations.
As a zookeeper, my job is to support this mission and personally aid in the care for these animals. I maintain exhibits and enclosures, provide enrichment, tend to any animal needs, provide public conservation education, contribute to animal research, and play a role in training programs.
Zookeepers must have an academic background in science and practical experience with animal handling. Many zookeepers know from a very young age that they want to have that job.
Ever since I was little, I knew that I wanted to take care of animals and that I wanted to help make a difference for them in the wild. Like most other animal lovers, I looked into veterinary science. But, I fell in love with zoology and started volunteering and interning at different institutions where I could learn all about animal care, training, and conservation. This experience, along with my previous Zoology degree and current pursuit of an Environmental Science degree, has helped me learn how to care for animals and how to educate guests on animal captivity. I also know understand global efforts in conservation and our role as humans, including our interactions with our environment. As a zookeeper, I am the link between my wildlife institution and the public. Expressing my passion, respect, and love for these animals is important when spreading conservation messages on protecting these species and thinking on more eco-friendly terms.
Unlike most jobs, my schedule starts before the sun rises and ends after the sun has set; my equipment includes shovels, rakes, hoses, and scrub brushes; and my uniform is made up of clothes that I am guaranteed to get dirty in. My mornings typically start with cleaning enclosures and exhibits where animal waste is picked up. I may offer enrichments, meaning that I’ll provide stimulating environments, objects, or activities for the animals to participate in. This is crucial to the animals’ welfare and is important when understanding how they respond to their captive environment.
For example, when I have to take care of a lizard enclosure, I enrich them by moving their heat source, putting in new plants or props, and spraying a scent around the enclosure. These actions encourage curiosity, movement, and any other natural behaviors they wish to exhibit. This gives me the chance to make sure that the lizards are healthy and happy.
Most animals in captivity are hard to study in the wild, because they spend their entire lives hiding or because their population numbers are low due to environmental stresses. Captivity gives us the opportunity to study their behaviors and their importance in their ecosystem. It also gives us the chance to better understand what needs to be done in the wild for them to strive there successfully. Because human actions have been so impactful on all of the world’s habitats, zookeepers play a huge role in understanding the behavior of their animals. Their observations are vital towards conservation and research.
Being a zookeeper, like any other job, has its ups and downs However, I love what I do. I am proud of my role in saving wild species and in educating the zoo visitors. I strive to continue working towards conservation efforts for species worldwide and hope to one day make a difference in this field.