Not only is zoo volunteer work a great way to learn and get experience in the zoo industry, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase your skills. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re working for free, you can afford to slack off. Treat your volunteer position with the same respect as a paid one and you’ll be well on the way to proving to your potential employers that you’re the one they want to fill their next zookeeper vacancy.
- Make a good first impression. Know what time to arrive on your first day and what you need to bring. Know who to call if you get stuck in traffic or are otherwise delayed. Be polite and friendly and pay close attention during your induction. As the saying goes, start as you mean to go on.
- Work hard. It goes without saying that you’ll need to work hard to stand out from the crowd of other zoo volunteers with their eyes on the next available zookeeper position. So do it, work up a sweat and do it with a smile on your face. Zoos can’t afford to hire lazy people. All the qualifications in the world can’t help you if you’re too slow at scooping poop!
- Show Initiative. This is a big one. Once you’ve been volunteering at the zoo for a few days and you’re starting to get a handle on the daily routine, don’t sit back and wait for the next instruction—jump in there and get it done. Zoo keepers have a lot on their plate each day and they’re always grateful for zoo volunteers who are self-motivated. Not only that, it makes them feel like you’re someone they’d be happy to have on their team as a fellow zookeeper. See a window covered in greasy handprints? Grab the window washing equipment and give it a quick clean. See some rubbish on the ground? Pick it up. The keeper is running a few minutes late but you know the food preparation routine always starts with chopping carrots? Grab those carrots and get chopping! Having said that, though, make sure you also pay close attention to tip #4.
- Don’t overstep your position. It’s great to show initiative but be careful not to overstep your position as a volunteer. Unless the keeper has said so, never handle an animal or enter an enclosure unsupervised. If in doubt, ask first.
- Don’t get caught up in negative attitudes. While zookeepers are often the hard-working, no-nonsense type, zoos are susceptible to workplace gossip and drama just like anywhere else. Don’t get involved; keep your nose clean and your eyes on the prize. There may also be other volunteers who have negative opinions or a bad work ethic. Don’t let their negativity rub off on you.
- Stay late. I know, I know, you’re already giving up a huge chunk of your free time to volunteer in the first place, and now I’m asking you to stay late as well?! But the truth is that zookeepers themselves often need to work late, so you’re proving that you’re prepared to do that too once that coveted zookeeper position is yours. Working back late, coming in early, working an extra day when you can—these are all ways to show just how committed you really are.
- Call if you’re sick. Once more with feeling—treat your zoo volunteer position like a paid zookeeper position. Call—don’t text—your supervisor and give them as much notice as possible if you won’t be able to make it in. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because your work is unpaid, it won’t be missed.
- Read. Bolster what you’re learning on the ground with research and information. Read up on the animals you’re working with and on the principles of zookeeping so you have a better understanding of what’s going on around you. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our zookeeper book list. But…
- Don’t get too cocky. Your job is to assist the keepers as best you can, not to try and impress everyone with how much you know. By all means, take advantage of natural openings in the conversation to demonstrate your level of knowledge, but just be aware of not coming off as too full of yourself.
- Introduce yourself. If you want to get noticed, introduce yourself to the manager of the animal collection. He or she will likely be the person who will interview you in future, so it doesn’t hurt to get on their radar. You may even like to introduce yourself to the zoo’s CEO at some stage too if the opportunity arises.
The chance to volunteer at a zoo is your chance to shine. Your time is precious, so make the most of it!
Find out more about what you should expect while volunteering at a zoo.