Why volunteer at a zoo?
There are plenty of reasons why giving up your free time now will be beneficial to your career in the future. Firstly, it gives you experience in the industry, which is something employers are looking for. Secondly, it gets your foot in the door. It gives you the opportunity to prove that you’re reliable, dedicated and hardworking. Plenty of zoos employ new zookeepers though their zoo volunteer program because it gives them the chance to observe your work ethic first. Even if you don’t end up getting employed by that specific zoo, doing volunteer work shows that you’re passionate and committed.
Thirdly, it gives you an insight into what it’s really like to work in a zoo. If you’re not used to long days working out in the elements, this may be an eye-opener for you! But in all likelihood it will confirm what you already suspected—that spending your days in the fresh air, working hard surrounded by amazing creatures, is exactly where you want to be!
There are plenty more reasons—you’ll learn things you can’t learn anywhere else, you’re donating your time to support wildlife—but those are the main ones. We know it may take some sacrifices to fit volunteering into your schedule (we’ll never forget those grueling months in our final year of university when all we seemed to do was go from study to paid work to volunteering and back to study again!) but it really is worth it.
Types of zoo volunteer work
The two main types of volunteers are those who help zookeepers with their daily rounds, and those who assist visitors by answering their questions and helping them find their way around the zoo (often called a docent). Some zoos may offer more specific volunteering roles, such as assisting wildlife education officers, or giving tours of the zoo.
Volunteer positions may be either ongoing or seasonal, and every volunteer program tends to require a minimum time commitment of some sort, but this varies widely from one institution to the next. Each volunteer program is set up differently so check out the website of the zoo you’re interested in, then contact them by phone or email for more information.
Make sure you find out if they have an official position regarding the recruitment of volunteers. Most zoos like to make it clear that while new staff are sometimes recruited from the volunteer program, volunteering is not a guarantee of employment. Also, if there are different types of volunteers within the one zoo, make sure you join the section that is most likely to lead to the type of work you’re after. For example, don’t volunteer as a docent if it’s only the zookeeping volunteers that tend to be considered for animal-related positions.
Applying for volunteer work
You will most likely need to complete an application form. Some zoos will also want to contact your referees and possibly conduct an interview. Treat the whole process with the same gravitas you would if it was a paying job. Make sure their first impression of you is a great one.
What to expect from volunteer work
The role of a volunteer varies greatly from one zoo to another, but what we want you to be prepared for is lots of physical work and not a whole lot of cuddling critters. Believe it or not, a huge amount of the work that needs to be done in a zoo doesn’t actually involve handling animals, for instance raking, sweeping, scrubbing, watering plants and preparing food. These are the obvious tasks to give to volunteers. They are safe, simple jobs you can jump right in and get started on.
With any luck, the longer you’re there the more trust you’ll earn and the more animal-related tasks you’ll get to participate in, or at least observe. No matter how mundane or repetitive some of the work may be, if you keep your eyes and ears open and ask questions when it’s appropriate, you’ll learn a lot. Go in with the attitude ‘what can I do for the zoo?’ not ‘what can the zoo do for me?’ and you’ll make a stellar volunteer the keepers will be begging Human Resources to employ!