You’re probably wondering what sort of qualifications you need to become a zookeeper. If you’re in school, you want to know what sort of tertiary study you should be applying for to get a job in the zoo industry. If you’ve finished school, you want to know if you need to go back.
In short, it depends on the exact position you’re applying for and the zoo you’re applying to.
While that’s probably not the straight-forward answer you were looking for, this is actually a good thing. It means you’ve got some wiggle room when it comes to what tertiary course you choose, or whether you choose one at all.
What zoos are saying about zookeeper qualifications
Some zoos state that a relevant tertiary qualification is essential, but most simply say that it is highly desirable.
“Ideally applicants will be studying or have studied in a relevant area (…) However, at the end of the day we will recruit for attitude and train for technical competence.” – Perth Zoo, Australia
“The competition for jobs caring for animals is so strong you really HAVE to have a college degree these days to be considered.” – San Diego Zoo, USA
“(Applicants) must meet at least one of the following requirements: one year recent full time paid experience in the handling, feeding and care of animals in a zoo or on a stock farm, or one academic year of full time study in animal husbandry or related fields.” – Bronx Zoo, USA
Check out the ‘careers’ or ‘jobs’ page on the websites of the zoos you’re interested in to find out more about their views on further study. If you can’t find this information online, you may be able to email the zoo’s Human Resources department and ask. Chances are they get this question all the time and will have an answer ready for you.
Keeper positions can be highly competitive and relevant zookeeping qualifications will only serve to make you more desirable to potential employers. Still, there are plenty of zookeepers out there who snagged themselves a position simply by proving that they would make a valuable employee through volunteer work. Some of these people then went on to study after they were already employed!
A community college or university course will give you an edge, but it shouldn’t be the only string to your bow. Add volunteer work and animal experience to your resume to give yourself the best chance possible.
What fields of study are relevant to zookeeping?
Zoology/animal biology – the branch of biology that deals with the study of animals—everything from molluscs to spiders to orang-utans—focusing on things like physiology, classification and distribution
Animal husbandry – the feeding, housing and general care of animals
Veterinary science/vet nursing – the courses you need to complete to become a vet or vet nurse. These courses are also prerequisites for becoming a vet or vet nurse within a zoo.
Animal behavior – the study of what animals do and why they do it
Marine biology – if your interest is in marine animals and/or working in an aquarium, this is the field for you
Other animal-related disciplines – different tertiary institutions will have different options for you to investigate
Ecology – the branch of biology that deals with the way organisms relate to each other and their environment
Conservation biology – the science of managing plants and animals in the wild
You may wonder why we would recommend that you study domestic or farm animals when you passion lies with wildlife. While courses focusing exclusively on wildlife are few and far between, it’s not just a case of signing up for the next best thing. Much of what you’ll learn applies directly to wild animals as well. A giraffe has the same number of bones in its neck as a dog or a horse, they’re just bigger; a kangaroo has extra stomachs to digest its food, just like a cow, and the similarities between a house cat and a tiger are obvious even to the untrained observer.
Everything you learn will give you a better understanding of the animal kingdom so that when you go on to learn the specifics of the animals you’re most interested in you’ll have a deeper understanding of how they relate to the world around them.
If you’re still in school, or not ready to get started on building some qualifications just yet, why not take learning into your own hands and buy some zookeeping books that will start building your knowledge now.
How do I choose the right course for me?
There are several things to consider, such as your financial situation and your geographic location. If the zoo of your choice recommends specific courses (though they usually don’t) this may also influence you.
Ultimately it’s a personal decision only you can make, but here’s some advice from a zoo employee:
“This is what I tell high school kids and volunteers when they ask: pick something that gives you some flexibility in your career path. Sometimes you need to be patient while you’re waiting for that zookeeper vacancy to come up, so choose a course that also helps you get another job in the meantime. With any luck it’ll be a job that gives you experience with animals too, making your resume look even better for that keeper job.” – Adele (zookeeper, 5 years)
Check out our courses page for more information on zookeeping courses.
Other helpful qualifications for zookeepers
First aid – Zoos have to pay for first aid training for their staff. If you already have first aid training, potential employers may see that as a plus.
Scuba diving qualifications, boat license – If your interest is in aquatic animals, these qualifications may make you more appealing to potential employers.
Computer skills – Many zoos now record their animal observations electronically rather than on paper, so basic computer skills are a must.
Zookeeper qualifications are just one way to improve your chances of landing that dream job but we highly recommend you volunteer now. Here’s how you can find relevant zookeeping experiences.