Zookeepers and their assistants not only take care of animals but also act as their publicists. They educate zoo visitors about an animal’s life in and out of captivity, help keep animals healthy and keep records, such as about an animal’s diet and health. Zookeeper assistants don’t need to be Dr. Doolittle, but they should be comfortable enough speaking animal to recognize when their animals need something.
An Assistant’s Assistant
Zookeepers in most zoos are assistants themselves, helping an animal curator, for example, build a new habitat for an animal. Some zoos, such as the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, California and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society in Chicago, even refer to their entry-level zookeepers as zookeeper assistants. In most zoos, working as a zookeeper’s assistant means that you’ll perform the same animal-centered tasks that a zookeeper does, but you’ll do so under close supervision. Zookeeper assistants in some zoos get to specialize in one animal or an individual species, but most work with a variety of zoo animals.
As a zookeeper's assistant, you feed, water and train your assigned animals, maintain their enclosure or exhibit and track their day-to-day life. You also get to play with your animals, often in the course of exercising them. Depending on the animal and zoo expectations, you may also need to encourage your animals to perform, so to speak, for zoo visitors.
Keepers and their assistants must know how to keep an animal healthy and also the signs to look for that can indicate an animal is getting sick. While most keeper assistants do not provide an animal’s direct health care, you will likely act as liaison between the animal, the senior zookeeper and the zoo’s veterinary staff. Caring for animals' health extends beyond feeding and watering them. Depending on the animals, you may brush and clean them and you will clean and maintain their environment.
Experience and Skills
Loving and raising animals is generally not enough to land you a job. The more experience you have working with animals, the more likely a zoo is to hire you. You can gain experience by working or volunteering at a zoo, aquarium, veterinary clinic, animal shelter or humane society. A zoo may also require you to complete a probationary period before pairing you with a potentially dangerous animal, such as a lion or tiger.
Some zoos hire employees who have a high school diploma, but having a bachelor’s degree in zoology or animal science can’t hurt. Enrolling in a keeper-training program, such at the one at the Santa Fe Community College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida, can also give you the hands-on experience that most zoos want their employees to have.
Other Job Prerequisites
Most zoos want their zookeepers and assistants to be flexible enough to work around the clock if necessary, on weekends and on holidays. Having a driver’s license and a good driving record may also matter, since you may need to drive somewhere to pick up supplies and other materials. You should also be able to stand for long periods of time, lift up to 100 pounds and be comfortable working in all kinds of environmental conditions.
- Fresno Chaffee Zoo: Zookeeper Assistant (Special Project)
- Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Assistant Animal Keeper
- Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment: Zookeepers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Zookeeper
- University of Florida Department of Biology: How to Become a Zookeeper
William Henderson has been writing for newspapers, magazines and journals for more than 15 years. He served as editor of the "New England Blade" and is a former contributor to "The Advocate." His work has also appeared on The Good Men Project, Life By Me and The Huffington Post.