Zoo Keeper

The Job and What's Involved

Zoo keepers are responsible for the day-to-day care and welfare of animals in a zoo, wildlife/safari park, aquarium or special collection. Keepers may work with a wide range of animals, or specialise in working with one type, such as reptiles, amphibians, primates or birds. They make sure that animals are physically and psychologically healthy.

Zoo keepers' tasks vary, but may include:

  • Cleaning animal enclosures and providing fresh bedding.
  • Cleaning the feeding and watering equipment.
  • Preparing feed by weighing, chopping and mixing ingredients.
  • Feeding and providing water to animals, including 'live feed', such as locusts and mealworms, or 'dead feed', such as rats or mice.
  • Ordering feed and bedding.
  • Monitoring accommodation conditions, such as temperature and humidity.
  • Observing animals for signs of injury, illness or pregnancy.
  • Keeping daily healthcare records in a diary or, normally, on a computer.
  • Keeping detailed records of an animal's activity or behaviour as part of a research project.
  • Caring for animals that are ill or injured, under the direction of a vet.
  • Checking enclosures and sometimes carrying out maintenance, such as repairing fences.
  • Planning, monitoring and adapting animals' diets according to their individual needs, under specialist advice.
  • Helping to design new living quarters and building apparatus for animals to use.
  • Helping to run breeding programmes, including hand-rearing young animals when necessary.
  • Loading and unloading animals for transport.
  • Helping to move animals from one location to another.
  • Making sure animals are kept within their enclosures.
  • Answering visitors' questions.
  • Preparing and delivering educational talks, presentations or guided tours to children or adults.
  • Training animals for a demonstration - for example, training a bird to fly from one place to another.
  • Looking after visitors, and making sure they do not feed or upset the animals, or, especially in wildlife parks, put themselves in danger by approaching animals too closely.

In wildlife parks, where animals live in conditions similar to the wild, keepers have less contact with them, but observation of their behaviour and knowledge of their routine is important.

Keepers use a range of equipment including shovels, brooms, hoses, animal restraint equipment and vehicles.

They may work alone, or in pairs or teams for some tasks.

A zoo keeper's typical working week is 37.5 to 40 hours, and overtime may be available. Part time and seasonal work may be available with some employers.

Animals must be cared for every day of the year, so keepers work on a rota to cover all periods. Between April to September or October, they may work shifts to cover the hours from 7am to 7pm or later. Senior keepers may be on a call-out rota, which could include evenings.

The work is generally physically demanding.

Zoo keepers may work outside or indoors, depending on the animals they care for. Conditions may be wet, cold, dirty, muddy, smelly, hot or humid. Keepers wear a uniform, normally an overall, supplied by their employer.

People with allergies to some kinds of plants and to fur may find the work unsuitable.

Starting salaries may be the national minimum wage. Free or subsidised accommodation may also be available with some posts.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Zoo keepers work at zoos, safari/wildlife parks, bird collections and aquariums throughout the UK. There are about 350 such places run by zoological societies, charitable trusts, local authorities or private businesses. They employ around 3,000 to 5,000 keepers.

Entry is very competitive, and there are many more applicants than vacancies.

Jobs may be advertised on individual zoos' websites, in Cage and Aviary Birds and on the websites of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (www.biaza.org.uk) and the Association of British Wild Animal Keepers (www.abwak.co.uk).

Education and Training

Most zoos require previous relevant experience. Young people could gain experience by entering a volunteer programme, which most zoos have. However, relatively few volunteers have direct contact with the animals. Volunteer schemes are popular, and some zoos keep a waiting list.

Another way to gain suitable experience might be by doing voluntary or paid work in a pet shop, stable, kennel or farm, or by taking an animal care course at college.

Young people with relevant qualifications have a better chance of entering the work.

Zoos vary in the minimum educational qualifications they require:

For some, no particular qualifications are needed.

Many require three to five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent. English, maths and a science subject may be specified.

Acceptable alternative qualifications could be a BTEC first certificate or diploma, an NPTC national certificate, or SQA National Qualification Units in Animal Care. These may have no formal qualification requirements, or a few GCSE's/S grades may be required and some experience of working with animals may be preferable.

A few zoos require higher qualifications such as A levels/H grades, a BTEC National Award, Certificate or Diploma in Animal Management, or an NPTC Advanced National Certificate in the Management of Zoo Animals. For these, four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent, are usually needed.

NVQ's/SVQ's in Animal Care are available at Levels 1 to 3, and in Animal Care and Management at Level 4. Levels 2, 3 and 4 have routes for zoos and wildlife establishments.

Some entrants have HNDs or degrees in subjects such as animal management or zoology.

Apprenticeships in Animal Care may be available.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

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A Few More Exams You Might Need

Trainees receive practical on-the-job training from qualified members of staff, gaining experience in different departments of the zoo with different kinds of animals.

They will usually be expected to study for an Advanced National Certificate in the Management of Zoo Animals. This is a two-year distance learning course run by Sparsholt College (employers usually pay the tuition fees). It includes a five-day residential period at the college. Ten compulsory units cover topics such as animal identification and zoo records, reproduction and captive breeding, zoo and enclosure design, animal behaviour, nutrition, pests and parasites. Students also study several animal species, and complete a project.

Successful completion of this Advanced National Certificate (or equivalent) may lead to a Foundation degree in Zoo Resource Management at Sparsholt College, which is a two-year, part-time, block-release course.

Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Zoo keepers need:

  • To be safety conscious.
  • To be patient with both the public and animals.
  • To be observant.
  • To have stamina and be physically fit.
  • A pleasant, friendly manner.
  • Good spoken communication skills.
  • To be reliable and punctual.
  • Basic computer skills.
  • To be flexible, in order to carry out a wide range of tasks.
  • A driving licence, especially for safari parks.

Your Long Term Prospects

In larger zoos there may be prospects of promotion to senior keeper and eventually to head keeper.

Generally, however, finding work with more responsibilities may mean moving to another zoo.

Some keepers move into related areas of work, such as RSPCA/SSPCA inspector.

There may be some opportunities to work abroad. Some zoos take part in keeper exchange programmes, so there may be the chance to work for a short time in places such as Africa or Asia.

Get Further Information

Association of British Wild Animal Keepers (ABWAK)
Website: www.abwak.co.uk

British and Irish Association
of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA),
Regents Park, London NW1 4RY
Tel: 020 7449 6351
Website: www.biaza.org.uk

Lantra (Sector Skills Council for the
Environmental and Land-based Sector),
Lantra House, Stoneleigh Park,
Near Coventry, Warwickshire CV8 2LG
Tel: 0845 707 8007
Websites: www.lantra.co.uk and www.ajobin.com

Sparsholt College,
Westley Lane, Sparsholt,
Winchester SO21 2NF
Tel: 01962 776441
Website: www.sparsholt.ac.uk

Some of the larger zoos and wildlife parks may be able
to offer information about zoo keeping.

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