The definition of zookeeping has changed rather drastically in the last two decades, and for a much longer period, many zoological facilities were places for entertainment. A dynamic shift has occurred in the profession as the era of conservation gains steam, and the job of each animal care professional is now requiring a wider understanding of their charges in the wild, and how that can affect the job at hand. And while there are many zoos that still focus on the entertaining aspects of viewing wild animals, there is a growing proportion that has made it part of their mission to educate their visitors and spread the idea that these living creatures they are encountering are a finite resource, one which needs to be protected.
Down and Dirty: What is the job?
Being a zookeeper is certainly not for everyone. At some specialized programs in the United States, prospective zookeepers face a failure/drop-out rate of 60% or more, with these programs only taking a few dozen of students in with every other graduating class. From the heavy workload to the high level of responsibility and security, it can be a very stressful job.
First and foremost, zookeepers spend a majority of their time providing daily care for their section of animals, a task which is almost entirely spent cleaning enclosures, which, depending on the animal, can be as brief as a quick look around a boa constrictor’s tank or as involved as pitchforking a rhino midden for half an hour into a dump truck. After cleaning, or sometimes during as a distraction, delivering portions of each animal’s planned diet can be part of a daily routine. The appropriate dietary needs will oftentimes be determined by a nutritionist, but it comes down to the daily caregivers to ensure that each animal is being appropriately provided for.
Animal care professionals must also have a consummate sense of awareness when working with each animal. They need to understand the natural behaviors at work, how these behaviors might manifest themselves, and what abnormal behaviors are common in captivity. In addition to this, while veterinarians are regularly relied upon to make an accurate diagnosis, wild animals do not always show obvious signs of illness, and it is up to the person caring for them each day to spot when something might go wrong.
On the Up and Up: What’s so good about it?
All that hard work has to pay off somehow, doesn’t it? Just like each person has their own traits which make them unique, oftentimes similar characteristics can be found in the exotic animals at each facility. Understanding how these traits work with their natural instincts can prove to be very rewarding, especially when working with enrichment. Enrichment is an established program of novel or interesting items that are not harmful to the animal, but provide an additional mental stimulus, keeping the animal engaged and in the case of food enrichments, well-practiced in their natural foraging activities.
It is a very rare experience to get to see an animal released into the wild, which is something many people never even get to appreciate. Thanks to the conservation efforts undertaken by zoological facilities, these events are no longer occur once in a blue moon. In the case of species like the endangered Florida panther, injuries incurred in their wild habitat, even at a young age, no longer permanently relegate them to an exhibit in a zoo. Specialized programs have been established between zoological facilities that allow zookeepers to help these animals maintain their natural instincts, provide care from a distance, and then return them to their natural habitat when ready.
So does it take to be a Zookeeper?
As part of the mission for many zoological facilities, education has taken a back seat only to conservation efforts, and this has resulted in an upsurge of opportunities, even for the untrained. Volunteering, becoming a docent, or applying for a more involved internship can be a straightforward method of getting to know the zoo field. For a permanent position, many zoological facilities prefer their employees to have a Bachelor’s degree in a Life Science like Biology or Zoology, or Psychology. This preference can also be exchanged for any number of years working in zoological facilities, and supervisors will occasionally pick new hires from among their volunteers, docents or interns.
Zookeeping is not a straightforward path, and is not one that can be easily recommended to a prospective student. It requires drive and a passion for wild animals, and a willingness to better yourself every day you come in. If you strive for long enough, however, you reach a moment where you’re smiling to yourself as you watch the animals in your section enjoying themselves in your hard work, thinking, “Do I ever have the coolest job in the world.”
Adam Lepkowski is a student at the University of West Florida in the Zoological Sciences degree program, with three years of experience working with exotic animals in AZA accredited facilities, and an Associates of Applied Science in Zoo Animal Technology.
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