The definition of zookeeping has changed quite dramatically over the past two decades, and for a much longer period, many zoological installations were places of entertainment. A dynamic change has occurred in the profession as the era of conservation expands, and the work of each animal care professional now requires a broader understanding of their costs in the wild and the how it can affect the work at hand. And while there are many zoos that still focus on the entertaining aspects of wildlife viewing, an increasing proportion have made it their mission to educate their visitors and to spread the idea that these living creatures they meet are a limited resource, one that must be protected.
Down and Dirty: What is the job?
Being a zoo keeper is definitely not for everyone. In some specialty programs in the United States, future zoo keepers face a failure / dropout rate of 60% or more, these programs only accepting a few dozen students with all other graduate classes . From the heavy workload to the high level of responsibility and security, this can be a very stressful job.
First and foremost, zoo keepers spend the majority of their time taking care of their animal section daily, a task that is almost entirely devoted to cleaning the pens, which, depending on the animal, can be as brief as a quick glance around the tank of a boa constrictor. or as involved as the fork of a rhino hidden for half an hour in a dump truck. After cleaning, or sometimes during a distraction, distributing portions of the diet for each animal can be part of a daily routine. Appropriate dietary requirements will often be determined by a nutritionist, but it is the responsibility of daily caregivers to ensure that each animal is properly cared for.
Animal care professionals must also have a consumed sense of awareness when working with each animal. They need to understand natural behaviors at work, how these behaviors can manifest, and what abnormal behaviors are common in captivity. In addition to this, while veterinarians are regularly used to make an accurate diagnosis, wild animals do not always show obvious signs of disease, and it is up to the person who takes care of them every day to spot the problems.
On the top and the top: What’s so good about it?
All this hard work has to pay off, right? Just as each person has their own traits that make them unique, we often find similar characteristics in the exotic animals of each establishment. Understanding how these traits work with their natural instincts can be very rewarding, especially when you are working with enrichment. Enrichment is an established program of new or interesting items that are not harmful to the animal, but provide additional mental stimulus, keeping the animal engaged and, in the case of food enrichment, well practiced in its activities looking for natural food.
It is a very rare experience to see an animal released into the wild, which many people never appreciate. Thanks to the conservation efforts undertaken by zoological installations, these events no longer occur once in a blue moon. In the case of endangered species like the Florida panther, injuries to their wild habitat, even at a young age, no longer relegate them permanently to an exhibit in a zoo. Specialized programs have been established between zoos that allow zoo keepers 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 one have to be a zoo keeper?
As part of the mission of many zoological installations, education has only taken over for conservation efforts, which has led to a multiplication of opportunities, even for the untrained. Volunteering, becoming a docent, or applying for a more involved internship can be an easy way to explore the zoo. For a permanent position, many zoological facilities prefer that their employees have a bachelor’s degree in life sciences such as biology or zoology or psychology. This preference can also be exchanged for a number of years working in zoological facilities, and supervisors will occasionally choose new hires from among their volunteers, docents or trainees.
Guarding is not a simple path, and is not one that can be easily recommended to a potential student. It takes training and a passion for wildlife, and a willingness to improve every day when you enter. However, if you strive long enough, you reach a point where you smile at yourself watching the animals in your section having fun in your hard work, thinking, “Have I ever had the coolest job in the world.”