Monday, June 27, 2016

How to Become a Zoo Keeper

By Sara ‘Wesley’ Pederson

Photo provided by Bridget Walker.
Captive wildlife can be a notoriously difficult field to get into, and zoo keeping is a highly competitive career within that field. In order to determine what prepares one for a career in zoo keeping and makes them a desirable applicant, I interviewed some keepers from Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI.

The first step to becoming an eligible candidate is to have an appropriate educational background. The most common route is to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in a biological science such zoology, biology, or ecology. It is also possible to obtain a B.S. degree in another major with a biology-related minor or emphasis, but this degree will need to be more heavily supplemented with animal-related experience. Another less common route that is gaining popularity is attending a vocational school or similar facility for an Associate degree. While these types of programs are great for saving time and money, they are highly specialized and may hinder your applicability for other positions in the future.

A degree alone isn’t enough to set you apart from other applicants though, your resumé must also be bolstered with ample skills and experience. Employment, extracurricular activities, and internships are all beneficial opportunities for building a strong resumé. Having a background in animal caretaking is also important; even things like owning pets or pet sitting, volunteering at your local shelter, cleaning kennels and stables, or working as a farmhand can offer you the experience you need to be comfortable in zoo settings. While animal-related experiences are the most directly related, it is also important to not discount seemingly unrelated jobs. It is imperative that you are adaptive, observant, have the ability to tolerate high levels of both physical and mental stress, and have good time management and interpersonal skills. Balancing a part-time job or extracurricular activities with your coursework can aid in the development of these skillsets necessary for such a strenuous and demanding career.

Once you have gotten a degree and started building your resumé, it is important to continuously develop your skills and begin networking. Don’t shy away from entry-level jobs or volunteering - These will get your foot in the door and show potential employers that you are capable and willing to do what needs to be done. Attending conferences and symposiums are a great way to keep up-to-date with the most recent findings in topics such as animal welfare and conservation while establishing professional contacts. Do your own research and pursue certifications to expand your knowledge and hands-on experience. Even long after you’ve secured a job, you’ll continue gaining experience to further your career.

While zoo keeping is a highly competitive career, it is possible to get a job with the proper qualifications. The first step towards securing a keeping position is to lay the groundwork with a college degree. Enhancing your degree and resumé with ample hands-on experiences and skills is the best way to set yourself apart from other applicants. While you are acquiring experience, do not disregard entry-level positions or jobs that seem unrelated or are less than ideal, these can often be the first step to jumpstarting your career.

For more advice on working with animals, check this out.

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