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You are in: Home > Job Families & Articles > Environment, Animals and Plants > Zoo Keeper

Zoo Keeper

This job belongs to job family > Environment, Animals and Plants

What is the work like?

Zoo keepers are responsible for the day-to-day care and welfare of animals in a zoo, wildlife or safari park, aquarium or special collection. They make sure that animals are physically and psychologically healthy.

Keepers may work with mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish or invertebrates.

Many keepers become specialists and work with one type of animal.

Tasks vary, but may include:

  • cleaning animal enclosures and providing fresh bedding
  • cleaning the feeding and watering equipment
  • 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, distress, illness or pregnancy
  • keeping daily healthcare records
  • caring for ill or injured animals under the direction of a vet
  • checking enclosures and sometimes carrying out maintenance, such as repairing fences
  • helping to run breeding programmes, including hand-rearing young animals
  • loading and unloading animals for transport
  • making sure animals are kept within their enclosures
  • looking after visitors and making sure they do not feed or upset the animals or put themselves in danger by approaching animals too closely
  • answering visitors' questions
  • preparing and giving educational talks, presentations or guided tours
  • training animals for demonstrations.

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. Zoo keepers must be excellent observers, learning the habits and behaviour of individual animals and of groups. They must be able to detect subtle changes in an animal's physical or psychological condition and respond accordingly.

Many zoos also recruit extra people for the busy summer months. The duties usually involve giving presentations, leading sessions and tours for visiting school groups and assisting with fundraising activities and other events.

Keepers use a range of equipment, including shovels, brooms, hoses, animal restraint equipment and vehicles. They may work alone or as part of a team.

Hours and environment

Most work around 40 hours a week 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 that includes weekends and bank holidays. During the spring and summer, the hours may be longer and a shift system may be in place. 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 type of animals they care for. Conditions may be wet, cold, dirty, muddy, smelly, hot or humid. Keepers wear a uniform, normally overalls, supplied by their employer.

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

For keepers working in a safari park, a driving licence may be required.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • The starting salary may be around £10,000 to £13,000 a year.
  • Experienced keepers may earn around £17,000 a year.
  • A head keeper may earn about from £17,000 to £30,000 a year.

Free or subsidised accommodation may also be available with some jobs. Seasonal zoo assistants are usually paid an hourly rate of around the national minimum.

Skills and personal qualities

Zoo keepers need:

  • to be safety conscious and maintain safe and effective working conditions at all times
  • the ability to plan and manage their own workload
  • patience both with the public and with animals
  • to be observant
  • stamina and physical fitness
  • a pleasant, friendly manner
  • good spoken communication skills
  • to be reliable and punctual
  • a range of basic IT skills.

Interests

Zoo keepers need to be interested in:

  • animals, without being sentimental about them
  • the biology, psychology and natural habitats of animals.

Getting in

Zoo keepers work at zoos, safari parks, wildlife parks, bird collections and aquariums throughout the UK, run by zoological societies, charitable trusts, local authorities or private businesses. They employ around 3,000 people.

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 British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and the Association of British Wild Animal Keepers (ABWAK) websites.

Entry routes

Most zoos look for applicants with previous experience, enthusiasm for animals and the willingness to work hard. Although it can be possible to get a job as a keeper without qualifications, there is so much competition for jobs that this is becoming less likely.

ABWAK recommends writing to individual zoos for volunteering opportunities, although relatively few volunteers have direct contact with animals. The BIAZA website has a list of volunteer and work placements. Another way to gain experience might be by doing voluntary or paid work in a pet shop, stable, kennel or farm.

There are around 35 colleges around the country that run courses in animal management to Level 3. Relevant qualifications include:

  • City & Guilds/NPTC Level 2 National Certificate in animal care
  • City & Guilds/NPTC Advanced National Certificate in the management of zoo animals and Advanced National Diploma in animal management at Level 3
  • BTEC Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 3 in animal management
  • City & Guilds/NPTC or ABC Awards and Diplomas in work-based animal care at Levels 1 to 3.

Entry requirements for courses vary, so applicants should check with colleges. The Diploma in environmental and land-based studies may be relevant.

Colleges and universities also offer degrees in subjects such as animal biology and zoology. Entry to a degree is usually with five GCSEs (A*-C) and two A levels, or equivalent qualifications.

It may be possible to enter through an Apprenticeship in animal care. Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer and, from August 2009, pay at least £95 per week. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. More information is available on the Apprenticeship page on this website, from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

Training

New recruits are trained on the job by qualified members of staff, gaining experience in different departments of the zoo and with different kinds of animals.

Most trainees will be expected to study for a qualification in animal care.

Sparsholt College offers a part-time foundation degree in zoo resource management. Applicants usually need a City & Guilds/NPTC Advanced National Certificate in management of zoo animals, or equivalent, and have regular employment in a zoo or similar.

For career progression and to develop knowledge and understanding, zoo keepers may take a postgraduate course, such as a Masters in zoology or zoo conservation biology. Entry is usually with a first degree or equivalent, or substantial experience.

Getting on

In larger zoos, there may be prospects of promotion to senior keeper and eventually to head keeper. Generally, however, progressing in the career may mean moving to another zoo.

Some keepers move into related jobs, such as RSPCA inspector.

There may be some opportunities to work abroad.

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. 020 7449 6351. Website: www.biaza.org.uk

Lantra, Lantra House, Stoneleigh Park, Coventry, Warwickshire CV8 2LG. 0845 707 8007. Websites: www.lantra.co.uk and www.afuturein.com

Sparsholt College, Westley lane, Sparsholt, Hampshire SO21 2NF. 01962 776441. Website: www.sparsholt.ac.uk

Zoological Society of London, Regent's Park, London NW1 4RY. 020 7722 3333. Website: www.zsl.org

Further reading

Careers with Animals - BIAZA

Real Life Guides: Working with Animals and Wildlife - Trotman

So You Want to Work with Animals? - Wayland

Working with animals - VT Lifeskills

Magazines/journals

BBC Wildlife Magazine­

Cage and Aviary Birds

Ratel Journal - ABWAK

(Some may be priced)

January 2010

 

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