How I Began:
In September 2006 the great Steve Irwin was sadly killed. I started back at college the following February 2007 as a Zoology major. (read entire story on the Rebecca page) I was recovering from knee surgery so I didn't start volunteering until later that spring.
The first thing I did was look at animal rescues, wildlife facilities and zoos within driving distance from my place.
My first look into volunteering was at a local marine mammal rescue and care facility. I went to the orientation and was disheartened at the fees they charged volunteers, and some of the choices they made regarding rescues. I thanked them for the opportunity but politely explained it wasn't for me.
Next up I decided to just go for the zoo (there are 4 within driving distance from me). Again my enthusiasm was tested as I read the list of requirements to be an animal keeper volunteer: minimum 100 hours documented hands-on experience with exotic animals, extensive application, and reference requirements. While I understood the reasoning behind these requirements, 100 hours seemed daunting to an inexperienced full-time student.
Daunting but not insurmountable! I kept calling, asking and looking. Finally I found a good fit for me. A small long term care and educational facility that specialized in native Californian wildlife and illegal confiscated pets. I was told from the start there would be no direct contact with the animals and volunteers were there only to clean. Thankfully I became one of the exceptions. Once I had proven myself, coming every week, rain, heat, or cold, cleaning and following all safety instructions, The owner and the head keeper decided they would train me in hands-on animal keeping. I was able to work with animals ranging from tiny snakes to large mountain lions. I even overcame my hesitance around birds and became very good with birds of prey. I was honored when I was asked to also start helping with educational outreach programs. The only species this facility lacked that I really wanted more experience with was reptiles!
I kept volunteering at my first job when I added in two more. I founded Remember Wildlife (See story on Rebecca page) and started working hands-on with a huge variety of reptiles for a new found friend of mine. By now I was also doing yearly fund-raising for Wildlife Warriors (See Donate SID page for this years details).
Still going to college full time I had more than surpassed my 100 documented hours of hands-on work; it was time to apply to the zoo of my choice. I jumped through all the hoops and was thrilled to be taken on as a volunteer animal keeper. Reptile house here I come! Or so I thought.......
As time went by I realized I could not volunteer at four places and go to school full-time, as well as the fact I was still working at a part-time paid job. My poor husband rarely saw me and schoolwork was getting harder. So I cut out two volunteer jobs. I kept the zoo and Remember Wildlife as well as occasionally still helped with the reptiles.
By now I had transferred to full blown University and a new commute had been added to my schedule. Classes were difficult and some changes had to be made. In the end I decided to take a break from volunteering, quit my job, focus on school full-time, and find some on campus research job. I started and did one semester in the Evolution Lab working with Drosophila flies (not my thing), I helped out for a couple of weeks one summer with the Wetlands Restoration Lab (my favorite), and I worked for two semesters in the Lizard Evolution Lab. After two years of research I have determined I was not meant to sit all day in a lab. I am an action girl. I am grateful for the opportunities and experience but I am a field researcher not a lab rat.
I knew I needed animals around me again so I contacted the zoo. They were happy to have me back, so was my favorite full time keeper. It was with great pleasure I went back to work as a volunteer animal keeper last week and I look forward to every day I am allowed to work in the presence of such amazing animals.
(Girls & Volunteers are now allowed to work with the reptiles!)
The 'Nitty Gritty 'Of Being A Zookeeper:
OK now lets get to the good stuff. People see my photos, me holding a baby snow leopard, a giant snake, hugging a mountain lion, feeding a great bird of prey and assume that's all I do. Yes it is awesome and an amazing privilege but that is not the entire story.....
Jobs are hard to get and are extremely competitive
You don't get to choose who you work for or with
99% of your job is POOP! Cleaning and food preparation
There are good facilities and bad facilities
Weather, can be hot, cold, muddy, wet, windy, and you work in it all
Days are long and physical
Parasites and diseases
At many facilities you have no say in your animals care, you are there as a "nanny"
Wild animals, even captive, are dangerous
Beloved animals die, get injured, and get transferred
Being in the presence of amazing animal species
Amazing Hands-on experiences
Not sitting behind a desk all day
Knowing you are conserving a species and educating others
The look of a healthy, content animal is all the thanks you need
Being in the zoo when it's closed
A Day In The Life Of A Zookeeper:
Arrive early dressed for anything. Check in with main office, get keys and radio.
Most zoos have what are called 'strings'. Strings are all the animals under one, or sometimes a team of zookeepers care. They can have one species like Gorillas, or an entire continent like African Primates, or the world like Reptiles. The string I volunteer on has about 5 species in almost a dozen different areas.
As a keeper, upon arrival of your string, you check to see if there are any notes indicating changes that have happened since you left, then you go check on all the animals. The first half of the day is filled with:
Medication each individual might need.
Cleaning: raking, shoveling, scraping, hosing and washing all indoor and outdoor exhibits. Also laundry of bedding and restocking necessary items from browse to blankets.
Shifting animals out of dirty areas and back into the clean ones.
Food prep for each species. Food at most facilities is delivered from a main commissary but it is the keepers who usually prepare it.
LUNCH for the humans
More Cleaning. Yep, the pooping never stops!
Any afternoon medication
Enrichment (The fancy term meaning we give them things to keep them from getting bored)
Book keeping: listing of everything done and any changes, ordering things you need.
Last check of all the animals and locks
Walk back to main office to check out and return keys.
But What About Those Amazing Opportunities?
I found it extremely interesting when I read Terri Irwin's book Steve and Me, to find out I had been doing something she used to do with Steve. It's called never saying no. (You should read the book!)
My first day volunteering I told myself, unless it was a danger to the animals I would never say no.
When I was helping at a fund-raiser and was told I was needed outside my brain screamed 'No I'm Hungry And Want A Break.' My mouth and smile said "Sure, No Problem." I was asked to sit and hold the leash of an amazing Mountain Lion while the fund-raiser went on inside. An hour of alone time with a majestic cat purring to me, all because I didn't say no. (I even have a great picture of it on my desk)
At the zoo one day I was asked to give up my lunch hour to go help another string. Again my silly brain said "It's hot and I want to sit down!' but my mouth and smile said "Sure, no problem." After we walked down to the other side of the zoo in extreme heat I was taken inside a cool room and handed a baby snow leopard! "here would you mind holding him while we put drops in his eyes?" ABSOLUTELY! I got to hold both the baby kittens. An unreal privilege, all because I didn't say no.
I have caught on to my favorite keeper's "Hey Rebecca you need to come help......" and gladly say "Sure, no problem." as I sit and have lunch with a lonely rhino recovering from an illness and separated from her mates, give a Gorilla treat, or get a hand massage from a gibbon as thanks for the one I gave her.
My deletion of the word no from my vocabulary was tested last week when I started back at the zoo. My first day back after two years of sitting in a lab. My boots had shrunk, my feet hurt and I was feeling that first day. I had been prepping the Fossa's night beds. The keeper I have worked with for years had disappeared to deal with a radio call. The keeper from the next string over said she needed my help. Boy my feet were dying but I said "Sure, no problem" with absolutely no enthusiasm. We hiked up the hill where she handed me a bucket of fruit and nuts and said "Could you please go in and feed the Lemurs?" As Lemurs gently took their treats from my hands and I was surrounded by one of the most endangered animals on the planet, I was so grateful I never say no.
As with any job, if you have a passion for what you do, ask questions, learn from mistakes, and learn to never say no to opportunities......Your Opportunities Can be Endless!
If You Want To Be A Zookeeper Here Are A Few Basics To Know:
You have to be at least 18 years old in most states to work with exotic and wild animals.
Get experience by volunteering with as many places and species as you can. Figure out if you want to specialize in a species (Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Primates, Great Apes, Cats, Hoof-stock, etc.) or know a lot about many.
Do your research! every place has different hiring requirements, some require keeper schools, some college degrees, or some have in-house volunteer-to-keeper programs. City zoos, are different from private zoos, private reserves, private facilities, and federal organizations. Figure out what you want and what that place's specific requirements are. Know how to spot a bad facility, don't work where animals have less than the best care!
NOTE: Volunteer keepers are not allowed at many facilities, only a few allow animal interaction to those who meet the requirements.
Be persistent! Most paid zookeepers tell tales of applying multiple time and interviewing multiple times before getting hired. Be prepared to fight to get your dream job for years.
Assess your "gross out" factor. If dirt, poop, vomit, worms, parasites, raw meat, etc. gross you out, decide if you'll get over it or need to rethink things. (volunteering with help)
Don't become a keeper for what you can get, but how you can help. The precious moments are rewards for those who don't expect them.
Final Side Note: There are so many things zoo goers do not see going on behind the scenes. Most AZA Zoos have DNA databases and endangered species breeding programs. Rescued smuggled animals often go through a zoo before being returned to home. Animals too sensitive for public display can often be found behind the scenes. Zookeepers can often travel with their animals for trade to other states and even other countries!
Whatever career you decide on, be passionate about it and work hard! Success is yours!