The Cincinnati Zoo is one of the best Zoos in the country and that wouldn’t be possible without our amazing Zookeeper staff. The animal cares teams devote their lives to conservation and the animals at the Cincinnati Zoo.
One of the most common questions they are asked is “how do I become a Zookeeper?” so here is advice from some of the keepers themselves!
How did you become a zookeeper:
I knew I wanted to work with animals, but I wasn’t completely aware of all of the different options and how I would like each one until I participated in internships throughout and after college. I was an intern at a native wildlife rehab center, a sanctuary for exotic animals, and then completed two internships here at the Cincinnati Zoo. Once I was hired part-time in our Wild Encounters program and began volunteering in our elephant department I knew I didn’t ever want to leave. I worked my way from a volunteer in the elephant department to a seasonal keeper and eventually I worked in many different departments throughout the zoo filling in as a temporary keeper, before landing my dream job when the brand new Africa department opened.
I highly suggest volunteering at your local zoo throughout high school (if they have a program for high schoolers) and college. As well as getting your 4-year degree and the very important hands-on experience that internships offer. It is a very competitive field and it is nearly impossible to get hired if you have not completed at least one internship. The things we do as zookeepers cannot be learned in a textbook. I also encourage interns to be brave and say hello to as many zoo employees as possible and to network. There are plenty of hard workers, but you need to find a way to stand out and be remembered. Forming relationships and being someone others remember and enjoy working around makes a huge difference. Have patience!! Be willing to work holidays and weekends and if possible be willing to move around and consider starting at a smaller zoo for less money.
Zoos and Conservation
Zoos are a place for people to come and fall in love with animals that they most likely would never get to see in the wild. This makes them very important because they bring people close enough to care. Even though there may only be a few people inspired enough to devote their career to animals and conservation after a visit to the zoo, there will be millions of people who may learn something new and at the very least have a higher respect for animals. Zoos are doing so much behind the scenes helping to save animals in the wild- from rehabbing orphaned manatees, collecting behavioral data, donating to conservation organizations working with wild animals, to learning how to help the rarest rhino on earth successfully breed like we did here with our Sumatran rhinos and so much more. Zookeepers are important because we are the voices for the animals here in our care. The animals have a really important job living here at the zoo, to inspire people to care and to bring awareness to what is happening to their wild counterparts. It is our job as zookeepers to share their stories, keep them incredibly happy, safe, and healthy, and to help our visitors understand what they can do to help be better stewards of the earth.
How did you become a zookeeper:
Like many zookeepers, I knew from a young age that I loved animals and wanted to work with them. That is something that is unique to zookeeping and I love that every keeper has stories from when they were kids where an encounter at a zoo, or a specific animal left a lasting impression on them. For me, I grew up watching Disney’s the Lion King and obsessing over it! I had Lion King everything and pretty much anything animal-related, I was into. My friends and family always have known me to have an affinity for wildlife and animals and I thought I was the odd one out until I became a zookeeper and realized we all are obsessed with animals! One thing that is unique to each zookeeper is the path that they took to get to their current jobs. There is not a straight step by step path to get into this profession. Although there are a few things that aspiring zookeepers can do to set themselves up for success in this field.
Advice for the future generation of zoo keepers:
First, you’ll want to get a 4-year bachelor’s degree in some kind of biological science, I majored in Environmental Science at the University of Michigan. Go blue! During and after college you should try to get as much animal experience as possible. Volunteer, intern and apply to seasonal jobs at any zoo, animal shelter or aquarium you can. In college, I worked at a local ambassador animal zoo, and spent my summers abroad volunteering with animal rescues and non-profits in China, Thailand and South Africa. Another piece of advice I have for aspiring keepers is to be persistent, apply to everything you can and be willing to move for a job. Since everyone LOVES their jobs, and there are so few keeper positions out there, it is an extremely competitive field to get into. If you are able to move to a different state for a job, that can really help! That’s what I did after college, I accepted my first full-time keeper job at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas as an Animal Outreach keeper. I learned so much and loved my time there, but when a trainer position opened up in the Cat Ambassador Program at the Cincinnati Zoo, I knew I had to apply since that was my dream job. They hired me and I have been living the dream here ever since!
Zookeeping is a profession where every person has a passion for the animals in their care, and also for animals worldwide. Even from here in Cincinnati, we are able to build a better home for wildlife worldwide. What I love about my job is getting guests inspired through the cheetah encounters to make positive change. Once you see a cheetah run top speed right in front of you, that is something so unique and incredible to witness and brings people close enough to care about conservation. Zoos help to connect people to wildlife and in turn help conserve habitats worldwide. I come to work each day proud to work for the Cincinnati Zoo and inspired to do my best for my animals and the planet.
How did you become a zookeeper:
If you ever have a chance to speak with a Zookeeper, a similar question always comes up, “How did you become a Zookeeper?!”. The most common response is usually something along the lines of, “I’ve always loved animals!” or “I always knew I wanted to be a Zookeeper!”. Well, for myself, that wouldn’t be accurate. I mean, I always loved animals, but who doesn’t? Being a Zookeeper was never a thought I had. My journey began when I was 18 years old. I was a Freshman in college, at Northern Kentucky University, trying to decide what major I should declare as a Sophomore. I chose finance; might as well make money right! The classes didn’t appeal to me though, and all the jobs sounded boring (No offense Finance folks!). One afternoon, after classes were finished, some friends and I sat down to watch the movie Road Trip. For those who don’t know, it’s a comedy film full of physical comedy and what one might call, “crude” humor; definitely not one for the kids. But as luck would have it, one of the characters had a pet python and for whatever reason I was really intrigued! A few weeks later I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went out and got my first pet snake, a Royal Python named Samson.
Observing Samson was a lot of fun. I loved watching his tongue flick, witnessing an archaic instinct to strike and constrict his prey (even though it was a defrosted prey item) and wondering how an animal with no arms and no legs could climb, move, eat and just plain survive! I was hooked! I immediately applied for an internship in the Cincinnati Zoo’s Reptile House and in 2001 I was rewarded with the opportunity to work with some great keepers there! Mike and Herm continued to stoke the flames and my interest only grew! Afterwards I both interned and volunteered at the Newport Aquarium where I continued to grow my interest and even began appreciating and learning about the care of a broader base of organisms! Fish are pretty awesome too! In all, I put together 3 years of internships, volunteerships and at times limited part-time work with these institutions while earning my Bachelor’s Degree. Once I graduated, I applied for a job in Washington, DC at the National Aquarium and got it! I was a professional Herpetologist (the technical term for someone who works with/studies Reptiles and Amphibians)! This job would lead me to stints with the Mystic Aquarium, Maritime Aquarium, Bronx Zoo, Newport Aquarium and finally back HOME at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Reptile House. I’ve loved every minute of my work and can’t imagine doing anything else with my life!
Advice for the future generation of zoo keepers:
So you want to be a Zookeeper too? That’s great, our field is always looking for passionate, driven individuals who understand the demands of the job. But where do you start right? I would advise you to constantly do what you can to learn. Join local societies, like Herpetological/Ornithological/Ichthyological Societies to start networking and absorbing information. If you’re old enough, start volunteering anywhere you can to get some experience. Zoos and Aquariums probably come to your mind the first, but animal rescues, veterinary hospitals and even pet stores can provide opportunities for learning. Also, if you have the opportunity, I would highly encourage you to further your education. Zoological facilities are requiring four-year degrees more often now as the job expectations and responsibilities continue to grow. Exercise patience. It may take some time to find a job. There are a limited number of Zookeeper positions in the US and there are a lot of folks who want them! Patience and networking will help. And finally, be willing to relocate. I don’t know when I would have ended up with a position locally. I had to move in order to jump-start my career! And it was worth it. The places, people and animals I met or worked with along the way are memories I’ll carry forever!
Being a Zookeeper and working for a great Zoo like the Cincinnati Zoo is incredibly rewarding. We all pursue this profession because we have some sort of innate love of animals and the natural world. Unfortunately, degradation of both is rampant in our world and inspiring citizens, both young and old, to understand that and providing a route to take action is important! Crucial even! Zoos and Aquariums work together in a number of ways to promote conservation. I think it’s clear that caring for assurance colonies of threatened animals is a crucial component of conservation. But there’s more to it. Common goals are used to educate the public. How can you save anything if people aren’t aware!? They provide paths to take action. How can you take action if you don’t know how!? And by providing the highest level of animal care and welfare, folks can observe, and in some cases interact, with wildlife and see up close just how amazing they are! And I’ll let you in on a little secret…..They’re all amazing!
We’re not going to finish the job anytime soon, conservation is never-ending. Inspiring others to take action, especially the next generation, is maybe the most important component to continuing the work that Zoos and us Zookeepers donate our life to. And I promise you, it’s worth it. 🙂
Colleen Adams, Interpretive Zookeeper
How did you become a zookeeper:
I didn’t want to be a zookeeper when I was little– like many other keepers did. Not because I didn’t love animals more than anything in the world, but because I thought zookeepers were magical beings. I mean, I never saw them in real life and they must’ve been appointed by some unknown power or been pretty important people to get to have the coolest job on earth. I didn’t realize that then that zookeepers are ordinary people who just really, really love what they do, and work really, really hard. So, I decided I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. I started volunteering with animals when I was twelve, and never stopped.
Everything changed my senior year of high school while on a college visit to Malone University. I learned that Malone had a Zoo & Wildlife Biology program run by an amazing herpetologist, Dr. Chris Carmichael. I had lunch with Dr. C that day, and it was at that table, listening to his stories, that I realized that I could do the impossible one day. I could be a zookeeper.
I worked really hard during my years at MU and took every animal opportunity I could get. I worked several years as a paid keeper in the university’s serpentarium. This was a huge deal since most zoos require paid zookeeping experience in order to get a full time zookeeping job. I completed two exotic animal internships as well.
After graduating, I worked several temporary, seasonal, and part time zookeeping jobs—all with ambassador animals (think animals you meet around the park, see on stage, or visit classrooms). This was perfect because I knew since the beginning of my zookeeping journey that ambassador animals were the ones I wanted to work with full time one day.
I remember applying for the Cincinnati Zoo Interpretive Keeper position (one of the zoo’s ambassador animal teams) and thinking there was no way anyone was even going to look at my resume. But, an email turned into a phone interview, which turned into an all day in-person interview, which turned into a full time job. My dream come true. I have been a keeper in the Interpretive Department for the last 5 years, and still pinch myself from time to time.
On my zookeeping journey, I have learned a great deal. I have learned about myself, what it takes to become a zookeeper, what zookeeping entails day-to-day, and what a zookeeper’s role is conservation. That last part is what gives my role its greatest purpose. Everyday when I go to work, I am directly contributing to the conservation of countless species, and that is pretty amazing. Being an ambassador keeper means that the time I am not spending taking care of the animals, I am probably out with an animal, educating guests. Watching people make connections with wildlife—giddy laughs, jaw drops, squeals of delight, etc—is one of the best parts of my job. These connections spur on change, action, and a deeper respect for wildlife. Each animal encounter I do is like dropping a stone in a pond and having no idea how far the ripples will spread, but that they will indeed spread.
The journey to becoming a keeper has been long and I won’t lie about the job being extremely hard, but it is rewarding and amazing. I can’t imagine doing anything else. If you or someone you know is thinking of becoming a keeper, my advice to you is this: Run after every opportunity. Work hard. Take initiative. Don’t leave animal gaps on your resume. Stick with it and be patient. Don’t be afraid to move across the country. And do what you can to get your foot in the door. If you would’ve told seven year old Colleen with her stuffed animal zoo that she’d be a zookeeper one day, she probably would’ve called you crazy. But, here I am. I’m living my dream and fighting so that entire species live to see another day.