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How do I Become an Animal Keeper?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Two things are required to become an animal keeper in most zoos, wildlife parks, and conservation centers: education and experience. Historically, many people who worked in such facilities worked their way from the ground up, learning with experience and eventually attaining senior positions. Today, most facilities need a bachelor's degree at a minimum from someone who wants to become an animal keeper, and they may also require specialized training from their keepers, also sometimes known as animal attendants and animal caretakers.

The stiffer qualification requirement for animal keepers is a reflection of changing norms in zookeeping and the conservation community. Such facilities were originally typically kept for entertainment, and while there was a desire to keep the animals alive to maintain profitability, facilities were less interested in breeding programs, and were often not concerned if animals failed to thrive in captivity. In modern times, most animal keepers are interested in conservation; they want to keep their charges happy and healthy so that they will live long lives and have a potential to breed.

Someone who knows that he or she wants to become an animal keeper should get animal experience as early as possible. In high school, working for a veterinarian, farrier, animal shelter, or a willing zoological park will give someone experience being around animals and handling animals. In college, a would-be animal keeper should focus on degrees such as zoology, behavioral science, and related fields. Some colleges and universities actually specifically offer animal keeping programs, which are highly competitive but offer excellent training.

While in college, someone in training to become an animal keeper should plan on continuing to work with animals to get diverse experience. Opportunities available for college students include things like summer fieldwork with people who work with and study wild animals. After graduation, a student can pursue additional training, or apply to zoological parks as a beginning keeper. Initially, she or he will work under the supervision of an experienced keeper, but eventually it will usually be possible to enter a more senior position.

Animal keeping is hard work. Someone who wants to become an animal keeper needs to be physically fit, willing to work at odd hours, and patient. The best animal keepers develop relationships with their charges and may stay with them for life. A keeper who knows an animal well can identify early signs of disease and unhappiness, and may also be involved in research, using daily experiences with animal charges to contribute to the body of knowledge on animal keeping.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By gravois — On May 01, 2012

I am a game keeper at a large zoo and I got my start right after college. I had a degree in biology but I got hired on at the zoo doing maintenance. I didn't even see the animals, I just cleaned up their cages when they were in other areas.

But slowly I worked my way up the ladder and I now have the most senior job that I can get without having a PhD in zoology. I doubt I will ever get one but that suits me fine. I love the job I have and now I actually get to work with the animals.

By backdraft — On Apr 30, 2012

@Ivan83 I agree with just about everything that you are saying except for one thing. I think it is actually really important for animal keepers not to think of their charges as humans. This is important for two reasons.

First, they really are not humans and it is always a mistake to anthropomorphize the behavior of animals. You have to think of each animal as the unique species that it is. That is the only way to provide the care that it really needs.

Second, anyone who takes car of animals has to make difficult choices about the way the animal feels and the conditions it is subjected to. And we, as a society, treat animals differently than humans. Be prepared to have to make hard choices because it is not all about cuteness and cuddliness.

By Ivan83 — On Apr 30, 2012

I think the most important quality for anyone that is looking to work with animals to have is a deep and genuine love for animals. You cannot simply be looking for a job, or be interested in animals as biological creatures. You have to love animals, be sentimental about them, care for them just like you would a human.

Unfortunately, I have seen people go into this line of work that did not share this same spirit. They were mostly looking for a paycheck. I will not say that they abused the animals, but the level of care was definitely not as high as what some other people provided.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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