Being a zookeeper is a great opportunity for a lifelong learning process. It’s a profession that requires continuing education every day. In general, people think that being a zookeeper is just a job where one gets to hug animals all day, but in reality, general work duties include feeding, cleaning enclosures, making enrichment items, observing and recording the behavior of animals, training the animals, educating zoo visitors and much more. Some zookeepers may work with more than one species of animal while others may specialize in a group of animals such as predators. Zookeepers spend a lot of time with the animals and always have to pay special attention to safety requirements, as there are always risks of bites or animal escapes. So as we can see, a zookeeper’s job is very responsible and complex which requires job specific and transversal competencies.These competencies and gained knowledge should be constantly updated.
Here are the 10 important things a zookeeper needs to know, based on the European Professional Zookeeper Qualification Framework (www.zookeepers.eu):
1. Professional Conduct
There is a saying – “Meet according to attire and part according to intellect”. This folk wisdom is valid in any workplace and in any situation, especially when you are working in a zoo where a large number of people come to observe animals. Appropriate attire, such as neat uniforms with the zoo logo helps form and upholds the professional image of the zoo. Zoo visitors can easily recognize zookeepers and ask them for information or assistance. In some zoos the employees don’t wear a uniform, which gives the impression that there is no staff at the zoo, thereby making zookeepers invisible to visitors. Apart from proper attire, appropriate workplace behavior should be mandatory, including respect for others and politeness. Perfect examples are the zookeepers at Chester Zoo. All zookeepers have uniforms with name cards and are all trained how to interact with visitors. They welcome the visitors and always follow the rule – “If the visitor asks – better to show, rather than tell”. Professional conduct helps a lot!
2. Communication Skills
Communication skills – if you are an “animal person” and you think that working in a zoo will give you freedom from people – you are seriously mistaken. A zookeeper needs to be very good in communications – you need to deal with your colleagues and supervisors, you need to deal with visitor inquiries and you need to educate yourself about your job constantly. Good communication skills are the basis of almost all professions. In the zoo world you need to speak English in order to effectively communicate with colleagues from other zoos and have the skills to read articles and books, thereby expanding your knowledge. There are limited positions in zoos, and who knows? Maybe one day you’ll find yourself working in a foreign zoo. If you have a good command of English – you’re lucky and you can spend more time developing yourself in other areas J
3. Characteristics of the Animal Kingdom
Zoos around the world are one of the most visited places where visitors can find out more about animals and they always ask questions. A wider understanding and knowledge about the characteristics of the Animal Kingdom becomes part of the zookeeper’s professional expertise. Zookeepers should know of all the taxonomic groups of animals kept in their respective zoos, including the various species held and their approximate numbers. Such knowledge helps not only to answer visitor’s questions but is also useful when needed to develop educational resources like zookeeper talks.
4. Reproductive Biology
Animal reproduction processes vary by species and zookeepers working with animals should know their reproductive biology in detail. This competence demands specific knowledge, extensive understanding and practical experience. This is necessary as sometimes reproduction is individually complicated or discoveries changing the management of breeding processes can become frequent, are important to recognize and challenging to apply. Without understanding the biology of reproduction, it is hard to imagine the daily work of zookeepers. It becomes even more important with endangered species and there is a definite need to educate society about them.
Nutrition – if you love animals, you know that feeding is one of the most important things you need to do. The basic knowledge about it is a must. Every day you need to follow specific rules of the feeding regimen and since not all zoos have a nutritionist, the zookeeper is sometimes responsible for designing the diets. To prepare a feed ration you need to know the nutrition facts and observe how it affects the animal. You are the one who can notice if an animal behaves well, has a healthy and shiny coat and whether its poop looks ok. A huge responsibility!
6. Animal Training
Animal training– How many times have you heard about enrichment? How many times did you need to explain it to the public? How many times have you heard about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? One of the most important aspects in animal husbandry is animal training. Zookeepers need to know the basics. If you know how to use positive reinforcement, it makes your work much easier. For example, via animal training you can check an animal’s health without using sedation. You create a bond between yourself and the animal which reduces stress and you know that you take care of its health not only physically but mentally as well.
7. Health Observations
Animals can’t speak a language that people understand and since zookeepers spend most of their time with animals, they are in the prime position to observe their health. Health observations should be done on daily basis and even the smallest changes of the animal’s health (e.g. decreased appetite, lethargy, etc.) should be reported to supervisors or a veterinarian and be recorded in a journal. Animal health observations are also very important for the professional zoo image, because visitors are expecting to see only happy and healthy animals.
8. Habitat Design
The other main and imperative competence which every zookeeper must gain is knowledge about the habitat design of the animals under their supervision. Aspects such as main components of animal enclosures, appropriate furnishings for the species that zookeepers works with regularly (e.g. rocks, suitable planting, substrate, etc.) or special considerations (needs of mixed species exhibits or climate) must be considered by zookeepers before the animal is accommodated. These mentioned aspects are crucial, because zookeepers are the voice of animals in the enclosure design process and must have a thorough understanding of animal welfare needs.
9. Conservation Role of Zoos
Conservation role of zoos – What are zoos for? It’s not possible to work effectively without knowing the mission of your institution. Zoos are great workplaces if you are a person who needs more from their job than just a salary. Knowing and believing in the mission that zoos globally take care of endangered species, makes your daily routine tasks all the easier. Even if you’re tired of cleaning the enclosure, simply knowing that your efforts will protect future populations provides the motivation to insure excellence in our work. When your zoo supports in-situ projects, you can always dream of going deep in the jungle to save, for example, the saola from extinction. Coming to work each day makes it all the more satisfying!
10. Conservation Education
Conservation education – Zookeepers needs to communicate with many people every day. Zookeepers are also educators, a very important responsibility at all zoos. The best way to communicate to visitors about the role of zoos and their importance, are keeper talks. You can instantly feel yourself being like an actor and play your role in really inspiring the public by what you say. It’s a huge responsibility to talk to the public not only about an individual animal, typically during feeding shows, but also about its importance for future populations. Visitors don’t usually know much about the efforts made by zoos to support wildlife and preventing their extinction. That’s why you need to emphasize in-situ conservation projects all the time. It really matters.
Photo by the project partners from Wroclaw Zoo
The 10 mentioned competencies are just a small part of what professional keepers need to know. The work of a zookeeper is complex, requiring a great deal of knowledge and practical skills. But how can one acquire these competences and what training opportunities are available for zookeepers across Europe?
Zookeeper training opportunities and zookeeper qualifications vary greatly across Europe. However in certain countries, such as the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands, there are educational institutions offering well-developed study programmes for future zookeepers. These training opportunities don’t exist in many other countries, zookeepers do not have access to specific academic training or professional qualification and can only receive training once employed. On-the-job training is essential even for zookeepers with university degrees. Without a clear framework for training, there is the risk of passing on outdated or inadequate information and skills to new zookeepers. This has resulted in a significant skills gap in professional zookeeping in many European countries.
In an effort to reduce this gap, ERASMUS+ has funded a project – “European Professional Zookeeper Qualification Framework (EPZQF). It was initiated by the EAZA Academy, in partnership with Sparsholt College (UK), Aeres Group (The Netherlands), Zoo Wroclaw (Poland), Zagreb Zoo (Croatia), Lithuanian Zoological Gardens (Lithuania), Chester Zoo (UK) and the Romanian Zoos and Aquaria Federation (Romania). The project began in November 2015 and the project team’s goal was to develop two key outputs: the Zookeeper Competency Framework and Educational Modules. The first version of the EPZQF was presented in September 2017, and can be found at www.zookeepers.eu. The framework will enable zookeepers and their employers to clearly understand what skills are required and identify areas for development. Three Educational Modules (Nutrition, Enclosure Design and Education Conservation) targeted towards delivering units from the framework, will appear in September 2018 and will be accessible to all zookeepers across Europe as a freely available resource.
Zookeepers, whether working in zoos or involved in animal management training, can contribute towards development of the Educational Modules. Testers are needed to evaluate the online modules! All you need is a phone, tablet or computer with internet access and some time to review the material. There will be several different versions available for you to test until August 2018. If you are interested, please sing up HERE.
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