There are many qualities that make someone good at their job. A certain skillset and a keen interest help. Having the ability to say you love what you do is very rare and makes us very fortunate. We can all agree that working in a zoo as a keeper is a special type of lifestyle. This career is definitely not a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday kind of job. Zookeepers are devoted to the animals they care for, they work day and night, any day of the week, even on holidays, or during a pandemic if necessary, to ensure the highest standard of care for the animals they look after. Zoos often have a mission or vision for the future – to protect species through educating public and connecting them with wildlife and the importance of conserving their natural habitat or some variation. There are many qualities that make an exceptional zookeeper but we’ve come up with six that we think are at the core of any good zookeeper.
1. A Zookeeper is a Trained Animal Caretaker
Before they even start their career many zookeepers study and obtain degrees in Zoology, Wildlife Biology, Animal Behaviour, or Animal Welfare etc.
Some of us take a different route, studying and learning while on the job. The passion we all share is the same and often people looking to break into the industry ask whether experience or education is preferred.
For a lot of us the right attitude, willingness to work hard and know how to use a broom/rake correctly (you’d be surprised!) and an endless enthusiasm for the job is what we look for. Everyone started at the beginning, those who grow and change with the industry move on to be successful, well respected zookeepers. They ask questions, they research their species natural history, they observe behaviour, they connect with other keepers, they share ideas, they keep learning and they do it all for the animals.
2: A Zookeeper is a Researcher
Many of us or our zoos are connected to foundations, research centers, scientific projects or even universities that conduct the research together with the keepers. Zookeepers help scientist to get baseline data for the wild counterparts. This gives the scientists a foundation to work from. Some research can only be done in zoological facilities. This is where zookeepers are an important asset to peer review articles and studies. A zookeeper is an important link in the research of the animals they care for.
3: A Zookeeper is a Behaviourist
Zookeepers are skilled in many aspects of animal behaviour. They have to understand complex social dynamics, ever changing hierarchies, body language and social cues. They have to understand species typical and species appropriate behaviours. They need to know what normal behaviour is for each species but also for each individual in their care, sometimes this is hundreds of animals. They need to identify and work to change abnormal behaviours through training and enrichment. A great zookeeper has a strong understanding of behaviour modification or at least a willingness to learn. They train their animals for many different behaviours but all will increase the welfare of the animals. They train for the animals benefit not their own. They understand animal training is a science and with the techniques Thorndike, Pavlov and Skinner discovered we can work together with our animals to give them the best possible care. There are many reasons a zookeeper trains their animals:
- Improved Husbandry
- Medical Care
- Increased Activity
- Behaviour Interventions
- Visitor Interaction
- Health and Safety
- Support Conservation Programmes
They must all have one thing in common: to provide a net welfare benefit to the animal.
We are observant, sensitive and dedicated. As many of us have seen the memes/blogs depicting personality traits different keepers have based on the animals they work with.
4. A Zookeeper is a Nutritionist
Each animal a zookeeper cares for has their own dietary and nutritional requirements. Each species will have a diet sheet, with a list of appropriate food stuffs. Captive animals can’t always be guaranteed to have their wild diet replicated as some animals are highly specialised feeders or it would be impractical or in some cases illegal to feed the animals what they would consume in their natural habitats. But that doesn’t stop us! Many collections use Zootrition, organic produce, microgreens or opt for a fruit free diet, matching the nutritional content rather than the types of food their wild counterparts eat.
Zookeepers also do their best to replicate the way in which animals feed. Contrafreeloading, enrichment, staggering feeds throughout the day are all techniques keepers use to ensure their animals behavioural and nutritional needs are met.
It’s been said before and we will say it again, our animals eat better than us and so they should!
Apart from ensuring a well balanced diet a zookeeper needs to know a lot about the nutritional intake of the species they work with. The zookeeper observes what is being eaten and in what quantity, they make documents about what the nutritional values are and how we can give the right amount of vitamins, mineral, fats, kcal to our animals.
They look up what values there are in grass and leaf types and find ways to get each individual the nutrition and diets they need. They also know what foods are high in cholesterol, potentially toxic and that there are differences between individuals and species.
5. A Zookeeper Never Stops Learning
A zookeeper never stops learning, learning from colleagues, mentors, learning from our animals and many of us are a member of organisations or Facebook groups covering topics we find useful or interesting. This helps to get better in what we do. We share stories with each other, not only because it’s fun but mainly to connect and learn from each other. A zookeeper is constantly searching for better ways to care for their animals. Zookeepers need to keep themselves up to date with every aspect of captive animal management, understanding these topics and keeping up to date with the latest information allows us to have an effect on the wellbeing of the species we work with.
6. A Zookeepers is a Conservationist
A zookeeper has a massive impact on the conservation of the natural world. Whether you’re involved in breed for release programmes, wildlife rehab or are helping to save a native species through surveying and habitat restoration. Presenting a demonstration or keeper talk to hundreds or thousands of visitors or just having a one to one conversation about a particular species. Making people connect and care about wildlife could be the difference between life and death.
Many zoos and keepers support international conservation projects in many countries around the world. They connect with organisations who conduct research and protection for the animals we care for.
For those of you reading this, maybe you aren’t a zookeeper, maybe you know one or are an aspiring zookeeper, hopefully this gives you a small insight into what it is like and what a dedicated, passionate, devoted, knowledgeable and mindful teacher a zookeeper is. We can’t forget how important the modern zookeeper is, it is because of zoos and zookeepers we know more about animals, the natural world and all other environmental challenges we are facing in the world! To all my fellow zookeepers you rock!
Do you have any questions about this topic? Let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at email@example.com or visit our website zoospensefull.com