We get this question alot. We can have up to 100 or more applications for every zookeeper opening here at our locations. As a result, it is important to know how to separate yourself from the other applicants. Although there are many things considered, it usually comes down to two basics – experience and education.
Experience: This is often the deciding factor. But how do you get experience if you have none? The answer is quite easy – volunteer. Volunteer at the Zoo near you. That is by far the best thing you can do. If there isn't a zoo nearby, then volunteer at a veterinary clinic, animal shelter, humane society, etc. Your basic goal is twofold. You want to acquire experience working directly with a variety of animals, and you are establishing yourself a record with someone who can then vouch that you are a hard worker, that shows up on time, follows directions well, works well with others, etc. Historically, a lot of zoo keepers came from the farm. They literally grew-up taking care of animals. Now that we are less of an Agrarian Society there are more positions open to people with a variety of animal experiences. Unfortunately, in most cases, just keeping pets does not provide the needed appropriate experience.
Many people enter the zoo world through the entry-level position of animal keeper, and it is a pivotal job in the Zoo. Zoo keepers are the first line of defense against potential health and injury problems. In captivity many of our charges do not show signs of disease or illness until it is too late to treat effectively. A good keeper gets to know their animals so well that they recognize the subtle signs of illness a specimen may be hiding. This allows the veterinary staff to treat the specimen in a timely fashion.
Education: Although the only specific education requirement with most zoo's is a High School education, it is often the college degree that gets you that closer look. Although a degree in Zoology or Animal Science would be nice, a bachelor in one of the other life sciences will do just fine. Although not a requirement, there is a small handful of keeper training programs related to institutions of higher learning.
Being a zoo keeper means commitment to your animals, to the Zoo, and to public education. It involves long hours and hard work and over 95% of the time it isn't really that glamorous. But if you enjoy animals, want to work with species that few people ever get to see close-up, and want to be there for those occasional moments where you have direct impact on an endangered species or succeed in a special breeding or birth, then you will find the job very rewarding. A good place to learn more about zoo keepers is the web site for the American Association of Zookeepers at www.aazk.org.
There is also a book that you may find very helpful, Opportunities In Zoo Careers by Blythe Camenson may be helpful. It tells about a variety of different careers like keeper, curator, behaviorists, vet staff and wildlife rehabilitation.