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What Is Involved in Zookeeper Education?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Images By: Davitydave, Lisa F. Young
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Zookeeper education is usually based on fundamental knowledge of math and science, but in most cases continues to build even after years in the career. Working as a zookeeper is the kind of job that requires constant, hands-on education that expands and adapts to the surroundings. Most zookeepers start their education in high school, choosing challenging courses with a focus on life sciences such as biology. University education is not always required, but it is almost always recommended. Some on-the-job training courses are usually required, and most zookeepers find that they continue to learn even after having achieved seniority and years of experience in the position.

There are two main parts to general zookeeper education: book learning and on-the-job learning. The first is generally much easier to define. Zookeepers must enter the profession with substantial knowledge of science and basic math. No one can learn all that there is to know about tending animals from a textbook, though. Hands-on education is also a crucial component of most animal handlers' jobs.

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Some people who hope to enter animal care-centered careers look for hands-on experience from an internship or volunteer program. These sorts of experiences often allow participants to develop the skills that will lead to later job success. Students and volunteers are not usually able to do many tasks independently, and they may not actually get to interact with animals at all. Much of the value comes in observation: watching zoo workers perform their jobs, learning about the many things that go on behind the scenes, and understanding and appreciating all the many elements required for a zoo to function. To some employers, this sort of education and experience is more valuable than academic training.

Beginning zookeepers usually undergo extensive training and orientation programs hosted by their employers. Some of this is geared towards learning specific zoo protocol and requirements, but a lot is also designed to promote practical learning in a guided, structured setting. New animal handlers will get to practice their skills during orientations while learning about the zoo’s safety rules, regulations regarding animal contact, and feeding and general care basics.

Most professionals must also engage in some degree of continuing zookeeper education throughout their careers. Sometimes this comes in the form of organized seminars or lectures, but it can also be presented as more casual animal observation sessions, poster sessions at nearby universities, or conversations with differently trained colleagues. Participation in formal zookeeper education conferences is also common.

Not all zookeeper education is formal or even planned. Established professionals often find themselves constantly exposed to new angles of zookeeper education in the course of their daily jobs. These professionals must learn from the animals, as well as from their colleagues. Some of these tasks come naturally, like learning to identify trends and patterns among species or becoming accustomed to individual zoo animals’ personalities and preferences. Learning new techniques and trends is also important.

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