In part 1, I wrote about the qualifications we look for in potential Zookeeper candidates. In this blog, I will share with you some of the challenges you can expect to encounter when you begin pursuing this career.Being a Zookeeper is a very physical job. You will be lifting, bending, twisting and on your feet many hours a day. Some of the lifting will be heavy: you may be part of a group carrying an anesthetized 500-pound-plus polar bear on a sling, picking up elephant poo or throwing heavy bales of hay to your animals. You will use muscles you didn't know you had.
Zookeeping can also be a very dusty and smelly job as well. People with allergies must be aware that they will be exposed to all kinds of animal dander and different kinds of hays and straw. To say that the job is odoriferous at times is an understatement. You will need to be prepared for odors you never knew existed.
You may potentially be exposed to zoonotic diseases -- diseases transmissible between humans and animals. If you wear the proper safety equipment and practice good hygiene, you will be fine, but zookeeper candidates must keep in mind that the possibility of contracting zoonotic diseases is a fact of life in the zoo profession.
Many people who want to work with animals sometimes downplay the need to care about "people." The animal care profession requires that you be able to work with both animals AND people. You will be working very closely with your fellow keepers, and it is important that you work as a team. People at different levels of animal management are involved in the daily care of zoo animals and keepers are an important part of that overall team and must work with the others. Another important people-oriented role of a zookeeper is to inform zoo visitors about the animals in his/her care. This type of work takes many forms, for example, scheduled Meet-the-Keeper sessions, media spots or just taking the time to answer questions during the work day. Your people skills are just as important as your animal skills.
Another fact of zoo life is that a zoo is a 365-day-a-year operation. When Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is closed to the public on December 25 and January 1, the animals still need to be cared for. Zookeeper candidates should therefore plan on being available to work weekends and holidays.
Some people think that animal keepers are able to go in with their animals and play with them. This is a dangerous thought. Although the vast majority of animals you will work with have been born in zoos, they are not tame or domesticated. Some animals can be very dangerous and animal keepers must remember and respect that all times. I find that one of the best parts of my profession is the relationship I am able to build with many of the animals I work with. However, I must always respect the animal's space and not cross established comfort boundaries.
This information is not meant to discourage you from pursuing a profession in animal care, but to present to you the reality of the zoo world and let you know what characteristics are the make-up of a good zookeeper. It is a fantastic way to make a living, and even after 32 years, I still can't believe how lucky I am to be able to do it.