University: More like Universal Struggle
Hello, and welcome to Part 1 of How to Zookeep: An FAQ Compilation. I would say that about half the questions this blog receives are about how to become a zookeeper, so I decided to put together some advice in an FAQ instead of trying to answer dozens of questions individually.
So, the time has come and you are looking at colleges and universities. Your goal is to become a zookeeper. So what school should you go to? What should you major in? How do you get through the process of applying and choosing without losing your mind?
Here comes my biggest piece of advice when choosing a university as a future zookeeper:
1. Avoid student debt as much as possible!
Y’all, zookeepers do not make bank. We are part of the non-profit sector and that is just how it goes. No matter how alluring that $40,000/year private school is, it’s gonna suck when you make less than 30 grand a year and have 80-100 grand in debt to pay off. There is no shame in going to a regular state school! Apply for every scholarship known to man and try to keep your debt to a minimum. Keep price points in mind when choosing your school!
2. Can I major in “Related Field”?
When looking at majors, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. A quick peek at the AZA Jobs list will give you an idea of the majors that are often looked for. The phrase seen most often is “biology, zoology, or related field.” Some of the most common majors included in “related field” include: Marine Biology, Life Science, Animal Behavior, Environmental Science, and Psychology (usually preferred more for positions involving primates and sometimes elephants, but not as common in other positions). Some of the “out of the box majors” include zoo or animal training specific ones found at specialty colleges (I’m getting there) or design-your-own major programs featured at schools around the country. (I myself have a self-designed interdisciplinary major.) If you’re still deciding on career options related to being a zookeeper or in the zoo field, it may be best to go for a general major like Biology. Just look for something you’re genuinely interested in that has a good program at your chosen school.
3. What about “Zookeeper College” or specialty programs?
There are a few standout ‘zoo colleges’ and specialty programs across the country. Two of these are two year programs that offer Associate’s Degrees: Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo and Moorpark College. There are also four year programs that offers Bachelor’s Degree: Captive Wildlife Care and Education degree program at Unity College and the Zoo Science at Delaware Valley College. These may or may not be right for you, depending on a few factors. The major disadvantage can be cost - some of these programs don’t offer or aren’t covered by many scholarships, so they can be a higher upfront cost.
These programs are definitely for more dedicated students who are set on becoming zookeepers. If you have any doubts or want other options, they may not be for you. Santa Fe College and Moorpark College are both very competitive and require some pre-requisite courses that can be taken in-house or at another community college. Special Note: Remember that these are 2 year Associate’s Degrees and most places require a 4 year degree. These schools are more of a supplement or “starter” because you will still need a bachelor’s degree!
Unity and Delaware Valley’s programs are more of a traditional 4-year degree, so they don’t have any pre-requisites. Moorpark College is more focused on training, animal shows, and the more public aspects of zookeeping. Santa Fe College is more technical and focuses on the behind-the-scenes aspects of zookeeping. Both colleges offer real-world experience as a keeper. But remember that you’ll be balancing keeper duties with a full class load, which can be pretty intense.
Unity College is a private, environmentally-focused college. It has a degree popular with many zookeepers - Captive Wildlife Care and Education. This program includes hands-on animal care as well as academics focused on overall aspects of both zookeeping and zoos as an institution. The final “capstone” project consists of creating your own zoo. Delaware Valley College is another environmentally-focused college that offers real-world experience and a science-focused view of zoos and zoo animals.
(Coincidentally, the four-year programs are both located in the Frigid North [Maine and Pennsylvania] and the two-year programs are in sunny Florida and southern California… So perhaps weather tolerance will weigh on your decision)
The question that’s been asked about all of these programs and degrees is: are they really an advantage? The short answer is: yes. All of these specialty programs give excellent real-world experience and can help kick start your career. These programs are basically giving the experience of one to two internships on top of regular schooling. These programs are recognized and respected in the zoo field, and can definitely stand out on a resume. If you are very serious about becoming a zookeeper and willing to go the extra mile in your education, all of these can be an excellent choice. (If you already have a degree in something else and you’re wondering about going back to school… that will be covered in another FAQ)
4. Study Hard, Intern Harder
No matter what college or major you pick, your time in school is an excellent opportunity for internships. A lot of internships prefer or even exclusively hire college students. College is also one of the best times to do an unpaid internship - you can often get class credit or apply for community/university programs that help give out stipends for them.
If you end up needing to go to a small state or community college, look for ones that are close to zoos so that you can do internships - having that experience will sometimes be more of an advantage than a degree from a ‘big name’ school. Some zoos might even be able work with you to create a volunteer project if their internships don’t fit with your schedule. You could also try to do job shadows. Overall it can be a lot easier to get help with your career goals while you’re still in school.
Internships in college are especially important if you’re not in a specialty school - they help close the experience gap and give you that hands-on experience you need on your resume to get seasonal and full-time keeper positions. If you ARE at a specialty school or in a specialty program, internships may not be necessary while you’re in school.
One day you’ll have your diploma and this will all just be the “education” section of your resume. Hang in there, future zookeepers!