How to Zookeep: Job Interview Basics
So I was tagged by @why-animals-do-the-thing in a post about what not to say in a job interview. It’s a bit overdue, but I figured this was a good opportunity to continue some of “How to Zookeep” and give y’all some insight on interviews. I’ve actually conducted quite a lot of interviews for an entry-level position. Here are just a few Do’s and Don’ts…
General Maybe Do’s:
- Wear an outfit that looks pretty nice, but don’t go too formal. You should be able to get muddy or hop a fence - just in case. Most of the time you’ll know if it’s a true working interview, but some interviews will involve a tour, meeting an animal, or other situations where you might get messy.
- Show that you’ve researched the facility and the position. This is especially true for phone interviews or if you’re not from the area. If you’ve ever visited the facility, mention that. Mention specific parts of the job description and why you’re interested or why you would excel at it. I know I always make a good note if candidates reference something on our website or from the job description because it lets me know they’ve done their homework. (One time a candidate quoted something verbatim and it was a little jarring only because I wrote that part of the website and it was strange to hear someone quote me).
- If at all possible, have specific examples from your past experiences that you can talk about. These could be examples of training, working well with others, strengths & weaknesses, general animal care, etc. Try to be able to tell a story about when you worked around a training difficulty or resolved an issue with a coworker. And yes, have a real answer for “strengths and weaknesses”.
- Try to use the most ‘updated’ zoo language you can. Zoo terminology changes so fast it’s hard to keep up. Try to use some of the research (website and job description) to see what kind of language this particular facility uses and attempt to mirror it. Examples are “in human care” instead of captivity or “habitat / enclosure” instead of cage/exhibit. It’s just a bonus way to make a good impression.
General Maybe Don’ts:
- Don’t get political. This is what @why-animals-do-the-thing was asked about - mentioning animal rights activist groups in the interview. Unless you are completely sure that it is specifically relevant to the position try not to get into any heavy areas of debate, any controversial news stories (think Harambe), or politically charged organizations like PETA, HSUS, etc. And even though you might think that everyone in the zoo world agrees that US politics are terrible for zoos/the environment or something along those lines, a job interview is not the time to mention it.
- Don’t ask for tips about a specific facility on a public forum. It’s important to do research, but this one crosses a bit of a professional line. I would advise against going on any public forum (like the facebook groups You Know You’re a Zookeeper When and Zookreepers) and asking for interview advice about a certain facility. Most people won’t want to comment publicly about their facility as it can be seen as unprofessional and a lot of their coworkers will see it. Most of the time the research you need can be done on the website and with some googling, but if you feel you just need to talk to someone who works there, try flexing your networking muscle a bit.
- Don’t say you love animals. This sounds contradictory but hear me out here - this job is about much more than loving animals. A lot of interviewers are used to hearing this answer or seeing it in cover letters of people who think that liking animals is all you have to do for a job. Yes, you love animals, we know that. But what do you love about working with them? Do you like enrichment, exhibit design, training? What do you love about the career of zookeeper / aquarist / etc? It’s important to go beyond the surface of just wanting to be around animals and go into the details of how you will improve their lives when you literally have their lives in your hands. I’ve heard from a lot of interviewers that they’re tired of hearing about ‘passion’, they want to hear about action. They want to hear about cleaning, hard work, the real nitty-gritty of the job. This don’t also leads to a general tip (what if you don’t have examples of what you like yet?)
Here’s a common problem: you’re applying for your first entry-level position and you don’t have any animal experience yet. What do you talk about? Here’s some ideas:
- Academic research or fieldwork - did you go on birding trips? Did you do mist-netting? Have you worked in a lab that uses live animals? Those things can be beginner animal experience.
- Volunteering - zoos, vet clinics, etc.
- Formal domestic animal experience - even if it’s not with exotic animals, the basics of caring for small domestics (cats, dogs, rodents, fish, etc.) in a formal setting (vet, pet store, rescue) has some aspects that apply in zoos, such as restraint and medical care.
- Personal pets (very carefully) - It’s not that personal pet experience isn’t helpful when you’re just starting out, but sometimes newer keepers come in with an idea that their pet experience is on the same level as caring for animals in a formal career setting. It is not. Caring for your own animal in your own home is VERY different from caring for it in a zoo, aquarium, vet’s office, etc. In a formal setting, there are legal guidelines to follow, teams of people to communicate with about animal care, and lots of formality/red tape that doesn’t exist in a home setting. Pets can be useful as examples in interviews if it is relevant (medicating, enrichment, restraint) but they are almost never seen as an actual qualification. Side note, please don’t list personal pet care on a resume.
Overall in an interview, you want to try to be as collected and confident as possible. BUT if you get nervous and you’re really struggling, just tell us! It’s better to just laugh a bit and say sorry, I’m nervous, than to completely freeze up. I have done plenty of interviews where the person is nervous and that’s okay. I’ve hired people who were nervous or misspoke in their interview.
If you have any other questions, feel free to drop me a line. I’ve interviewed and hired people for just three years now, so I may not be particularly seasoned, but I can lend a little of my expertise.