The Qualifications You'll Need to Choose a Career in the World of Zoos and Aquariums

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Man first domesticated wild animals during the Stone Age. The first real facilities for keeping these animals captive can be traced back to the twelfth century China. There it was common for the ruling classes to keep exotic animals in facilities near their pal-aces. There were also many zoological collections maintained in the ancient Middle East and Egypt; the most notable were those kept by Queen Hatshepsut and King Solomon of Egypt. In ancient Greece and Rome, collections of captive wild animals were also kept, although most of those were used for competitions. The Romans captured large African and Indian animals, many of which were used in gladiator sports.

Throughout history some well-known rulers, such as the eighth-century caliph of Baghdad, England's Henry I in the twelfth century, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the thirteenth, and the Aztec's Montezuma II in the sixteenth century, kept zoos and menageries for status and to satisfy their fascination with exotic animals.

The Renaissance in Europe marked a new flourishing of private menageries and zoos. During the 1700s several important zoos were built-in Vienna, in Madrid, in Paris - that still exist today. During the transition from monarchies to parliamentary types of government, the existing facilities were either abandoned or converted into public zoos. As a result of the French Revolution, the Jardin des Plantes in Paris became a model for the public zoo we have known in modern times.

The first aquarium opened its doors to the public in 1853 at Regent's Park in England. Where earlier aquariums once maintained numerous small tanks, each with an individual species of freshwater fish, today's facilities may have both freshwater and marine tanks, with capacities of up to one million gallons.

From these early beginnings zoos have gone through an evolution from hubs of entertainment to modern scientific institutions dedicated to education and conservation. With the human population increasing so rapidly since World War II and the destruction of natural habitats for animals that has gone along with it, the need for zoos has become a critical one. Every major zoo in the world has active educational and animal breeding programs. Their main goal is to provide centers for public education. The thrust of that education concerns nature and natural history and the preservation of breeding groups in danger of extinction in their native habitats.

With so many different kinds of zoos and aquariums and the varied job categories they support, how do you know which avenue would be right for you? Take a look at the details below. Find your interests and skills, then look across to identify career options. You'll see that many of the job titles combine more than one interest.


Required qualifications vary depending on the job. Although many employers prefer their applicants to have a bachelor's or higher degree in any number of fields, not all do. In some situations the following qualifications are more important: prior experience working with animals in zoos or similar settings, the ability to communicate with diverse groups of people, and good writing and research skills.

More and more these days, however, prior experience and a four-year degree are what employees seek-and because of the keen interest and competition for zoo and aquarium jobs, they have no trouble finding people with the right combination of qualifications.

The conservation and scientific programs in zoos and aquariums have become highly technical and specialized. Employers look for formal training in animal science, zoology, marine biology, conservation biology, wildlife management, and animal behavior. Typically, advanced degrees are required for curatorial, research, and conservation positions. But advanced academic credentials alone are often considered insufficient, and it may take many years of on-the-job training for someone to learn the hands-on practical aspects of exotic animal care. A few zoos and aquariums offer curatorial internships that are designed to provide practical experience.

Aquarium work is very attractive to many people, thus causing keen competition for all job seekers.

The job outlook is also negatively affected by expected slow growth in zoo capacity and low turnover.

However, this does not mean that the situation is hopeless. In the pages to come you will learn how other zoo and aquarium professionals got started, and through their firsthand expert advice you will find a few strategies on how you, too, can get your foot in the door.

Visitor Services Manager. The director or manager of the visitor services department supervises the staff and facilities that cater to the visiting public including concessions and rest rooms.

Volunteer Services

Docent/Tour Guide/Volunteer. Duties for these non paid staff members vary and can include diet preparation, small animal care, teaching educational programs, leading group tours, and staffing special events.

Volunteer Coordinator. The volunteer coordinator usually has a paid position and is responsible for recruiting and maintaining a staff of volunteers and docents (tour guides). Duties include scheduling docents for on- and off-grounds activities and keeping docents abreast of new developments to relate to the public.
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