Training and Advancement for Curator Jobs at Zoos

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Many curators start off as zookeepers and work their way up the ranks. It would be extremely rare for a new college graduate to walk directly into a curation position. These days, the minimum requirement for a zookeeper is a bachelor's degree in a field related to zoo work. In addition to this, hands-on experience is usually required. Future curators often begin work as zookeepers and after many years of experience earned on the job and with demonstrated leadership qualities, they may move into supervisory or more administrative positions.

Because the number of qualified applicants for zookeeper positions far exceeds the number of openings, competition is keen. Those with their eyes on a future curator's job need to prepare themselves in every aspect of zoo-animal care and be prepared to start with cleaning cages or preparing meals.

Because zoos vary in size and the opportunities available, advancement might depend on relocating from one zoo to another.

Working in the field and staying in touch with colleagues through professional associations and conferences is the main way people learn about new curatorial job openings.


Zookeepers often begin at the bottom of the salary scale, usually in the high teens or low twenties. As they move up the ranks to positions of increasing responsibility, their salaries move up, too. Curators earn anywhere between $30,000 to $55,000 or $60,000, depending upon the facility's budget and the amount of experience and seniority curators have amassed.


Lion Country Safari, a private zoological park in West Palm Beach, Florida, offers visitors the chance to drive through 500 acres of natural wildlife preserve. More than 1,000 wild animals from all over the world roam freely including lions, giraffes, chimpanzees, bison, ostrich, antelope, elephants, rhinos, and many more. On the grounds there is also a petting zoo, a newborn nursery, paddleboats, and a campground.

Lion Country Safari's philosophy is to educate and entertain as well as provide a safe habitat where many endangered species may live and breed.

The Curator's Role at Lion Country Safari

There are two curators at Lion Country Safari, each responsible for different areas of the park as well as for the people who take care of those areas:

The Curator of the Preserve is responsible for the drive-through area of the park. This person manages the care of all the large antelope, lions, elephants, chimps, and others; organizes and schedules the keepers and makes sure that everything that is sup-posed to be accomplished in a day gets done; and works closely with the director (see the firsthand account of Lion Country Safari's wildlife director below) suggesting breeding plans and programs.

The Curator of the Nursery manages this area in the walkthrough section of the park. The curator is responsible for the nursery itself and also for the bird and primate exhibits, the reptile park, the petting zoo, and the hospital.

Curators at Lion Country Safari earn about $30,000 a year.


Terry Wolf, Wildlife Director, Lion Country Safari

Terry Wolf is the wildlife director at Lion Country Safari. He is responsible for all animal-oriented operations in the park including husbandry, diet, construction of exhibits, breeding programs, personnel training, and acquisitions of materials and feed. He super-vises twenty-five keepers, two curators, and an animal manager.


"I have always had a love for animals. When I was a kid I worked in poodle shops and pet shops. One of the first jobs I had was bathing dogs and taking care of them. I guess I could blame my mother for this. She got me involved in a lot of this when I was younger, especially working with dogs.

"I had a break in college and needed to find work, so I applied at Lion Country Safari and got a job in the maintenance department.

That was in 1970. I worked my way up the ranks through the entertainment end of it, taking care of the boat ride and other rides. But I always wanted to be a keeper, and, when an opening came about, I applied and was hired. I worked up through the ranks on that side and I was transferred to another park in Texas, owned by the same people, where I was made a manager. I stayed there for several years, but they went bankrupt in the seventies, so I went back to school and got my master's degree.

"I then came back to Lion Country Safari in the early eighties, and because there were no upper-level jobs open at the time, I took a temporary position working the elephant ride (which no longer exists). But within six months I was promoted to the wildlife director position."


"I enjoy working with the animals the most, but now a lot of my job involves people and management and safety concerns. I still have to work hard to keep my touch with the animals and to work with them. Most of us prefer to work with the animals, and we just put up with the other stuff.

"Right now, in addition to my other duties, I am directly responsible for the training of elephant keepers and chimp keepers. I am the only experienced person here in those two fields. I enjoy the chimps and the elephants the most. I work closely with them and find them to be some of the most intelligent animals on earth. The elephants have real personalities-they are real characters. And they live for such a long time.

"We are working on a new lion exhibit, too. The lions are kept in a building at night-it's the state law-but they stay out during the day. A keeper patrols the vicinity-we have zebra-striped trucks for him or her to ride around in-not only to keep an eye on the lions, but to make sure that people don't get out of their cars. The lions appear to be tame, but they are not. They behave here just as they would in the wild, letting cars come up close to them. If you were to get out of the car, though, they would feel intimidated and might attack.

"We work with the animals every day. Besides the lions, the elephants are moved into a barn at night and the giraffes and antelope go into holding pens. We have conditioned them to respond when we call them, to round them up so we can get a head count and check on them. We try to make them as comfortable as possible working with us.

"Any time you deal with life, you deal with death, and that's the downside to my work. Sometimes we lose an animal that we've known for a long time. You get pretty close to them and it's hard. Just recently we had to euthanize an old chimp I'd known since I started working in the park in 1970. He was about 55 years old and had severe arthritis in his spine. The pain was just tearing him down. It's tough to deal with."


"You need to stay in school. Education is becoming more and more important. The market is limited, there are limited keeper jobs available, and there is a lot of competition. All around the country the educational standards are being raised every year. Within ten years a master's degree will be needed to get anywhere. And to get into management, it's almost mandatory that you have a master's degree.

"Experience is always helpful, but it's harder now to get the experience without the education. There are places you can volunteer, such as wildlife conservation organizations, or you can get experience in other settings such as farms and ranches or veterinarian clinics. Those all help toward building your resume and at least getting an interview. Whenever we have an opening for an entry-level position - and Lion Country Safari, compared to a lot of other places, has a pretty small budget-we still get thirty or forty applications from around the country."
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