Ask any zoo or aquarium professional the best way to get your foot in the door and they will tell you that being on-site and hearing about openings firsthand is the way to go. How can you be in the right place at the right time? Volunteer.
Many professionals who have worked their way up the ladder to positions with varying levels of responsibility, started as a volunteer or student intern. When an entry-level position opened up, they jumped at the chance to prove themselves. Hard work, enthusiasm, and dedication will not go unnoticed.
THE QUALIFICATIONS YOU'LL NEED
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.
THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS
Zoos run the gamut, from the traditional city-based facilities that allow visitors close-up views of exhibits, to theme parks spread over several acres and housing a variety of species together. Other open-air exhibits might focus on displaying only one or two species.
Often the facility's name alone will give you an idea of the type of animals displayed. Here is just a small sampling: Parrot Jungle, Monkey Jungle, Lion Country Safari, Sea World, and Butterfly World.
There are many notable zoos and aquariums throughout the world. Some of these are: Taronga Park in Sydney, Australia; Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna; Antwerp Zoo; Metro Toronto Zoo; Copenhagen Zoo; Tiergarden Park in East Berlin and BERLIN ZOO in West Berlin; the London Zoo; Ueno and Tama zoos in Tokyo; the Amsterdam Zoo; and the Basel and Zurich zoos.
In the United States the following are counted among the top facilities: the New York Zoological Garden (the Bronx Zoo); Philadelphia Zoological Garden; Metrozoo in Miami; San Diego Zoological Garden and the San Diego Wild Animal Park; the Chicago Zoological Park; the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson; the Los Angeles Zoo; Milwaukee Zoological Park; the St. Louis Zoo; and the United States National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Within this book many job titles are examined and many first-hand accounts are provided by professionals in the field. These professionals work in a variety of settings including:
Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans
Audubon Zoological Garden, New Orleans
Austin Zoo, Austin, Texas
Detroit Zoological Institute, Royal Oak, Michigan
La Guardar Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center,
Webster, Florida Lion Country Safari, West Palm Beach, Florida Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles Metrozoo, Miami New England Aquarium, Boston Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix Washington Park Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Salaries vary widely from position to position, but are generally low, as are most pay scales for education-related fields. Factors such as the source of funding or the region of the country determine salary levels more so than the complexity of the job or the level of the candidates' education and experience. Institutions located in metropolitan areas generally offer higher salaries than those located in smaller cities or towns.
Some jobs pay only hourly wages, others follow the federal government's GS scale. A tour guide might volunteer his or her time or earn $6 to $10 an hour. An animal keeper's salary can range from minimum wage to more than $30,000 a year, depending on skills and the amount of time put in at a particular institution. An assistant curator could earn from $25,000 to $30,000 a year, a trainer or veterinarian in a zoo setting from $30,000 to $40,000 or more.
Most jobs provide benefits such as health insurance. But all those interviewed stressed that financial rewards were not the main reason - or even a consideration in pursuing their chosen professions. The low pay is far outweighed by the satisfaction of doing work they love.