Working as Zoo Curators

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The curation department in most zoos is responsible for the acquisition of animals whether through breeding, trading with other institutions, or collecting from the wild. Equally important curatorial functions include the establishment of standards of animal care and housing and the supervision of animal-care personnel.

The general curator or director oversees the entire operation, with many zoos divided into specific departments, each with their own curator or department head.


Animal Acquisition

Almost all new zoo acquisitions are developed through breeding programs, either at the particular zoo or through other zoos with active breeding programs. Some animals are acquired from governmental agencies involved in conservation. Only a small percentage these days come directly from the wild.

If a zoo has a surplus of one particular species, these animals might be traded from one zoo to another.

Government bodies, both local and international, strictly control the acquisition of zoo animals. All animals crossing state lines or coming from other countries must have documentation showing that the various laws and regulations have not been violated at either the point of origin or the destination. In addition various government agencies rigorously inspect animal housing, transportation, and care.

Curators often act as a liaison with the various government agencies to ensure that all regulations are followed and that animals are transported with the utmost care.

Some curators are also involved with breeding activities for their particular zoo. The International Species Inventory System (ISIS) is a computerized registry providing detailed information about the holdings in more than 200 zoos throughout the world. Zoo curators consult these data to help develop sound programs for breeding animals in captivity.

Supervisory and Administrative Work

Most curators will tell you that the farther up the ladder they go, the less hands-on interaction they have with the animals. For those zoo professionals who enter the field because of their love for animals, this is a downside. However, while curators might not be involved with the day-to-day care of their charges, they are still involved, making sure that care is provided to the highest standard. This involvement is carried out through supervising a staff of animal caretakers and senior zookeepers.

To do this effectively, curators, in addition to their many skills working with animals, must have good people skills and communication skills.

To handle all their administrative responsibilities, curators must also be computer literate and be able to pay attention to the details of all the required documentation.


In addition to general administrative duties, most curators are placed in specialized departments in charge of, for example, reptiles or large animals, the aviary, or the zoo nursery.

Some curators work with horticulture and are responsible for the physical landscaping of the facilities; others are mainly involved in conservation projects, the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded animals, or research.

Generally speaking, successfully running a zoo depends on strong teamwork, and curators and other staff learn to work closely with colleagues in their own and other departments.


Carin Peterson, Animal Curator, Austin Zoo, Texas

Carin Peterson earned her B.A. in zoology in 1991 and is currently working on a master's degree in wildlife biology. She has attended seminars and has participated in veterinary technician training. She started working in the field in 1992.

"I have always been interested in research science and nature and especially animals, and I thought this would be a good way to combine all my interests. Basically, I saw an ad in the local news-paper looking for an animal caretaker. I came to the zoo for an interview and was hired on the spot. I started out as a zookeeper and worked my way up to the animal department supervisor. We are a small zoo, so the chances for advancement here probably happen quicker than they do at a larger institution.

"My job duties vary from day-to-day, although there are some things that always have to be done. My basic job description includes the following: maintaining the animal records, coordinating veterinary care and visits, advising on diets and husbandry, providing input on acquisitions and departures (sometimes coordinating them), and supervising and training the keeper staff.

"I also do the following: answer our e-mail, maintain our web-page, work with some basic animal training, and fill in for keeper staff when someone is absent.

'The animal training can be as complicated as teaching an animal an extensive series of behaviors ("tricks") or as simple as getting an animal to accept human presence without stress. In reality, however, this may not be that simple and may take as long to teach as training another animal to do a complicated behavior. We mostly train animals to be used in educational programs. This means getting them acclimated to a leash or harness or accepting human contact such as being handled and picked up without stress.

"The method of training we use is called operant conditioning (also known as bridge-target training), which uses positive reinforcement to shape desired behaviors. There are many people who have extensive experience with this type of training, both in the domestic and exotic animal worlds. We had seminars taught by these specialists in-house. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) and the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) can provide more information.

"Usually my day is pretty relaxed, but that can change in an instant. There can be a lot of stress involved, especially if there is a complicated veterinary procedure to be done or an animal is sick or pregnant, if the weather is bad, or if there are deadlines to be met-just like anywhere else.

'This job is almost always interesting, though, and there's almost always something else to find out about an individual animal or group of animals. I usually work full-time (forty hours) but often stay late or come in early or on my days off to help out. The work atmosphere for the most part is pretty relaxed. Most everyone here really enjoys what they are doing and are self-motivated, so we have a pretty good team.

"What I like most is observing and learning about animals, discovering what their likes and dislikes are and what makes them thrive. I also enjoy helping to provide the public with an enjoyable and informative setting that lends to their appreciation and respect for animals. I would have to say that the hardest aspect of this job is losing an animal. We are a small zoo and we know our animals pretty well, so it's never easy. Also, we are in Texas, so the summers can be extremely hot and dry and not at all pleasant. I also do not like it when certain members of the public feel the need to torment our animals."


"Education and experience are both important. Most zoos today want at least two years of college focusing on classes in the natural sciences. If you can't get paid experience, volunteer or intern, if possible. Anywhere working with animals is helpful, but exotics have special needs, so experience with them is a plus. Be well-rounded. Zoo employees need skills such as working with and talking to the public, computer literacy, time management, and handling basic tools, not just animal experience.

"Also, join professional organizations such as the American Association of Zookeepers or the American Zoo and Aquarium Association to know what is happening in the field."
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