Volunteering In Zoos and Aquariums

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Although formal, academic training is vital to your resume, hands-on experience is of equal importance. Not only does it provide a host of significant skills that will help you get your foot in the door for a paid position, it also allows the career explorer to make an informed decision about the suitability of zoo or aquarium work. A person who starts with a term of volunteer work, even before beginning a college program, will have a better idea of what career options zoos have to offer and whether these options are right for him or her.

Firsthand Account of Mary Hooper, a Volunteer

Mary Hooper plays three roles. She is a part-time college student, a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo, and a paid worker there as well. Currently, Mary is attending Phoenix College with plans to transfer to Arizona State University. "I am planning for a degree in zoology," Mary explains, "a long and winding road, and with that, I don't know where I'll go. Honestly, I want to take over for Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas, but they don't know that yet!

"My passion is for cats, so maybe I'll pursue something with the government, working on conservation and wildlife projects or as a trainer and educator. My short-term goal is to be a keeper at a zoo for experience and knowledge. My long-term goal? Not at a zoo! Zoo's are great for their breeding programs and education pro-grams, but I don't want to send my message through a zoo. It is really important to me to help people experience the wonders of nature, and if I can help preserve a fraction of it, I'll be happy."


Mary works as a birthday party coordinator in the PR department at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. She started working there in 1995 as a custodian, and she has been the birthday party coordinator since November of 1996.

"I hope to become an animal keeper within the next few years," Mary says, "but for now, I have my foot in the door. I work Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On the weekdays I am in an office returning phone calls, answering questions about birthday parties at the zoo, and scheduling parties. I handle all of the paper work and money involved. I make an order once a week for supplies for the parties, and I also take an end-of-month inventory.

"On Saturday and Sunday I host the birthday parties in the specific party area. There are time slots for four parties a day on each weekend day.

"I like the environment I work in the best. The zoo is a wonderful place to work as well as learn about the natural world. The thing I don't like is seeing people at the zoo who don't clean up after themselves and don't seem to appreciate the natural world.

"The zoo has much to offer to the public besides animals. We have people to do just about everything here! Since the zoo is not a government zoo, we try many things to get funds to operate. We offer activities such as summer camp, night camp, birthday parties and special events, weddings or picnics, for example.

"I handle everything that has to do with birthday parties. Many children love the zoo and jump at the chance to have their birthday parties there. The parties are held at a special ramada. At the ramada there are three exhibits in view, as well as a lake with many birds to watch. I like to educate the children and tell them what I know about the surrounding area and the zoo."


"I have volunteered at the zoo since September of 1995. I probably wouldn't have even thought of volunteering if I hadn't worked there already! I started as a volunteer keeper aide. I had to complete certain animal handling classes to qualify. Once I finished the classes, I began to volunteer.

"My duties as a keeper aide included general cleaning and feeding of the Education Department animals. These are animals that are used for education in the form of animal presentations, both on the grounds at the zoo and off grounds at schools and certain events. I helped the keeper with cleaning specific areas and preparing food and distributing food.

"That program was expanded and a new program began, which included all participating keepers throughout the whole zoo. The new program is called VAC (volunteer animal caregiver). I couldn't do both, so I became a VAC with more training and a test to qualify.

"In the first program I volunteered about sixteen hours a month, and with the new program, I volunteer about eight to twelve hours a month.

"In addition to the on-grounds volunteering that I do, I am also part of a zoo volunteer group called the AOT (animal observation team). The AOT participates in many activities. The one I am involved with goes mountain lion tracking four times a year. We work with a biologist who works with ranchers to determine how many cats are located in certain areas. And, of course, there are requirements to be met to participate, such as workshops and a test.

"I hope this volunteer experience and my job at the zoo in addition to my education will help me to reach my long-term goals."


"I do think it's important for people to know that everyone working at zoos doesn't necessarily start off in his or her desired area. I was a custodian much longer than I have been the birthday party coordinator. Start at the bottom if you have to. It's a great way to learn all aspects of a working facility."
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