The Next Generation of Zookeepers


September 19, 2022 • Cait Witherspoon • ECHO Digital, ECHO Digital

As the science behind animal welfare changes, the purpose of zoos and aquariums evolves, and societal norms and expectations shift, generations of animal care professionals have remained integral to the mission, operations, and future of zoos and aquariums. In this session, we heard from five voices representing the next generation of zookeepers:   

  • Payton Chatfield, Zoo and Conservation Science/Biology Major at Otterbein University, 2023 
  • Mara Eisenbarth, Elephant Care Professional, Reid Park Zoo
  • Taylor Horton, Wildlife Specialist, White Oak Conservation Center  
  • Julio C. Mendez, Recent Graduate in Zoo Science from Friends University 
  • Matt Vieth, Elephant Care Professional, Reid Park Zoo 

Key Takeaways

Being a Professional Zookeeper Takes a Lot of Privilege
Take a look at any job posting for an animal care professional position and you will most likely find that an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree is preferred.  However, the data released by the United States Census Bureau from the 2021 census revealed less than 50% of Americans currently hold a degree, with great disparities along racial lines. Zookeeping is a multi-faceted profession that requires specialized knowledge, compassion, and a steadfast commitment to the animals you care for – skills that are sometimes not part of degree programs. 

Along with educational requirements, sometimes getting your foot in the door can also be an expensive endeavor. Most internships are not paid and often require moving away from family housing and loved ones. Jobs, too, often require relocating away from support systems. Some zoos are now focusing their efforts on providing financial opportunities to lower-income families, hiring more local applicants for internships, and financial incentives for job seekers. As Zoos & Aquariums are leaning into more DEAIJ practices, it’s important that they realize that through these hiring preferences, they are consistently eliminating half the workforce from even applying – often weeding out outstanding talent.

It’s Time to Stop Legitimizing Passion Exploitation
In a paper published in 2019 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, research “across 7 studies and a meta-analysis… demonstrated that people deem poor worker treatment as more legitimate when workers are presumed to be ‘passionate’ about their work.” Being passionate about the work should no longer be used as justification for the lack of a living wage and overworking staff. Animal care professionals shouldn’t have to decide between leaving a career they’ve worked hard for and beginning a family or saving for retirement. It’s exciting to see that wages are beginning to increase, but wage compression is a real issue for long-term keepers.  

As the job of animal care professionals continues to get more stringent with increased welfare standards, documentation, research, and guest engagement – in addition to the physical tole – zoos should also be thinking about flexibility in the way they approach these positions. Not all keepers want to move into management roles, and that’s ok. However, we should still find ways for those staff members to grow, stay healthy, and pursue their personal goals for the long term. If consistency is key to animal welfare, we should be investing time and energy to eliminate the brain drain that we see when experienced keepers leave the field.  

Satisfaction is About People, Place, and Purpose
Just as much as Zoo & Aquarium professionals look at the institution itself when deciding to take a job, sometimes the people they work with and the social dynamics within their focus area, are what keep people long term.  Animal care professionals still move to work with the species they are passionate about and into organizations that invest in providing those species with appropriate facilities and groupings – from large, open-range habitats for hoofstock to dynamic environments with opportunities for sociality for great apes. However, being mindful of ways that we can allow job seekers to get to know their “work family” as well, whether it be through meet and greets with other department members during the hiring process, by harnessing the power of social media groups, or other methods is important.  

Zoos & Aquariums should also ask themselves – how are we delivering on promises made early in the interview process?  Conservation is always at the heart of what we do, but how does that pan out in practice? Green teams are a great way to help us focus on internal conservation issues like single-use plastics, clean water practices, and reducing our Carbon footprint. But, if we don’t have the ability to offer hands-on experiences in wildlife conservation, we should be providing the proper committees and opportunities for professional development that allow staff to feel they are walking the walk.  

Job Seekers Have a Chance to be Choosy
In the past, animal care professionals felt as though you had to take what you could get when you could get it. As the job market continues to rebound and employers are still struggling to find and retain staff, zookeepers finally have a choice in their job search. But what are they looking for and how can a Zoo or Aquariums stand out from the rest? Here are a few items gleaned from the conservation:  

  • Do you provide flexibility in work schedules to accommodate a work-life balance?  
  • Are you transparent about pay, benefits, and staff well-being?  
  • Do you use peer-based research to improve animal welfare? 
  • Do your animal managers get the training they need to succeed in leading people?  
  • Does senior staff interface with animal staff when making major decisions?