A Day in the Life of a Small Animal Zookeeper
Sue Woodgate is Zoo Manager at one of the UK’s busiest small zoos. Her advice to anyone who is genuinely interested in becoming a trainee zookeeper is to visit the zoo before attending interview! “If you’re applying to work in a zoo take time to find out about it first. Read the signs, asks questions, observe the animals, familiarise yourself with the layout.”
Websites are an invaluable resource for a lot of information; but they do not replace first-hand experience. Most of the trainees taken on at Drusillas Zoo are aged 18-19.
Sue says: “A science background is an advantage and if candidates have a zoology degree, that’s great. My personal opinion is that relevant qualifications are desirable, but not as important as practical animal-related work experience. That includes knowing how to use a broom!”Applicants should be able to work as part of a team and have the confidence to work alone.
A Typical DayNo two days are ever the same when working with animals, but the importance of regular routines cannot be over-emphasised.The day starts-with work boots-at 8am! Then, there is a staff meeting where scheduled veterinary treatment, events of the day and any news pertaining to the animals is discussed. Talks-that are to be given to the public-are allocated to relevant keepers. If it’s the trainee’s first day, he or she will have a full induction which includes: job description, protocols and procedures, health and safety and so on. New trainees are ‘buddied up’ with an experienced keeper for about 2 weeks to learn the routines and get a feel for the diets, behaviours and characters of the animals in their care.
“Trainees start work with the domestic animals: pet world, alpacas, llamas, donkeys, ponies, flamingos and so on. They learn about food preparation, how to clean the enclosures and ponds, how to bring livestock from the fields.”
By midday, some of the animals’ need a second feed and crucial mental stimulation is provided with the use of puzzle-feeders, some scatter feeding and general fun through environmental enrichment. These are not tricks! Natural behavioural patterns are encouraged through play.Each member of staff keeps an electronic diary. These are daily accounts of everything that happens in their section and include details of the animals’ health and behaviour.
Dangerous Wild AnimalsSection leaders are experienced keepers who specialise in certain areas. Apes and gibbons, for example, have specialised diets that their section leader plans and prepares for them. These keepers are also experts in the psychology of animals in their care and follow their instincts when dealing with them. These skills take years to develop.Trainees are not allowed, or expected, to work with potentially dangerous wild animals before they have the experience, confidence and skills to make this progression through pet world, penguins and otters, to complex social groups and individual alpha males. (Donkeys can bite, but there is a great deal of difference between receiving a painful nip from an animal in the ‘domestic’ zone to a possibly life-threatening attack from a dangerous wild animal.) Many zoo trainees find they have a certain affinity with a particular group of animals and concentrate on working with them, once they have gained general work experience with all types. This is how the section leaders start their careers and build their experience.
Monkey BusinessBe warned: working with animals (in the public eye especially) can cause embarrasment!“I was feeding the penguins and delivering a talk about them, when one that I’d hand-reared upended me into the penguin pool...I climbed out, soaked and spluttering, to a standing ovation from the crowds!”
“Other unscheduled events include: the time when a vet was towed away, at speed, by an uncooperative steer, and a keeper who was delivering his talk in all seriousness to a giggling audience-he was the only one who didn’t know he had monkey-poo on his head!”“The most painful one for me was during filming at the zoo. During a demonstration the parrot I was handling bit my finger really badly. I was bleeding profusely but had to carry on filming, so just tucked my hand behind my back. There was blood everywhere! As soon as the crew stopped filming, I let out the biggest cry of pain.”
If you’re still keen to become a trainee zookeeper, another tip from Sue is to practise your interview technique. 'Why should a zoo employ you above anyone else who has applied?'If you are committed and determined to be a zookeeper, you’ll be able to answer that...