How much money do you suppose a zookeeper makes? Wrong it's way less than that. The average around the country is about $11.88 an hour according to ZipRecruiter. Starting salaries for some positions can be around $25,000 a year, although that goes up depending on your level of education and experience. Then there's this dispiriting bit of tough talk from the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute careers FAQ:
It's one of the most-asked questions here at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute: How can I work in a zoo?
Since most of these jobs are popular, there are often more applicants than positions. You should expect strong competition and salaries considered low relative to the level of education necessary to perform them. And these jobs aren't easy. Caring for animals can require around-the-clock attention in some settings.
That all tracks with what our interview subject here today explained about their job as a zookeeper at a fairly large zoo in the south. A job that, sadly, they were just let go from. Nonetheless I wanted to learn a little more about what it's like working in a zoo so we talked about it.
After the interview paid subscribers only can read an excerpt of a story from my forthcoming collection A Creature Wanting Form that just so happens to be set in a zoo.
What exactly is a zookeeper? I can probably guess, but what do you actually do?
Because it's such a whimsical concept right? Like when you're a kid this is what you want to be, and I think even if you tell adults you're a zookeeper there's like a magical concept of what it is. Just like a land of animals, you know?
I’m picturing a Richard Scarry book.
Yeah, I think people imagine the zookeeping world like you’re frolicking with the animals like Dr. Dolittle shit. You're cuddling baby tigers. The real truth of zookeeping is it’s a very labor intensive job. It's essentially the same kind of work you might be expected to do at a doggy daycare or maybe as a vet tech for domesticated pets, but it's these animals, you know, that most people don't get to see every day. So you're scrubbing poop, you're chopping vegetables, you're like, this animal looks sick, and then you notify the vet about it. You're giving the animals enrichment. Depending on the animal that can just be like throwing worms on the ground for birds, or for an elephant it might be something more complex, like you take a thing of hay and put it on a crane because the elephant has to reach to get the hay, which is what they would do in the wild.
So it's all this stuff. But the pay is absolute garbage. I have a friend who used to work at the Dallas Zoo who got paid $11 an hour. I think the highest person I know in my department makes $19 an hour. Everyone else higher up is salaried. But on the other hand it's also an incredibly hard job to get into because it's super competitive, because, again, it's like, wow, a zookeeper! What a magical thing!
That means that zoos have the privilege of being able to demand a lot. They usually demand a degree, sometimes even a master’s. And they also often demand internships that are usually unpaid. If you go to a zoo, take a look at the zookeepers, and look at the people actually working with animals, and see how many you can find who are not white. Because it's one thing to go and get a bachelor’s, it's another to take on, sometimes, multiple unpaid internships. And also usually your first paying job is not going to be a permanent position. I started out part time. I know a lot of people who took on seasonal jobs and they were just working the job until another keeper got back from maternity leave.
In terms of a degree do you mean just like a college degree in general? Do you have to study in a specific field, an animal-related science field or whatever?
They definitely want more animal-related science stuff. I'm not saying it's impossible to get a job as a zookeeper if your degree is in like music theory, but most people in this field are getting degrees in biology, zoology, or ecology, because of the big push in the past twenty years for animal welfare. A lot of people actually get their degrees in psychology, because so much of what you're doing is working with behavior, how to get animals to do certain behaviors in a way that isn’t stressful or dangerous for you or the animal.
But is there a level where it's like sort of a prestigious job where you're well compensated? Is there a sort of climbing the ladder type of thing?
It tends to be hourly. At least in my department. Leads and supervisors were salaried. But that mostly is just a way to avoid paying overtime to the keepers. So if they were short staffed they can just get a salaried person to come on in instead.
In terms of prestigiousness… that’s sort of the thing. A lot of people who are leads and stuff are usually in their forties. My older senior curator was in his sixties, and that was incredibly rare to see someone that old in the zoo field because, again, it's a job that doesn't pay very well, and it's also a very physically demanding job. Usually your body gives out, and by the time you're in your forties you're entering into management or a more paperwork type of job, documenting all the animals at the zoo, who's coming in, who's going out, who died, who was born here.
A lot of people just leave the field entirely. I've been working at this zoo for three and a half years, and the majority of zookeepers I know who left didn't go to other zoos. They would leave the field completely. You'd see keepers going to do like IT work and stuff.
So it's the type of job, like a lot of fields, where they're counting on leveraging “your passion for animals”?
Yes. The passion exploitation. Absolutely. Because it's one thing to get the job, but then people might be living way, way, way outside of where the zoo is based, living in a multiple roommates kind of situation, taking long commutes. I had a co-worker who was driving a car with an expired registration because she couldn't afford to get the car repaired. That's a really common story. It’s almost like a running joke for the job. People are always like “haha, I'm poor.” But everyone kind of is. They don't really want to pay us any more because it's like, ok, go ahead, go ahead and leave. There's a line out the door [waiting to replace you.]
We're in a right-to-work state, but I talked to a previous co-worker, not too seriously, about the idea of unionizing. It boiled down to I don't think it's something a zoo could ever do. Because even if we had a majority of keepers who said, ok, we are striking, they can just literally pull everyone working the concession stands, and admissions and so on to do this stuff instead. And people are so, so happy to jump in, because this idea of working with animals is just perceived as this pride and privilege.
What kind of zoo is it?
It’s a relatively good zoo and has a good reputation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. A lot of the problems that I faced and experienced in this job a lot of zoos also face. I was in the education department for three years. Essentially they only had part time positions, and they didn't really have a desire to increase that to something full time, so we had a revolving door of people. We had good people who left and people who came on who were like almost comically incompetent and never left because they liked the job. But what they would do is they would keep everyone at thirty hours and cut their hours if they accidentally went up a little bit with no real room for advancement or promotion.
I'm actually very lucky I even got to zookeeper at all, just because it's so hard to get in. I think I had that gumption, you know, like, you come in, you'll start selling tickets, and then you’ll be a zookeeper any day. And that's not how it works. Because if you're working at the retail shop, or you're working as a janitor, guess what? Those are owned by third party vendors, so there’s no way to advance.
That's always a nice trick that a lot of businesses do. You literally work there, but you don't technically work there, you work for some other fucking guy, and your issues are not, for example, the zoo management’s problem.
Yeah. The retail shop used to be part of the zoo and about two years ago they just suddenly were like you're all third party vendors now.
I love how that works. One simple trick to exploit labor. Workers hate it.
You get people all the time who just get burned out or sometimes even bullied out, because it's also a very catty place. And once they turn on you it's really kind of hard to fix that. Basically, it's a small group of people, and you're working this very high stress, highly tense job. Not everyone has the emotional maturity to be like, ok, we’ve got to put aside our differences because there’s a tiger we have to go work with here right now.
No one I met when I first started is there anymore. I find that fascinating, because I feel like if I ran a job where people were just leaving all the time, I'd be like, wait, what's going on? But they never do because they think they’ll always have a line of people waiting.
Aside from the bad labor issues I still am kind of fascinated by what it's like to work with animals! What animals did you mostly deal with?
I was in the bird department, which would have never been my first pick, honestly. I had interned with the bird team though and they said you can basically do a lot of the hands-on work when you're an intern there. Obviously they don't want you doing anything too complicated or working with animals that are too dangerous when you’re starting out. There's only a handful of birds in our department that are “protected contact.” So I thought at the time it'd be a really good learning experience. We have a really good variety of birds. That was something I did enjoy. I love talking to people about this kind of stuff. I think we think of birds as being very simplistic, but they're really complex. Birds have a larger number of genus than mammals do. And there was something very rewarding about educating people when I would do keeper talks. There’s this one species of bird called a Hornbill….It's hard to explain these birds. They look like the worst parts of a turkey and a toucan put together. They look like Satan birds but I love them. Some guests would come by and say “Where are your real animals?” They want to see what we call them in the zoo world, “the charismatic megafauna,” the elephants and the gorillas, but I always found a lot of joy in getting people to care about these birds that I think people don't usually go to the zoo to see if that makes sense.
What do people who come to zoos tend to be like in general?
I'd say the negative people were people who hardly ever went to a zoo before. They were at the zoo because it was a holiday or their family was in town. They expected the zoos to be like they were in the 1950s, and they'd be mad if you told them not to tap the glass, or got angry if you said they couldn't throw their popcorn at the elephants or whatever. They thought of zoos like spectacles. But that's sort of the interesting thing about zoos, which is that they've really changed going into the 21st century. Most reputable zoos view themselves now more as places of education. Everything now is positive reinforcement training based. There's what we call a protected contact, which means you're not getting in with an animal that can kill you. So if you see a zookeeper working with an elephant, there's going to be a barrier between them, which is better for both parties. But people don't understand that. They still want to ride an elephant and stuff.
Well me too but I understand…
You also had a lot of people where I don't know what they were even doing at the zoo. People who don't understand zoos in the sense that their idea of a zoo is just Tiger King. They think they’re all animals who're starving, who were stolen from the wild as a baby. And obviously there's a lot of flaws with zoos and stuff, but there is also a lot of conservation work going on. The zoo I was at was breeding this little species of bird called a Bali myna. There's only about one hundred of them left in the wild. So that was sort of a neat little thing to be a part of.
I've been to a few zoos in my life, and maybe it was just the ones that I've been to, but I often found them kind of depressing in a way. Like it's animal jail. Is that something that zoos now are conscious of and are trying to sort of dispel that notion?
Oh absolutely. There are still people who come to zoos and they're like “this is depressing. This is animal jail.” And it was something I really liked about education, because I could be transparent. People would be like, “Did you steal these giraffes from the wild?” And I'd say no they came from a different zoo. Or people would be like “Is this animal sleeping? Is it sad?” And I'd be like, no, this animal sleeps twenty hours a day. Some people would ask “Are the animals happy?” which, I mean, there's an argument in different groups about if the term happiness is anthropomorphizing, but, and one of the people who was in charge of welfare said this, and I liked it, which is that “emotions are something humans have evolved into.” And that it’s not fair to say that other animals don't have that capacity as well for things like happiness. I would very honestly talk to guests about what we were doing to make sure the animals were happy and giving them things to do, making sure, you know, if they usually live by themselves that we're not housing them with other animals, or if they usually live in a big group we want to make sure that they have friends to be with. I was really happy to talk to guests where their last impression of a zoo was that they went when they were a kid and it was sad, and just to really talk to them and show the fact that, not all, but I do think the majority of zoos, are attempting to do better in terms of the welfare.
What was the sort of showstopper at your zoo, the elephants?
We have a really, really good gorilla collection. And we're also one of the few zoos that has pandas. So you had people coming from all over the world to see these pandas. People love pandas. They're absolutely crazy about them.
Why is that? Listen, I like a panda as much as the next person I suppose, but I don't really get why they're so uniquely beloved? Is it because they've been endangered or just because they're cute or what?
I'm not 100% sure. They're bears and I think people think bears are neat. They kind of culturally have this reputation for being kind of lazy and I think people are like, oh, you know, I identify with that. It's just like me! I’ve done a lot of research on pandas because of my job, and also been in these situations where I got to go behind the scenes, you know, and kind of learn about panda keeping. I'm sometimes very underwhelmed by the panda.
Haha, it’s a very overrated animal.
How often does danger come into play in the job?
Oh, that's a really good question. Thankfully, we have a lot of safety practices at hand. No zoo wants to be the zoo where, you know, the elephant gets out. So there's a lot of safely practices. There's basically a response team, and so in a worst case scenario they show up with rifles and take the animal out. In terms of things that have happened when I was working there we never had a dangerous animal escape. We had a few things, like we had like a pigeon get away once and like a tortoise.
Come on, a tortoise got away? It seems like it would be very easy to catch.
It was actually kind of sad. He was a behind the scenes guy. So he wasn't on exhibit for the guests. And they put him in a little box and like took him outside to get sun, and then they came back and he was gone. And he was like a little, little guy. They thought maybe a raccoon got him or something. Oh goodness. They never found him. No, no, he just vanished. We think he got eaten.
Maybe he’s still at-large. What about kids? Is it rewarding to see the wonder on their faces and that sort of shit? Is that like one of the appeals of the job?
I really think so. When I was young I was one of those ”Snapple fact kids.” You know like in the little cap? I was really interested in going up to every adult I could find and just like word vomiting every fact about animals I knew.
One of the most rewarding things about my job I think was finding other kids who were clearly very curious and passionate about animals. And just talking to them. I did after school program stuff for years and years before I came into this field, so I was very into what they call child-lead learning. I hated the idea of being a teacher, anything really structured and formal, but I loved the idea of talking to a kid and just seeing what the kid wants to ask and what the kid wants to learn. A lot of Socratic method kind of thing. If they asked a question about how an animal lived, it’s like, well what do you think they do?
I loved that stuff. I love informal education in general. That was a big part of the zoo that I really enjoyed. I view them as places of informal education, where kids can just go and look at animals, which is cool, but if they have questions, or they want to learn, they have these opportunities to do so as well.
Despite all that you felt exploited though.
When people think of zoos and shadiness, they think of like, you know, oh, someone's trading tigers and stuff. But it’s also stories about, you know, everyone in the education department who didn't have a bachelor's, despite being there for years, getting demoted suddenly. Or the fact that the CEOs of zoos will get like ten million dollars bonuses and stuff like that while, in some cases, other workers are living in cars until they can find an apartment they can afford.
I guess I never really thought about it. I suppose it doesn't surprise me that workers at a zoo would be underpaid and overworked like people in any other job. But we tend to think about the animals instead of the people who are caring for them.
And that's sort of the crazy thing, I think, on some level, is people like, oh, the animal is sad in the zoo, and it's like, I don't know, the animal has all its needs met. It has food and water, it has free healthcare. If the animal is sad people troubleshoot to try to make it not sad anymore.
These animals got an apartment.
How did your place handle Covid in the worst parts of it?
That was stressful. Basically the zoo was closed for two months. And then, since we’re based in the south, we opened up. It was stressful because at the time there was no vaccine. For a while masks were simply optional, and then when they were mandated, obviously, no one wanted to follow that policy. I just remember that so distinctly because they gave us these little, like, thin bandanas with the zoo logo on them. They were like, these are your masks you get to wear! In December, they were like, actually, these masks are useless, because it's just one layer of fabric and has no protection at all. I’m pretty sure the only reason I didn't get Covid was just because I was primarily outside a lot. It was a really paranoid time, right before there was a vaccine or anything. And I was just always like, I'm gonna get Covid and die. I was so paranoid about that. I think we had some protections that other places didn't. I remember you did that interview with the guy who worked at a waterpark during Covid, so I think we had some protections other places didn’t have simply because a lot of animals are vulnerable to Covid. We have primates who can definitely get Covid, and carnivores as well. I think because of that we were able to have a little more leverage in terms of mask mandates and stuff for the animals' safety. Which is kind of funny, because in the world of animal science there’s something called an umbrella species. That's the idea that with something like a panda, the charismatic megafauna, by protecting its habitat, you're not just protecting the pandas, you're protecting all the little spiders and salamanders and stuff that are overlooked. So I’d always think, oh, the panda protected me!
Well now I have to take back what I said about pandas. So what are you gonna do now? Are you gonna go somewhere to find another zoo?
I am unfortunately kind of stuck here in the moment. My fiance works here, and we have a house. As much as I'd love to run away from all my problems, I don't think I'd be able to uproot and find another full time zoo education job... Maybe I should just go be a bartender or something....
Well you do already know how to how to wrangle out of control animals.
I think this happens a lot right? When you get laid off from your passion job, let's say you love making donuts, and after the donut factory you're like I'm never going to make another donut again.
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Predator mesh breach
There was a softball-sized hole in the fence of the flamingo enclosure and so the fox slipped through it thinking can you believe this shit? Doing Jim Face at the camera and wondering if it was some kind of trap. This is my exact thing he thought. The one single thing they famously don’t want me to do.