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Being A Zoo Keeper

Being A Zoo Keeper

Daniel Simmonds (Zookeeper) gives expert video advice on: What did you have to do to become a zookeeper?; Is it a well paid job?; Do you become very attached to the animals you work with? and more...

What made you want to become a zookeeper?

Actually I've got a very different background to zoo-keeping. I have a financial and commercial background working in the city of London. I did that for years and years, but always had a real burning passion to work with animals and work in conservation. By coming here to ZSL London Zoo as a zoo keeper it sort of gave me the best of both worlds because I get to be with the animals every day and also part of one of the world's largest conservation charities. So I came here a few years ago now to be a zoo keeper with limited experience, but ZSL London Zoo gave me the opportunity to learn so much whilst I was doing the job. I'm studying at the moment for extra qualifications and so far it's been going really well and I really love it.

What did you have to do to become a zookeeper?

Generally speaking, to become a zookeeper in most sort of modern European zoos but especially in the UK, it's really quite important first of all to show your commitment to the zoo. For example, here at ZSL London Zoo, we do that by having a very structured voluntary scheme. I was part of that as I worked as a volunteer zoo keeper for well over a year, completely unpaid. And that just showed that I was very keen and very dedicated to the zoo and becoming a zookeeper. And at the end of that period I was lucky enough to be one of the people who was taken on as a permanent member of the zookeeper staff and I'm now a permanent member of the zoo keeping staff at the zoo.

How long does it take to become a zookeeper?

The process of becoming a zookeeper is quite structured and it takes two years in total. You start the school as a trainee zookeeper and then you go through some exams and have to do a fairly extensive two year academic course, at the end of which you become a qualified zookeeper. But key to it is that throughout that two year period you are working everyday as a zookeeper, it is just almost a slight difference in job title.

At what age can you start training to become a zookeeper?

If you are interested in becoming a zookeeper you need to be at least eighteen years old in most cases. Some zoos in the UK will accept people who are at least sixteen. But generally speaking you need to be at least eighteen to become a zookeeper, and certainly that applies to the ZSL London zoo.

Can zookeepers pick what animals you work with?

You can't actually choose beforehand which animals you want to work with. There's a very specific reason for that. Nowadays here at ZSL London Zoo it's very, very important that all keepers work for the entire collection. In the past there were zookeepers who only wanted to work with certain animals and then when they were moved around sections it just made things a little bit more difficult. So nowadays you will work as a zookeeper for the zoo and you're almost told on your first day the animals that you will be working with. So there's a lot of chance involved but we are all animal lovers here and we will all work with any of the animals. We are all very happy, including myself, to work as zookeepers with any animal from an ant, up to a giraffe or a gorilla.

Do you look after more than one type of animal?

Generally speaking I do work with a range of animals as a zookeeper. From large mammals, ranging from the pigmy hippos to the camels, to a range of monkeys. But most of my time at the moment as a zookeeper I'm spending with the gorillas and there is a particular reason for that. The gorillas as animals, as a species, tend to appreciate seeing a different face every day so it's quite important to have a consistency. Gorillas are an exception to the rule, we'll have the same keeper working with them for a long stretch and that could go on for quite a few years.

What do you do in an average day?

I start work as a zookeeper at about 7:30 in the morning, and I get in and just go through emails, and go through any sort of administrative stuff that I've got to do. And then at 8 o'clock every morning we have a team brief with every zookeeper on the section, and we discuss everything relating to the animals from the day before. Then we go through the plan for the animals and for ourselves as zookeepers on that current day. We'll start work at about quarter past eight, and then we'll be cleaning solidly through until midday. And that's every single day of the year including Christmas Day. There's no letup at all being a zookeeper. We'll then stop for lunch. The afternoons are slightly less structured, and we'll spend a lot of time providing enrichment for the animals. That's basically a way of keeping the animals busy, encouraging them to exhibit their natural behaviors. And with the gorillas, for example, we also work a lot on what we call operant conditioning, which is a form of training. And that's a way of encouraging the animals to do things like presenting their arms, or perhaps opening their mouth, holding their mouth open for a dental check, involving no sedatives whatsoever. And it's really good, because traditionally with a big, dangerous animal like a gorilla, you would have to sedate them, whereas now it's all done consciously with the animal but it also encourages the animal to use their very high level of natural intelligence.

Who's your boss?

My boss as a zookeeper is the team leader of the section, Tracy Lee. She has worked at the zoo for about 17 years now, a very, very experienced lady. I report directly to her. Tracy will then report to the Curator of Mammals who in turn reports to the Zoological Director. So it's a fairly short hierarchical structure here at the ZSL London Zoo.

What holidays do zookeepers get?

For a zookeeper holidays are about 24 days a year. But as far as I'm concerned the zookeeper should work on all bank holidays. So I would get back ten days of loo days a year, then I would get 34 days a year holiday

Is it a well paid job?

I definitely wouldn't say this is a well paid job. So if you're a money motivated person, don't work as a zookeeper. Being a zookeeper is in fact very, very poorly paid, and traditionally it always has been, and I think it always will be. In some ways it's not a bad thing, because it attracts people who want to work here as a zookeeper with a true passion for the animals, and that's what it's about. It's never going to be about the money if you want to be a zookeeper.

How physically demanding is your job?

This job as a zookeeper is a very, very physically demanding job, especially if you work with gorillas. They're very big animals and they make a lot of mess and their bedding alone is enormous so you need quite a lot of fitness just to move things around. It's constantly a case of rushing around the whole site. We're a 35 acre site. Sometimes things will be at one end of the site and you're obviously at the other end, and that's just the way it goes. So you are very active during the day as a zookeeper and it is a very demanding job physically.

How dangerous is your job?

Being a zookeeper is potentially a very, very dangerous job. If one was to make a mistake, or if generally any zookeeper was to make a mistake with an animal, for example letting a wild animal out into close proximity with the zookeeper, it would be possible and there would be a chance of being killed. But we have extremely high levels of health and safety as zookeepers for obvious reasons, so subsequently there are no problems in that nature.

Have any of the keepers ever been injured by an animal?

Yes, zookeepers have been injured. It's just one of the things that happens if you work as a zookeeper. You do get occasional bites here and there. I myself was bitten by a gorilla and had to go to casualty, but that was my own mistake and the gorilla did it because I sort of started him and actually slipped against some mesh when the gorilla was on the other side. So the gorilla sort of bit my hand through the mesh, but that's just what a gorilla will do. So yes, it can be a hazardous job working as a zookeeper.

Do you become very attached to the animals you work with?

It's very difficult not to become attached to the animals you work with as a zookeeper. From a professional point of view, it's important that you try and avoid it as much as possible. Animals will die, or move to other collections, and it's sometimes important to not become too much in touch. But the reality is, when you work with an animal every single day as a zookeeper, especially when you have a charismatic animal like a gorilla, it can be quite hard not to become so very, very, attached to those animals.

What's the most satisfying aspect of being a zookeeper?

I think the most satisfying aspect of being a zookeeper comes in two forms. Firstly, without a doubt, is the daily hands on contact with dangerous, wild animals, or wild animals in general. It's an awesome opportunity, and one that I consider to be a real privilege. But the second, more satisfying part of being a zookeeper is to be able to work for an organization like ZSL London Zoo, that's actually one of the biggest conservation charities in the world. Knowing that by helping to maintain this zoo as a zookeeper, one of the most famous zoos in the world, we're also raising money for more than forty conservation projects around the world. So, for example, with the gorillas, we don't just have the gorillas here at the zoo, we also have conservation projects protecting their wild cousins, and I'm really, really proud to be part of that as a zookeeper.

What's the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of the job as a zookeeper is, unfortunately, when animals die, which doesn't happen too often. But animals get old like people and they do die. And it's sad because if you've worked for an animal for many, many years as a zookeeper, perhaps every single day for many years, it is difficult. But it's just one of the downsides of the job of a zookeeper. And I'll probably say a less serious downside of the job as a zookeeper is perhaps a January morning when it's zero degrees and I'm perhaps on the big gorilla island trying to break the ice with my bare hands on the surrounding moat. That's not a great part of the job as a zookeeper.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming a zookeeper?

If you're interested in becoming a zookeeper, it's important to first of all get some experience. Probably the best way to start to go about getting work experience for becoming a zookeeper, is to look at some of the voluntary schemes that some zoos have, including the ZSL London zoo voluntary scheme which is an excellent one. Or it could even be something like volunteering at the local vetinary practice, or volunteering at a local city farm just to get some hands on direct experience with animals. Perhaps once you get a year or so of that sort of experience, then its worth putting together your C.V. with that experience and start applying for that sort of zookeeping job.

What should I study if I want to become a zookeeper?

If someone perhaps is still at school and looking at becoming a zoo keeper, I'd say definitely focus on your science subjects, particularly things like biology. If you're looking at going to university, it's definitely worth looking at some of the scientific courses that you can go on, obviously zoology being a key one. But it's also important to mention that it is not a prerequisite to have a zoology degree or a similar type of degree to be a zoo keeper. You can also look at the root of getting some hands on experience first to help you become a zookeeper. That could be anything. Like applying to one of the voluntary schemes like that which we have at ZSL London zoo, to be a voluntary keeper for perhaps a year or two years. Or even volunteer at a local veterinary practice or something like an open farm of which there are so many in so many cities. But generally, I think zookeeping is quite an open minded field to move into, in terms of the recruitment requirements. I think anyone who is thinking about becoming a zookeeper should consider themselves a likely candidate if they've got the right state of mind and they are prepared to work really hard.