The Future of Zookeepers

Zookeeper and guests with penguins

July 28, 2020 • Mike Clifford • ECHO Digital, ECHO Digital, General Articles, Zoos + Aquariums

Zookeepers are highly educated, motivated and experienced than ever before. They expect more and organizations are not meeting those expectations. When there is not enough support for our staff, it can result in employee burn out or resignation, which ultimately jeopardizes our overall mission.

A special thank you to Anna Young from Otterbein University ( and Jonathan Miot from Santa Fe Teaching College ( for leading this discussion.

4 Key Points

1. Mind the Gap 

Our animal care staff are highly educated, experienced and passionate, but much of the job description hasn’t changed over the last 30 years.  We bank on the passion of zookeepers, but our field is not competitive regarding their skills and experiences. This lack of competitiveness makes it challenging for people to stay in the field longterm. We need to find ways to not only continue investing in our staff but providing avenues for using their experience and knowledge. This also relates to payroll. 


2. Highest Return on Investment 

Our organizations and leadership need to create more agility within our team and staff structures. What could we accomplish if we allocated a zookeeper’s time to focus on connecting and inspiring guests 25 percent more, conservation research, breeding programs, or other related tasks? We need to be willing to test some experiments and try out new ways of directing one of our most valuable assets– our zookeepers. 


3. The Basics 

Good husbandry, effective cleaning, stellar welfare, and good breeding are essential for Zoos to thrive. Making sure the basics of zoo keeping are taught and performed is critical. Ongoing training and development and looking at more tiered roles and responsibilities could be an effective way to explore implementing these changes. 


4. Equity and Inclusion 

The way we have been doing “zookeeping” and finding new zookeepers continues to target middle to upper-class, predominantly white people. If we are going to see more social impact and behavior change, we need a wider and deeper audience. Self-assessing and altering the systems we have in place through education and beyond is a great place to start. If we want different results, we can’t keep doing the same things in the same old way. 


Practical Application

Gather your animal team together and ask them the following questions:

If you had four hours of unplanned time each week, what would you want to use the time to do?

If you had to free up four hours per week, which tasks would you eliminate or pass on to another person?



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