Case study

Zookeeper — James Star

Find out how James applies hard work, dedication and flexibility to his career as a zookeeper, what his biggest challenges are and more

How did you get your job at the zoo?

I loved animals as a kid, and after enjoying a 'zookeeper for a day' birthday treat I was hooked. I started volunteering at Noah's Ark Zoo, and a few years later my volunteering turned into paid work. I wanted a new challenge, so I applied to study a BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Plymouth. I was still volunteering while I studied, and did a placement year at Jersey Zoo.

After graduating I found a temporary zookeeper post, then spent six months in the Philippines on a conservation project working to conserve the Philippine Tarsier. On returning home, I spent another six months in a different temporary zookeeper post before starting my current job at the Isle of Wight Zoo.

What's a typical day like as a zookeeper?

I work with a mix of big cats, monkeys, reptiles and amphibians, so my day starts with breakfasts all round. Enclosure cleaning is an essential part of my day, in order to manage pests and disease, before completing other essential jobs such as husbandry training, enrichment and maintenance.

What are the rewards of being a zookeeper?

Being able to work with amazing species from all over the world on a daily basis is a fantastic privilege. I love making changes to enclosures, improving animal welfare and sharing my passion for others through educational talks.

What aspects of the job do you find challenging?

Being a zookeeper isn't glamorous. It's a physical job with lots of early starts, often cold and can be emotionally draining, particularly when you're working with critically endangered species.

The level of competition for jobs is also hard, as there are often hundreds of applicants per position.

How relevant is your degree to your work?

My animal science and management degree taught me to adopt a scientific approach to resolving issues surrounding keeping animals in captivity. When I assess their behaviour, or design enrichment, I'm basing my work on a body of research.

Having a degree also allows me to move into education, curating or research. I'm very interested in enrichment, which I explored in my dissertation and had the chance to apply to creating a giant climbing structure for gorillas. Seeing their transformation into fit, active, thinking creatures working on complex puzzles was incredible.

What do you want to do next?

I'm considering applying for a PhD, because I want to pursue my passion for conservation and build upon what I have learnt through on degree and through my career with endangered animals both in and ex-situ.

Do you have any tips for someone wanting to become a zookeeper?

Be prepared to spend time gaining experience, and don't expect to be paid while you're doing so. If, like me, you need to meet your living costs through part-time work you could do so through taking on paid jobs within the zoo, such as becoming a car park attendant, cleaner or working in the café.

Getting into zookeeping is a long game. If you haven't gained experience through university, don't expect to be in a zookeeper post six months after graduating.

Make the most of any opportunities you have to connect with people at conferences, training days or other animal events. Keep in touch on Facebook or LinkedIn because you never know when they might tell you about a job - they might even be interviewing you one day.

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