Zoo and Wildlife Career FAQs

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?

Depending on the job, there are a lot of different answers. But there is one thing they all require: a commitment to the welfare of animals and conservation of species.

If you are interested in a profession working in close contact with animals on a daily basis, such as wildlife biologist or veterinarian, an advanced degree in zoology or veterinary medicine is recommended. Jobs requiring less schooling but include frequent, direct contact with animals include veterinary technician, zoo keeper, or wildlife technician.

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. Wildlife biology can involve working outdoors in sometimes difficult field environments.

Looking to take adult classes on conservation and wildlife issues? Be sure to check out The Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. This institution offers a range of compelling residential, hands-on, interdisciplinary programs in conservation biology for undergraduate and graduate students and professionals at the facility on the grounds of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

FAQs About Working at Zoo

There are many different kinds of jobs at zoos, from animal curators to development officers, to public affairs directors. Read about who does what below.

  • Veterinarian
    • Responsible for the healthcare program for the animal collection and the maintenance of health records.
  • Veterinary Technician
    • Assists the veterinarian and provides care to the animals under the supervision of the veterinarian.
  • Animal Curator
    • Manages some or all of an institution's animal collection. For instance, there may be a curator of mammals, or a curator of rainforest species.
  • Conservation Biologist/Zoologist
    • Provides scientific and technical assistance in the management of the animal collection and assists in conducting various research or field conservation projects.
  • Keeper/Aquarist
    • Provides daily care to the institution's animals, including diet preparation, cleaning, general exhibit maintenance, and recordkeeping.
  • Registrar
    • Maintains computer records on the animal collection and applies for permits and licenses to hold or transport animals.
  • General Curator
    • Oversees an institution's entire animal collection and animal management staff. Responsible for strategic collection planning.
  • Zoo Director
    • Executes policies as directed by the governing authority. Responsible for the institution's operation and plans for future development.
  • Assistant Director
    • Assists the director and assumes charge in the director's absence.
  • Finance Manager/Director
    • Manages the institution's finances, including payment of bills, purchasing, investments, and the preparation of financial statements.
  • Curator of Exhibits
    • Creates exhibits and assists in the design of graphics.
  • Curator of Horticulture
    • Responsible for the botanical collection and its application to the animal collection, as well as daily maintenance of the institution's grounds.
  • Curator of Education
    • Plans and implements the institution's education programs.
  • Public Relations/Affairs Manager/Director
    • Promotes the institution, its mission, and its programs to the public via the media.
  • Development Director/Officer
    • Develops and manages fund-raising activities which can include writing grant proposals and attracting corporate sponsors, as well as soliciting private donations.
  • Marketing Director/Manager
    • Creates advertising campaigns and other activities to increase public awareness of the institution.
  • Special Events Manager/Coordinator
    • Develops and implements events to attract visitors throughout the year.
  • Membership Director/Manager
    • Responsible for maintaining and increasing institution memberships for families and individuals and designing special events for members only. May also be in charge of "adopt-an-animal" programs to raise funds.
  • Gift Shop Manager
    • Manages staff and all aspects of gift shop operation from buying products to designing shops.
  • Visitor Services Manager
    • Supervises the staff and facilities that cater to the visiting public including concessions and restrooms.
  • Personnel Manager/Director
    • Responsible for all personnel matters including payroll, insurance, and tax matters.
  • Volunteer Coordinator
    • Responsible for recruiting and maintaining a staff of volunteers/docents. Duties include scheduling docents for on- and off-grounds activities and keeping docents abreast of new developments to relate to the public.
  • Docent/Volunteer
    • Duties may include diet preparation, small animal care, teaching educational programs, leading group tours, and staffing special events.
  • Curator/Coordinator/Director of Research
    • Supervises research projects, serves as liaison between the institution and the academic community, and publishes articles in scientific journals.
  • Curator/Coordinator/Director of Conservation
    • Oversees the institution's conservation activities, including field projects. Serves as liaison with government wildlife agencies and other conservation organizations.
  • Head Keeper/Aquarist
    • Supervises a section or department of the institution; provides training and scheduling for keepers.
  • Senior Keeper/Aquarist
    • Provides primary animal care for a department.
  • Operations Director/Manager
    • Responsible for the daily operation of the institution's physical plant and equipment.

he best way to begin a career working with animals is to expand your general understanding of animals and the habitats in which they live. To do this, many people study natural sciences, such as biology, zoology, and ecology, in high school and college. You can begin at any time by reading all you can about animals and habitats. You can also look into taking classes offered by your local zoo or natural history museum.

Grade School: For children who think an animal-related career is an exciting possibility, working hard in all subjects in school is the best way to start. A good understanding of science and math concepts will help students continue to master those subjects in subsequent years.

High School: Taking a challenging math and science curriculum (biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, etc.) is the best preparation for college-level math and science courses.

College: Courses in biology, microbiology, physics, zoology, botany, anthropology, organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics are suggested or required in most animal-related degree granting programs.

Graduate School: A master's degree or Ph.D. in zoology, wildlife management, anthropology, or a similar field, or a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) is required for many positions.

In addition to having an academic background in these areas, knowledge and interest in animals, shown through work and/or volunteer experience is helpful and often essential for success in an animal-centered career. Following your personal interests is especially important in choosing the kind of experiences to involve yourself in.

Yes. Exposure to a specific field of animal work and the people who perform jobs in animal-centered organizations will help you clarify your goals, narrow your focus, and ultimately help you choose the best career for you. The more you know about what positions exist, the easier it will be for you to plan your course of study. Usually your professional degree is the key qualification for any career related to animals.

Good places to gain exposure to wild animals and the jobs that relate to them are zoos and aquariums; national parks; wildlife refuges, management facilities, and animal shelters. You can get experience with domestic animals by volunteering at animal hospitals and clinics; horse farms or stables; and kennel or boarding facilities.

If you are interested in animals but don't wish to pursue a science degree, there are other careers you might be interested in. Zoos, museums, government agencies, and conservation organizations employ many people as educators, writers, fundraisers, managers, artists, and designers.

If one of these fields is a better match for you, you should still learn all you can about animals while training for one of these careers. For example, if you are interested in writing about animals, you might major in English and minor in zoology.

Finally, there are many jobs in zoos and other organizations that don't involve animals at all, but let you be around them, or support their conservation. For instance, zoos employ accountants, human resource specialists, merchandisers, food service staff, carpenters, electricians, gardeners, and many others.

Video Series: The Secret World of Zoo Jobs

Want to know what it's really like working at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute? Then come along with us as we go behind the scenes in our video series, Other Duties as Assigned: The Secret World of Zoo Jobs! In each video, a different staff member will take you behind the scenes of his or her job and answer questions asked by curious students as we explore the complexities of animal care and wildlife conservation. Learn more about what it really means when you say, "I want to work at a zoo."

Download the Video Content Guide (link opens in new window) to access questions and project-based learning activities for elementary, middle and high school students unique to each video. The Video Content Guide is linked to Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards for grades K-12.

Small Mammal Biologist

Join Kenton Kerns, a biologist at the Zoo, as he takes us behind the scenes of the Small Mammal House to show us why taking care of animals sometimes feels more like being a personal assistant! From preparing food for over 30 species to helping animals in his care exercise their brains and their bodies, Kenton is the go-to guy for each animal, from monkeys to meerkats!

Endocrine Researcher

Meet Sarah Putman, an endocrinologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. What’s an endocrinologist, you ask? Well, it’s a really fancy way of saying that Sarah uses poop to solve some of the mysteries of animal health at the National Zoo and other zoos around the world—she’s a bona fide Poop Sleuth! In this episode, Sarah takes us into the lab as she turns “poop dust” clouds into important information about the animals in the Zoo’s care. Is the panda pregnant? Sarah’s on the case!

Landscape Architect

What might the Smithsonian's National Zoo look like in 50 years? Jen Daniels can tell you! As the landscape architect at the Zoo, Jen helps to plan and predict the Zoo’s future—she’s our Zoo Fortune Teller! Join Jen as she shares with us the research, design and planning that goes into creating a Zoo that both animals and humans will love.

Zoo Curator

As the curator of Great Cats and Andean Bears at the Zoo, part of Craig Saffoe’s job is to be a matchmaker for lions, tigers, and bears. Playing cupid for carnivores is no easy task—and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart! Join Craig as he takes us behind the scenes with some of his latest litters and tells us about the work that goes into creating and caring for all those cute cubs.