If you’re a nature lover, you may well have considered a job working with animals. This career path demands passion, a caring disposition and a thirst for new knowledge. Not only will you be required to learn everything there is to know about the animals themselves, but you will also have to consider the particular environments, eating patterns, and temperature requirements of the animals in your care. You might want to study zoology at university, or alternatively you may want to get straight into learning on the job. Either way, there will be a lot to learn so get ready to study hard!
Some key areas that you will need to study in depth to becoming successful in this field are:
- Habitat and acute temperature and humidity control
- Food and medication preparation
- Psychological and physical health
- Needing to present information and lecture on topics
So, from whatever academic background you’re coming from it might also be helpful to widen your knowledge of these subjects:
- Areas that may help with presentation and confidence in public speaking, such as Drama, can be a useful secondary subject
Read on, as we explore these different facets of zookeeper and animal care work.
The effects of diet and nutrition
Animals demand diverse and highly specific dietary routines, and you should come to know the effects of different food upon animals. For example, did you know that while bearded dragons need dark, leafy greens as part of a healthy diet, they shouldn’t be fed spinach — one of the most well-known dark, leafy greens!
A wide range of nutritional knowledge is demanded for a role in animal welfare, including:
- How different animals digest food — from a basic understanding to how different animals physically break down foods, to how different foods can change faecal consistency in animals.
- What, and how much, food different animals need — from knowing the basic, essential parts of their diet to complex understanding of re-formulating diets.
- Supplements — from the use of short- or long-term supplements in animals to seasonal use.
- Understanding how to use body condition scoring — from observing and recording animal body condition to understanding how their diet can be adapted to change body condition scoring.
Habitat and environment
An animal’s health and wellbeing can largely rely on the temperature it is kept in. Without temperature regulation via the use of an appropriate air conditioning unit, they could have their growth stunted, or worse, could die. One of the many tasks a zookeeper must be able to do is observing animals for signs of heat stress.
As much as we try, no zoo can perfectly replicate an animal’s natural habitat and home. The enclosure must therefore be adapted to suit a number of needs, such as humidity, ventilation, and temperature control.
Specialising in reptile care
Heat stress can acutely affect reptiles, despite them being perceived as sun loving creatures. Symptoms in reptiles include lethargy, lack of appetite, and rapid breathing. Reptiles are very attuned and reliant upon the temperature of their environment.
For this very reason, zoos are always on the lookout for pioneering temperature control technology. For example, at Paignton Zoo, they welcomed the public-vote named Khaleesi, a Komodo dragon at the end of 2018. As the largest species of lizard in the world, its temperature and basking needs are a little different. With this in mind, the zoo is using a new heating and lighting system that deploys multiple heat sources and lighting spots with different heat levels emitted. The system allows staff to control the temperature at different spots within the enclosure, encouraging Khaleesi to move around the space throughout the day to gain exercise.
Specialising in mammal care
Mammals are yet another animal group that rely on specific habitats and careful temperature regulation. For mammals, signs of heat stress can be different than with reptiles: they share the panting, but can also become anxious or start to drool.
The normal procedure in zoos is to keep the door to their shelter houses open at all times to give the animals access to fresh air and extra space. However, this makes heating the house difficult and often inefficient, as the building will often have the heating running when no animal is indoors to need it. These heaters would therefore be left running 24 hours a day in the winter, regardless of the animal being present to require it. Movement sensors do not help, as the heaters would turn off when the animal settles down to sleep or stops moving to rest during the day.
Some zoos are currently pioneering smart-sensor temperature control technology, which is able to sense the presence of body heat from the animal. If the animal leaves the enclosure to head outside, the heating turns off. If it returns in, even if it isn’t moving during rest, the heater will stay on.
This is all crucial knowledge for anyone beginning a career in this field, you must always be mindful of how temperatures can impact the animals in your care. You’ll want to knuckle down on your science studies to achieve this!
Physical and psychological wellbeing
One of the more emotionally strenuous sides of this career will be looking after animals who aren’t always happy and healthy. Sometimes, you will need to care for animals who are in poor health, be it physically or psychologically. This can be one of the more trying aspects of this career, and certainly something you will want to back up with plenty of knowledge and studying.
- Being able to spot symptoms — like with heat stress, a zookeeper must know what warning signs to look out for and report them to the necessary veterinarians. At higher levels, zookeepers and animal carers are expected to be able to spot trends in poor health and create a treatment plan.
- Administering medication and treatment — adding medication to food may be simple, but there are also much more complex treatments that higher-level zookeepers may need to perform.
- More complicated medical procedures — assisting during medical procedures may also be required, such as observing vital signs and handling the animal.
Temperature, habitat and nutrition are all huge parts of the animal welfare world. So before embarking on you career path make sure you are ready to learn a lot about these topics. It’s not just about understanding the need for animal conservation and protection; you must learn how to provide it.