The term zookeeper refers to an individual who feeds, monitors, cleans up after and cares for animals kept in captivity, usually in public zoos. Collections of animals in a zoo can range from a smaller group of very young domestic farm animals in a countryside petting zoo to large numbers of exotic animals, including mammals, reptiles, fish and even insects, that are found at a metropolitan zoo. Depending upon the size of the zoo, a zookeeper can care for all or a portion of the animals, such as the big cats — lions, tigers, cheetahs and the like — or even just a single species. Curators, or collection specialists, supervise zookeepers at larger zoos and most zookeeper positions require a minimum of a two or a four-year degree and experience gained from work, internships or volunteering. Factors that affect a zookeeper's salary may thus include the size and location of the zoo, the zookeeper's educational background, his years of experience in the field, the animals held within the zoo and the extent of his responsibility.
One of the major factors affecting a zookeeper's salary is the size of the zoo where he is employed. Large metropolitan zoos generally offer more full-time positions and higher salaries than do zoos in small towns. In the US, a zookeeper's salary can also depend upon the region of the country where the zoo is located. A zookeeper's salary in the West and the Northeast is usually higher than that of someone in the same position in the Midwest or South.
Educational background also influences a zookeeper's salary and assigned positions. Generally, those employees holding a four-year bachelor's degree in the related fields of biology, zoology, animal husbandry or pre-veterinary studies command the highest salaries. A few schools throughout the US — most, unsurprisingly, in areas with internationally-renowned zoos — offer a two year associate degree or a certificate in zoo keeping, which teach students the basics of the profession.
A zookeeper's salary is also influenced by the amount of experience he has in zoo keeping or related animal-care fields, such as kennel work or a veterinary assisting. Previous animal-related employment experience determines most strongly the starting salary offered as opposed to subsequent salary increases. Experience also helps answer an interviewing curator's question as to whether an applicant's expectations regarding the position applied for are realistic.
Finally, a zookeeper's salary is affected by the animal or animals he oversees and the extent of the care involved. Most zookeepers are responsible for evaluating, feeding, exercising and cleaning the animal's enclosures on a daily basis. They may also be responsible for preparing the food in addition to feeding. Cleaning duties in some zoos may also be assigned to an assistant, while the zookeeper devotes that time to documenting the details of an animal's condition.