Animal welfare requires good physical and psychological well-being. Therefore, the goal of Animal Care at the Oakland Zoo is to provide each animal with the opportunity to produce as full a repertoire as possible of beneficial behaviors, whereby animals experience a life with the appropriate levels of engagement, complexity, and challenges.
In recognizing the importance of psychological well-being, Oakland Zoo has been recognized worldwide for its excellent training and enrichment programs for all animals – from those as large as elephants to those as small as ants. Equally important is the individualized husbandry and medical care it provides to all its residents. Thriving animals engaged in their environment are better ambassadors of their species, encouraging zoo guests to be stewards of their own environment and the wildlife and places around them.
Environmental Enrichment is “A dynamic process which structures and changes an animal’s environment in a way that provides behavioral choices to animals and draws out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities and enhances their welfare.” AZA Behavior Advisory Group (1999). Enrichment is one of the basics of animal care; as such creating environmental complexity and variability as well as opportunities for control and choice for the animals, and therefore is a regular part of the daily routine for the Animal Keeper. Enrichment comes in many forms and often overlaps with other activities like socializing with other animals in the enclosures, feeding, exhibit set-up, set-up of off-exhibit areas, training and other social interactions with keepers, etc. Baseline behavioral observation assessments are also used to determine enrichment need in terms of frequency, types, and locations for enrichment. Environmental enrichment is ever evolving and improving so it is important to stay current with the science and updates in this area, therefore Animal Keepers and Zoological Managers receive support to broaden their skills in animal behavior, health, and conservation.
Positive caretaker-animal interactions are a critical component of animal care plans because it can reduce stress and improve welfare. Animal training is one of the basics of animal care. The animals are learning each time Keepers interact with them, so staff are mindful that what they learn enhances their welfare and our ability to care for them. Intentional, formal training is also used for the purposes of safe management, husbandry, medical procedures, enrichment, educational presentations, and socialization. Indirect interactions in the form of calm demeanor in proximity to animals and species-considerate behavior (e.g., not staring at hoofstock, or into the eyes of primates, etc) are also important components in not only building trusting relationships with animals but ensuring they are comfortable in their environment.
Oakland Zoo's animal keepers are a vital part of the organization, working together to enhance the lives of all species cared for by Oakland Zoo. A keeper’s day certainly involves animal care and husbandry, but may also include building a new enrichment devise for a sun bear, training a monitor lizard to show its feet for a routine pedicure, working with a researcher investigating elephant communication, changing irrigation to get the best grassy turf for zebras to graze, writing up a new diet plan for multiple bird species in an aviary, and many, many more aspects not typically thought of as an animal keepers role. Animal keepers also help design, construction, and repair animal enclosures to promote species-typical behaviors and activity budgets. Being an animal keeper isn't easy. It requires dedication, commitment, patience, knowledge, and skill.
Oakland Animal Keepers also play an important part in our conservation programs, both onsite and in the field. Keepers work directly with mountain yellow-legged frogs, western pond turtles, California condors, American bison on site, as well as assist in leading eco-trips to visit our conservation field sites. The specialized knowledge keepers bring to conservation projects from working with particular species for many years is unique and invaluable, and strengthens the conservation programs.
Is being an animal keeper your dream career? Being an animal keeper is a unique opportunity for those who want to provide the best life for animals in a career that is stimulating as well as demanding.
A career in Animal Care can be challenging. It requires dedication, thoughtfulness, attention to detail, the ability to manage your time as well as work with a team, focus on safety and building trust, want for increasing knowledge and abilities, and of course a passion for wildlife and conservation. Zoo keeping is a specialized career with limited job opportunities. The work requires both good physical condition willingness to work long hours in all types of weather. Animal care is both a trade and a knowledge based profession, so getting your first keeping position can also take years of education and hard work volunteering. Entry-level qualifications generally require a college degree in biology or another animal related field, and 1-2 years paid experience working with exotic animals in a captive environment.. Oakland Zoo offers a variety of volunteer and internship opportunities which aid in gaining animal care experience, as well as paid Apprenticeship positions, which are a training and working position.
For more information about animal keepers, please see the resources below: