Before applying for paid positions, many people gain valuable experience by volunteering. In the zoo field, volunteer opportunities and duties vary from one facility to another but are always unpaid. Facilities often expect volunteers to make a minimum commitment of time (i.e. – 6 months to 1 year) but may last indefinitely. Primarily for safety and liability reasons, volunteers typically do not work directly with collection animals. Instead, they usually work along side paid staff fulfilling labor focused tasks like cleaning feces, diet preparation, scrubbing enclosures, data entry and landscaping duties - just to name a few. Volunteering can be very hard work. You will get very dirty and you will not be paid. Sounds fun right?
Well, the benefits of volunteering are plentiful. As a volunteer, you have the incredible opportunity to learn directly from professionals working in positions that you hope to attain. Even though you may not work directly with the animals, you are around them and might be allowed to attend special management activities such as training sessions, veterinary procedures, breeding encounters, and more. The value gained in even witnessing these events is immeasurable.
Volunteering is also a fantastic chance for you to learn about yourself. Is the job really a good fit for you? If you didn’t like scrubbing enclosures or if picking up animal waste turned your stomach – then maybe animal keeper isn’t the career for you. Bored with data entry or cleaning the lab? Then maybe research is not in your future. But if you enjoy the things you do as a volunteer, then chances are high that you will love making a career of it!
If you are able to obtain a volunteer position, you should approach it as though it is a working interview. You have the chance to display your work ethic and show potential employers that you are willing to do the most unpleasant tasks.
To find out more about specific volunteer opportunities, visit the website of your local accredited zoo, aquarium, or exotic wildlife facility.
Misha Body with an African penguin while working as a volunteer at Mystic Aquarium.