Careers in Animal Care, Conservation and Zoology - Some FAQs

by ZSL on

Interested in working for wildlife but got some questions about where to start, how much you might earn or why work experience is important? Following our fully booked ZSL Animal Careers Conference 2022 we answer some of the most asked questions we received...

Bird keeper Corrine Millar and Whipsnade's penguins

Animal Care


1. Do you need a university degree to work in animal care? And if so, which one should I choose?

There are many different routes into animal care and zookeeping. Some will study animal related courses at college, some choose to go to university and study a degree in zoology, animal sciences or similar, all of which may help you in applying for a position.  However, many entry level jobs don’t require this and will train you on the job itself, such as the apprenticeships offered by ZSL. 

See some useful lists of possible training routes here:

BIAZA | Training Courses

UCAS | Animal Science and related courses

Nearly all jobs will look for a wealth of experience, so starting to get this early is vital. Hands-on animal care experience through volunteering at a zoo, farm, animal shelter or even pet shop will help you prove you have the required skills for the job.

It is always good to keep volunteering if you can and can afford to, as it helps you to keep your foot in the door and will be able to apply for internal jobs as they come up. Volunteering may also give you the opportunity to work with a range of species before you decide what you would like to specialise in. Any and all experience will help you, so go for any opportunities that arise – even if it’s not the animal group you want to end up with!

The links below list some of the current volunteering and job vacancies available in the sector. Take a look to see what they ask for: 

ZSL | Volunteering
Animal Jobs Direct
BIAZA | Careers
Conservation Jobs
Environment Job
Environment Jobs
Green Jobs

The following links are to online courses run by reputable organisations which can help to further your knowledge on conservation and wildlife: 

Field Studies Council | Biolink courses
NatGeo | Exploring conservation 


2. How do people decide on what group of animals they want to specialise in?

A lot of people who work with animals have worked across a range of species before choosing to specialise on one group. Other people don’t specialise and will spend their careers working with different groups. If you are unsure which species or groups you would like to work with the best thing may be to work or gain experience with a range of animals and then choose the species you enjoy working with the most.

Most zoos have teams that specialise on a certain animal group (hoofstock, reptiles, primates etc.), but keepers can often move between these across their career. 


3. Are there any specialised roles which focus on the animal training within the zookeeper environment?

Training makes up a large part of all zookeepers’ roles. However, ZSL are luckily to have their own Animal Training and Behaviour Officer who oversees the training plans and needs of all of our animals. 

For more information on this role, take a look at a day in the life of ZSL’s training officer:

Jim Mackie – A day in the life | ZSL 

Or watch his 2021 talk at the EAZA conference:

Watch Here


4. What are the wage rates across roles like? 

For zookeepers, the average salary in the UK is £22,205 according to Glassdoor (February, 2022). 

Most trainee roles start at approximately £16-17,000 a year. Salary may increase depending on experience and the collection. There is good career progression within the role, you may progress to supervisor, senior keeper or head keeper. Zoo Curator or Director is sometimes classed as the highest position where the salary can reach £50,000.


5. What subjects and grades to you need to access the zookeeping apprenticeship?

You'll usually need around at least 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), or equivalent, including English and maths, for an advanced apprenticeship. A levels will often be desirable too. 


Vet Taina Strike performing a colobus monkey ultrasound at ZSL London Zoo

Veterinary and Wildlife Health Services


1. How do you specialise in exotic species and wildlife as a vet?

To become a zoo veterinarian specialising in exotic species, you need to start off be undertaking the same undergraduate training as those working with domestic species, then specialise later in your training. Veterinary Science courses will focus heavily on the domestic species, giving you a strong foundation, after which you will have to specialise in through your residency training, fellowship and other certificates.

The route is similar for veterinary nurses, though requires slightly fewer years of study and there are a few different routes in. You can do a foundation course or BSc in Veterinary Nursing or in some cases can apply and train directly in employment as a student or apprentice nurse through a Training Practice approved by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). You would still then need to do some specialist training to work with exotics. 


2. Do you have to be particularly strong at science to become a zoo vet?

Science is the core foundation to the work of a vet, so a good understanding of it is essential. Undergraduate degrees typically ask for three As at A level or equivalent. 

The Royal Veterinary College runs an access programme for students who want to study veterinary medicine but who might not otherwise meet the entry requirements. Open for UK students who come from a 'widening participation' background, the RVC's Veterinary Gateway course includes an extra preparatory year designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills you need to study veterinary medicine.  


3. What is the expected salary of a vet or vet nurse?

A newly qualified veterinary nurse can expect a salary between £18 – 22,000 which increases with service and experience. The average salary for a senior vet nurse is £28,000.

Starting salaries for newly-qualified veterinarians are generally around £30,500 to £35,500. This can rise with experiences to between £40,000 to £70,000. Vets working in large animal practices tend to earn more than those working with smaller animals, and salaries tend to be at the lower end of spectrum when working in zoological collections as opposed to private practices. 


EDGE team in the Maldives

Science and Conservation

1. Do you have to have a university degree to work in science or as a conservationist?

To work in scientific research, like those within ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, an undergraduate degree is the essential way in, to ground you in the scientific fundamentals necessary for your work. It’s the route that most people take into conservation too, though some people do get into field conservation by building up extensive field work experience in other ways such as volunteering. 

Some entry level lab technician roles are also open to those without a degree, so are worth looking into for experience. 

There are a number of free online courses to help build up your understanding and experience, such as those developed by ZSL and United for Wildlife:

Free Online Conservation Courses


2. There are so many university degrees to choose from involving zoology, ecology, conservation and animals. How do you choose?! 

The best way to select which undergraduate course to do is make sure you look at the individual modules each course offers. If you’re unsure of what route you want to take, look for those that are very broad in the first year with many different topics, and allowing you to specialise as you progress and learn more.

If you are more sure of the specialism you want to follow, such as marine biology, go for it! It won’t necessarily close doors later in your career as there are many ways of sidestepping between sectors, plus shifting to a different lane may mean you bring some fresh perspectives with you from your specialism. 

If you’re keen to work in conservation, one key thing to look out for is options to spend some time working in the field to gain the key skills that will help you later in your career. 

If you’d be more interested in working in a lab, look for courses known for their lab time.


3. Are there any universities linked with ZSL?

ZSL’s jointly runs two masters programmes with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in Wild Animal Biology and Wild Animal Health. We also host PhD students in our Institute of Zoology from many different universities. Find out more:
ZSL | Study and Research Opportunities


4. Are there any skills which are surprisingly useful in science and conservation?

As technology becomes more and more vital in understanding and tackling the global biodiversity crisis, skills in coding and software engineering are becoming more desirable.

A key part of conservation science also lies in communicating it to the wider world and engaging people in your work, from school students to politicians, so public engagement experience and proven communication skills (written, spoken or even digital) will also help.

People who move into conservation from other sectors are also bringing increasingly useful expertise into the field. Even if you don’t head straight into the environmental sector, skills and knowledge from areas like economics, business and law will definitely help you to stand out. 


Additional Questions:


1. Do you offer work experience for 14/15 year olds at ZSL?

At ZSL London Zoo our work experience programme is currently only offered to Year 10 students from the boroughs of Camden and Westminster. The programme is in its infancy and as such we only run this through targeted local schools due to the logistics necessary. 

Some collections offer work experience to students ages 16+. The link below details work experience programmes from BIAZA members across the UK.

BIAZA | Work Experience


2. Can we watch the Animal Careers Conference Back?

ZSL’s Animal Careers Conference 2022 was not recorded in its entirety; however elements of the event will be available to watch through our social channels as they are released throughout the year. 

We have developed a number of similar talks which can be found at the links below:

Becoming a Zookeeper | ZSL London Zoo

Wildlife Conservationism | ZSL

Life as a PR | ZSL London Zoo

Delivering Conservation Education – The Life of a Zoo-Based Educator | ZSL Whipsnade Zoo


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