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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Riches of Zookeepers

If there is one single aspect of zookeeping that turns off many applicants, or sends the most new keepers back out the gate, it's the salary.  Not the sloshing around in fecal matter.  Not the bone-melting heat of summer or the bone-chilling cold of winter.  Not the assorted bites, scratches, kicks, and sprays of urine and/or vomit (from animals, mostly, but hey, I've had some crazy unruly visitors before).

Nope, it's the pay.

How much an entry zookeeper makes varies based on location and institution, usually hovering somewhere between the "Eh, I'm getting by okay" and "Oh boy, saltines for dinner again!" range.  I don't know if I've ever seen a zoo offering minimum wage per se, but I do know a lot of keepers who were watching the "Fight for $15" drama unfold with considerable interest.

It doesn't help that most zookeepers and aquarists have college degrees, which often mean that there are student loans to payback.  It also doesn't help that most zoos and aquariums are located in cities, where rent is usually considerably higher.  So what's a keeper to do?  Take on a second job, maybe a third.  Get a roommate.  Mooch off of family and more fortunate friends.  Tighten the belt, and be opportunistic.  I've never seen such ferocity at a feeding frenzy as entry-level staff when free food is available.  At one of my earlier zoos, making less than $10 an hour in a very expensive East Coast city, my colleagues and I were in a perpetual state of hunger.  When a leftover pizza from a birthday party at the zoo was brought into the break room, I almost lost a finger in the scramble for a slice.

Typically, I can't complain too much about the salaries.  With the exception of the aforementioned hell-hole (where the tyrannical owner once shared his favorite philosophy with me - "Keepers are like Kleenex.  You use them up, then get a new one"), most of the places that I've worked have paid a reasonably wage.  I live pretty cheap as it is.  Most importantly, I don't have student debt, which is a major advantage for a young adult.  Eventually, I got promoted high enough to get a salary that allows me a fairly comfortable existence.  Even so, in my early years as a keeper, there was a year or so where my parents insisted on giving me a grocery allowance, not trusting me entirely not to starve myself to death in the name of misplaced pride.

Keepers complain about salaries, but not as much as you'd think.  Sure, they swap tips for second jobs and roommates and such, and joke affectionately about significant others who are the breadwinners, but it's almost considered bad form.  Maybe it's because they know we all are or were in the same boat at some point, but largely it's because none of us do this for the money, and they fear they'd come across as less committed or too materialistic if they seemed overly focused on matters like money.  I get that.

The thing is, keepers do need to eat.  They need a place to live.  They need gas, or bus fare, or a bike to get to work (unless they are lucky enough to live within walking distance, as I've been before).  We aren't volunteers.  We want to do this, but a livable wage is required.  We'll never be rich, and I don't think any of us expect that.  I do, however, hate when people try to shame anyone who expresses concerns about the salary as "not caring enough" - as in, "If you REALLY wanted to be a zookeeper, you wouldn't mind the salary."

Now, all of this is complicated by the fact that many zoos - almost all AZA ones, at any rate - are nonprofits, so no one is drowning in cash (if you couldn't tell, my humanitarian-of-the-year boss mentioned a few paragraphs up was not AZA, and was certainly not a nonprofit).  Zoos and aquariums are expensive to run as it is without boosting keeper salaries.  Besides, they want to put a lot of that money back into the animals - improved habitats, better care, etc.  I get that too.

The one thing that I wish some directors and curators would understand better, though, is the cost it's taking, summed up in one word - turnover.  Animal care is like most professions - there is an element of pure talent, coupled with the need for experience and training.  When good keepers who have the potential to become great ones drop out because they just can't afford it anymore, you need to replace them with new ones.  New keepers that need time to be trained, and will spend a few years as inexperienced-mistake-makers.  If you have one keeper working a section for ten years rather than five keepers doing it for two years each, you're going to have a much more experienced, productive employee, one who will be more responsive to the animals, notice things more quickly, and work more efficiently.

Zoo administrators are willing to invest in other aspects of the organization - facilities, exhibits, tools, equipment.  Surely we're worth investing in a little more, too.

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