Here’s the first interview for my Amateur Vagrant’s Living the Dream series. I interviewed Amanda Sorenson, my adorable cousin and a badass zookeeper. She spends her days outside, feeding and caring for the herds of animals at the safari park where she works. Does that sound like your kind of dream job? Read on and see if it’s for you!
Q: Did you always want to be a zookeeper? What prepared you for this experience?
A: I always wanted to work with animals, but when I was in the ninth grade my mom found this program at the zoo near my house called the Keeper Aide program and I got to follow the keepers around and help with the animals. It was once-a-week, year-round during high school and then during breaks from college, but I would go in more often. It was all volunteer. Then I took an unpaid internship at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college and that was full-time. I worked with the bird show there. We had to do all the diet prep and things like that, so for raptors we would cut up the mice and chicks and mealworms and stuff like that. We cleaned their enclosures, brought them down to the stage and helped from behind the scenes, like releasing the birds and catching them back.
Q: How long did you have to go to school? What kind of special courses did you have to take?
A: Most zookeeper jobs require a bachelor’s degree in some kind of natural science like biology or zoology. There are zookeeper schools you can go to and get an associate’s in a zookeeper program, too. You usually need at least a four year degree and lots of internships and lots of volunteer experience before you can get a real job.
Q: Was it hard to find a job in your field? What was the hardest part of the job search?
A: Zookeeping is a very, very competitive field. There’s the AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] and that’s like any big names: The Pittsburgh Zoo, The National Zoo, etc. It’s a lot harder to get jobs at AZA zoos. They require three years paid experience, so lots of people get jobs in private zoos and work their way up, but some people even have trouble getting jobs in private zoos. A lot of it is luck. I applied to twenty places: I heard back for an interview from a place in Baltimore and this place and that was it. I think I had the necessary experience because this is just an entry-level position, but I was also lucky because I went to school like an hour away so I could easily come up for an interview, etc. A lot of zoos, even private zoos, they’ll get like two thousand applications for one position. They also get a lot of applications from people who just like animals and don’t realize all the requirements of the position.
Q: What’s your day like? How many hours do you work per day?
A: During the week we work eight hours a day most of the time, unless something happens, and on the weekend we work nine hour days because we’re busier. In the morning, I do special feedings for some of the animals. Then I clean the poop off the roads, I let the rhinos and the giraffes out, and then I go over to the quarantine barn and feed all those animals and give them all water and hay. Then I clean all of the barns, I clean out the whole giraffe barn every day. And then I have lunch. Afternoons are usually for projects we have to do which aren’t animal related, like weed-whacking or removing cobwebs. Sometimes we need to catch any animals in the safari park, or every other month we need to deworm llamas and I’m in charge of the llamas.
Q: Is your job everything you thought it would be? What’s different?
A: I love all the animals I work with, but people might not think about how you have to work outside and work in all weather: rain, snow, extreme heat, etc. Although in fall and spring it’s usually really nice.
Q: What’s your favorite animal? Why?
A: The bongos, because they all have the best personalities. They’re like little puppy dogs and they always want to lick you and come up to you and bother you when you’re trying to clean, and the babies are really cute.