by Erin Hanley, Assistant Academic Director, Loop Abroad
Are you interested in exploring a career with animals and want to gain experience as a volunteer at a zoo? There are facilities all over the world looking for dedicated, caring individuals to fill their zoo volunteer positions. Oftentimes there is no prior experience with animals required and some zoos even welcome volunteers as young as fourteen. If you are caring, responsible, confident and love working with people and animals, a zoo experience could be the perfect fit for you.
To start your search for a position, be sure to cast a wide net. If you limit yourself to one facility or one specific type of animal that you are looking to work with, you may miss out on an amazing opportunity! Research and apply to as many facilities as possible to increase your chances of finding a placement and start your search early.
Many zoos look for volunteers on a seasonal basis and if your goal is to gain zoo experience as a volunteer in the summer, there is probably a winter application deadline. Be aware that as a first time volunteer, you may not be immediately placed in a position that allows you to be hands-on with the animals right away. It is important to take that into consideration when you are applying and be willing to do a variety of other tasks as well.
When completing your application, be sure to answer all parts of every question completely and use proper spelling and grammar. Whether you are applying to a university, internship, job or volunteer program, it is extremely important that you have an email address and voicemail message that sound adult and professional so that you start making a good impression from the first point of contact.
For any references that you list, be sure to ask their permission ahead of time so that they are not caught off guard if the zoo contacts them. When the facility reaches out to discuss your application or offer you an interview, get back to them immediately!
Most zoo volunteer positions have a minimum requirement of hours that you must commit to so be sure that you can honor that. Especially if you are in high school, you are likely to be competing against others your age that need volunteer hours to fill a graduation requirement. College students begin their summer before you do so if you are committed to gaining zoo experience, you should be willing to carve out time in your schedule before you are out of school for the summer.
Familiarize yourself with all health and safety requirements that a volunteer at a zoo must adhere to. For example, be aware of whether the facility requires you to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or rabies or requires you to submit a negative TB test. Many zoo volunteer positions include training and orientation that you must attend and also have a specific dress code.
Once you are actively volunteering, keep in mind that you represent the organization that has welcomed you into their facility. You are making a commitment to support the health, safety and well-being of the animals in any way that you can.
As a volunteer at a zoo, part of your responsibility is to make the campus a welcoming and educational place for your community to visit. You will likely have the opportunity to engage young people in conversations about wildlife and conservation and as an ambassador for animals, it is important to take that seriously.
Show up each day with the goal of helping and learning in any way that you can. Ask lots of questions! Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and take advantage of any opportunity to shadow keepers, technicians, vets, support and maintenance staff and educators.
Make sure that you are organized and meticulous about tracking your hours as you go. If you are seeking credit for service hours for your school, make sure that you present your supervisor with the necessary paperwork in a timely manner. Even if you have not been asked to log your hours for an outside organization, have a formal way to keep track of them for yourself and ask your zoo supervisor what they suggest. If any conflicts arise in your schedule, have an honest, polite, in-person conversation with your supervisor far in advance of the date in question.
The Association of Zoos & Aquariums can help you explore ideas if you are looking for somewhere to start. Loop Abroad also offers amazing zoo experiences in Texas and South Africa if you’d like to check out our programs. Volunteering can be a rich, fulfilling experience that can even help set you on the path to choosing a career!