Animal Tales

How to be a Zookeeper

Melissa Spreda

Melissa Spreda worked hard to get animal experience before getting a zookeeper job at the Zoo’s Aquatic & Reptile Center. Photo by Richard Taylor

It’s morning. Milwaukee County Zoo Aquatic & Reptile Center zookeeper Melissa Spreda is going about her daily routine monitoring water temperatures and checking on animals. She makes her way to the Pacific Exhibit featuring the California sheephead, a fish that is large and in charge. Spreda feeds the other fish, ignoring the wide-jawed sheephead. In a fit of rage at being snubbed, it flips its dark red and black tail against the water, soaking Spreda from head to toe.

Years of education, internships and jobs have brought Spreda to this point in her life. And she’s standing in a puddle of fish tank water.

The California sheephead is notorious for splashing the zookeepers. But the keepers still feed, monitor and care for it daily. As Spreda would tell you, it takes a lot of patience, time, effort – and towels – to be a zookeeper. This rewarding, often messy career doesn’t just happen overnight. Becoming a zookeeper is all about the experience and lots of it.

Spreda’s lifelong passion for animals led her to an undergraduate degree in biology and captive wildlife management, followed by a master’s in biology and a post-baccalaureate certificate in zoo and aquatic studies. A master’s degree isn’t necessary for the zookeeping profession, but it certainly helps. She worked as a veterinarian’s assistant, animal lab manager, intern – twice – and animal manager at a pet store before landing a job at the Milwaukee County Zoo. “Experience is vital,” Spreda says. “I don’t know a zookeeper that has gotten a job without an internship. Be persistent.”

Amy Andree, a keeper in the Zoo's Winter Quarters area

Amy Andree, a keeper in the Zoo’s Winter Quarters area, works in the South America Exhibit near an alpaca. Keepers have to perform many tasks, including cleaning, feeding, training and medicating. Photo by Richard Taylor

Amy Andree, zookeeper in the Winter Quarters, understands diligence. She knew from age 6, when she attended a dolphin show, that she wanted to work with animals. Her passion brought her to Honolulu, where she studied marine biology at Hawaii Pacific University. Andree held multiple internships and temporary zookeeping jobs all over the country before landing a full-time job at the Milwaukee County Zoo. “You have to bounce around to different zoos to get a variety of experiences and work with a variety of animals,” Andree says. “Getting hands-on experience whenever possible is important.”

Milwaukee native and longtime zookeeper Ryan Taylor started his career at the NEW Zoo in Green Bay followed by seven years at Disney’s Animal Kingdom before heading home to the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2015. He suggests that the younger you start getting experience, the better. “Stay in school and study science, even if you don’t like it or it’s hard,” Taylor says.

Zookeeper Ryan Taylor

Zookeeper Ryan Taylor tells a group of Zoo visitors about the enrichment activities for hippos. Keepers have to take care of animals and interact with the public. Photo by Stacy Kaat

“Volunteer at local shelters, vet offices or zoos, and start applying for animal-related positions during college.”Zookeeping is tough work, physically and emotionally. Feeding, cleaning, medicating, lifting, training, enriching, washing and much more are part of daily work. For Spreda, Andree and Taylor, one of the hardest parts of the job is seeing an animal become sick or die, especially after working so closely with them. “It’s tough sometimes,” Andree says, “but we do it for the animals.”

Is it all worth it? A unanimous “yes.” Being up close and personal with the animals, watching them achieve a new skill and educating the public are just some things zookeepers say make their job a rewarding one. “I have always wanted to be a zookeeper for as long as I can remember,” Taylor says. “Having accomplished that goal and being able to have my dream job is a wonderful feeling.”

By Mary Jo Contino

Zookeeper-in-Training Checklist

  • Decide you want to work with animals.
  • Go to college for something related to biology or animal science.
  • Get lots of animal-related experience, including internships.
  • Find a specialty, but try different things.
  • Don’t give up.