Dream job: zookeeper

DIKKA is not only Zoo Berlin’s favourite popstar and species protection ambassador – the rapping rhino is also happy to pitch in and get his hooves dirty.

Our big grey buddy became a trainee for a day when he accompanied animal keeper and pachyderm division head Mario Hammerschmidt on a typical day’s work with the rhinos, tapirs and warty pigs that live in the recently opened Rhino Pagoda.

Behind the scenes of the new animal house, it quickly became clear that being a keeper is not easy – it’s a job that requires both brains and brawn. How many wheelbarrows-full of food does a rhino eat? What does a rhino toilet look like? And why are rhinos an endangered species? Check out DIKKA’s work experience day in the video.

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The summer holidays have begun, which for many means embarking on trainee programmes or summer internships in their dream job and finding out whether the career they’re interested in is really the right one for them. Marco König is deputy manager of the animal keeping department at Zoo Berlin, where he has worked for almost 30 years – including as a keeper and division head for various ungulates. We talked to him about animal-keeping as a dream job and the extent to which the reality differs from the dream.

Zoo Berlin: If someone says they work as a zookeeper, you immediately get the impression they spend their days cuddling cute baby animals and enjoying up-close encounters with fascinating species. But in reality, the profession covers a broad range of responsibilities. What does daily life as a keeper actually look like?

Marco König (M.K.): Many people have a false, romanticised idea of animal-keeping as a profession. But there is much more to working with exotic animals than petting them and spoiling them with treats. Realistically, about 70 to 80 percent of the work consists of mucking out and cleaning the animals’ homes. The work is very physical and can be quite strenuous – and it needs to get done on 30-degree summer days as well as in the depths of winter, on public holidays and at weekends. Keepers also have to prepare and distribute the animals’ food, be able to tell if an animal is unwell and know how to keep them healthy. We help look after sick animals too, of course, and are usually the ones responsible for follow-up treatment – such as the administration of medication. Behavioural enrichment and training the animals for medical purposes are also part of a keeper’s job. Nowadays, however, we don’t just work with the animals, we are also involved in designing the habitats, leading commentated feeding sessions and communicating with visitors. Every day, Zoo Berlin is visited by many families, school groups and tourists, so basic language skills and a general ability to communicate – including in interviews, for example – are becoming an increasingly important part of the job.

Zoo Berlin: What is the application process for apprenticeships and trainee keepers?

M.K.: The application process consists of a recruitment test and an in-person interview. For applicants under 18, a medical report is required to confirm they are physical fit enough for the profession. Traineeships last three years in total, the first two of which are spent rotating through different divisions. This gives the trainees good insight into the Zoo’s diverse animal populations and their various needs. The third year of training is then spent either focusing on one particular division or catching up on any areas they have missed that are relevant to the exam. Trainees don’t come into contact with dangerous animals until their third year, as working with those species requires special attention and carefully learned safety practices. The work also continues on weekends and public holidays. In addition to gaining practical experience, trainees attend vocational school to learn basic knowledge about animal-keeping, anatomy, behavioural theory, taxonomy and diet – as well as laws relating to species and nature conservation. Naturally, maths and English also form part of the curriculum. It’s important that the applicants thoroughly research the profession in advance so they are clear about what they are getting into.

Zoo Berlin: What do you look for when selecting applicants? What are the prerequisites and do you have any tips for people looking to get into this career?

M.K.: It’s important that the applicants are enthusiastic about a career in animal-keeping. An interest in animals and a connection to nature are vital. If you don’t like physical work and getting your hands dirty, this is not the job for you. Empathy and good observational skills are also important, as are reliability and tenacity. At the very least, we like applicants to have a Realschulabschluss [GCSE-level education], but some of our applicants also have their Abitur [A-level education]. These days, prior work experience at a zoo or zoo-like institution is also a prerequisite. We can tell very quickly if someone sees the profession purely as a way to pet animals and post some nice photos on social media. We also like to see that the applicant has familiarised themselves with the work of Zoo Berlin. You can tell straight away in the interview if someone has not done their research. So I always recommend visiting the Zoo in advance to get a first-hand impression of the place, informing yourself about our work by exploring our website, learning about our species protection projects, and basically gathering as much information as possible. There is stiff competition, but with enough motivation and commitment, you can stand out from the crowd.

Next year’s keeper training programme starts in September 2024; applications are open until 1 November 2023. All information on traineeships at Zoo Berlin can be found here.

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