Are you an animal lover? If you answered ”yes” then you’ve probably considered becoming a zookeeper at least once in your life. Even if it was when you were just a kid.
We caught up with Dublin-based zookeeper Rachel O’Sullivan to find out what the career is really like.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I came from a very musical family, as well as a very animal-orientated one. My mum was and still is a music teacher and my father a farmer. I was naturally engrossed in both worlds as a child. I wanted to be a musical performer and also study nature and wildlife, travelling across the world saving endangered species.
What did you study at college?
I graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a BA in Natural Sciences. I specialised in Zoology. I also obtained a Diploma in Zoo Animal Management from Sparsholt College, Hampshire in the UK while working in Dublin Zoo.
How did you end up at Dublin Zoo?
An old friend saw the advert in a newspaper and called me up, knowing I was looking for a job in the zoology field. The deadline was the following day, so I spent most of the night perfecting my CV. Then I drove up to Dublin and handed it into the reception in person. I got a call asking me to interview and I got the job.
Has it been everything you hoped it would be?
It certainly has, and more. I naively began working in Dublin Zoo thinking I would gain some high-quality experience for a year or so, which I could use to progress my career further afield, in research perhaps. However, I literally fell in love with the whole organisation, what it stood for and the work they do. I also just so happened to meet my future husband there too.
What qualities does Dublin Zoo look for in new hires?
The biggest and most important quality is a passion for caring for animals. You must have a very good understanding of their needs and requirements on a daily basis as well as their long-term needs. A lot of experience working with animals is very important. You must have the utmost regard for health and safety of visitors too.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?
That we cuddle baby animals all day. We don’t get to cuddle anything really! We want to encourage as much species-specific natural behaviours as possible. Our presence with the animals, even if it were safe, would only affect the animals in an unnatural way. But most of the time it would be far too dangerous to share the same space as the animals, let alone cuddle them!
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What is a typical day like?
First, we check in with the team we’re working with. We check our animals and clean the visitor areas. We usually put the animals into their houses and service the outside habitats, checking fences, cleaning and putting out their breakfast.
Depending on the species, there may be training sessions at this point. We ensure everything is secured and let them out. We close the house and service inside and prepare afternoon meals.
There is usually some habitat management to do like putting in fresh bedding, new perching for birds and small primates, topping up sand for elephants and making their sand “pillows” to lay down on at night time to sleep. We also give keeper presentation talks. Before we go home we have brought the animals in for their evening meal.
We write up our reports for the day and check our areas.
Is your job 9-5 or always on?
We work 8:30am-6:30pm in the summer but as daylight recedes so do our hours to 8:30am-4pm in winter. We can generally switch off at home, although with modern technology some of our phones are connected to cameras in the animal habitats so we are constantly checking they’re ok. If an animal is sick or you know they are due to give birth you’re more alert and may need to go back in. For births, we generally like to leave mum be. She knows what she’s doing and our presence could only adversely affect her birth and bond with baby. We just keep a close eye to ensure it’s all going smoothly.
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How do you get a good work-life balance?
It has its challenges. Working as a zookeeper is more like a vocation than a job. There are often times you have to work overtime. As both myself and my husband are zookeepers, it was difficult when we started our family.
When our second child arrived, I made the decision to request a job-sharing position so I could work half my usual hours. Thankfully the Zoo agreed and we are managing our work-life balance much more easily now. I do miss full time but I love the time I have with my family. I will never get these years back with my daughters, time is flying and I will hopefully return to full time when the time is right.
What’s the biggest career lesson you have learned to date?
To be confident in your own abilities. Prove to others you know what you’re doing and you’re the right person for the job. Continue to strive and don’t lose sight of what you’re capable of.
What advice would you give someone looking to become a Zookeeper?
Try and get as much hands-on experience as you can. Develop your intuition and understanding of animals. Always use your common sense. Education is obviously very important and I would always recommend it. Be open to the idea of working abroad as Ireland only has a small career pool for zookeepers and it can be quite competitive. Last but not least be passionate and stay positive!