In order to teach the public about animals, zoos and wildlife centers are hiring educators. Some zoos have classrooms where visitors can listen to a lecture and observe — and in some cases even pet — an animal. At Turtleback Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey, children and their parents fill a classroom to learn about tarantulas, snakes, and small birds. Some fearless children walk right up to the tarantulas and snakes. Others cower behind their moms and dads. All come away with a bit of new knowledge.
The goal of most zoos and wildlife centers is to make their institutions user friendly. At Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio, visitors not only learn about an animal and its habitat, they can watch a few medical procedures — from routine checkups to emergency surgeries. “My job is to stand on the people side of the glass and explain what's happening,” says Victoria A. Putnam, education assistant at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Putnam works out of the zoo's new state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, the Sarah Allison Steffee Center for Zoological Medicine. “It's pretty cool stuff. I love it because the information I can share with the people is endless. I can talk about animals, the environment they come from, conservation of that species, how the zoo cares for our animals, zoo careers, medical treatments, and what zoos are doing to improve wildlife for the animals.”
Putnam got her bachelor's degree in biology from Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. From the time she could pronounce the word “biologist,” she wanted to work with animals. Upon graduating, she found that getting a job was a lot harder than she imagined. She worked part-time at the Cleveland Clinic at night and as a waitress during the day. “Waitressing paid the bills,” she explains. “It helped me get by. I didn't enjoy the work at the Cleveland Clinic because there was too much testing going on; I just didn't enjoy that aspect of the job.”
Several zoos have educators on their staff. Some also use volunteer docents to teach the public about the animals. At some zoos, the education person might also handle other duties, such as marketing and public relations. The number of people working in a marketing, education, or publicity department depends on the size of the zoo.
She also took a seasonal job as a counselor at the Cleveland Zoo. “It was the first year that the zoo started a day camp,” she explains. “By the end of the summer, a position in the education department opened up. I applied for it and got the job. It was quite exciting because the zoo had just built this state-of-the-art 24,000-square-foot veterinary facility.”
The public part — called the learning lab — also includes an exhibition space. It's here where Putnam spends most of her day. “The public lines up to watch our talks,” she says. “They like getting a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo — how the veterinarians take care of the animals. We draw crowds from schools, camps, and general visitors.”
Putnam recommends that if you are interested in a career as an educator at a zoo or wildlife center, you should minor in education and get your bachelor's degree in biology or animal science. Zoo educators can earn between $34,000 and $42,000 with benefits.