Zoological and Wildlife Parks Director
When Dr. William Rives was asked to become the director of Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari, he jumped at the opportunity. “I did have to talk it over with my wife,” he says, “but I took the job because I knew that I could affect policy. The major concerns here are the welfare of the animals and the enjoyment of our guests. We want this place to be a sanctuary for the animals and a place of learning for the people who drive through the park.”
He still works as the head veterinarian at Wild Safari. As director of the safari park, he oversees a staff of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, animal trainers, wardens (zookeepers), and seasonal workers. Wild Safari is open from April through November, but staff is kept busy taking care of the animals year-round.
Dr. Rives also attends a good number of meetings. He likes hearing suggestions from his staff and enjoys coming up with ideas to enhance the park and park experience for visitors. His favorite part of the job — hands down — is driving through the safari and tending to the animals.
The path to a career as a director in a zoo or wildlife center can be serendipitous. Some positions require a bachelor's degree; others require a PhD or veterinary degree. Often people in the zoological world start out in an entry- or mid-level position and work their way up. The one certainty to obtaining a job in this field is to start out part-time as a volunteer — even if that means doing grunt work, like cleaning cages. When you volunteer and do a good job, people who are hiring notice. When a job opens up, you will definitely have an edge.
Jim Anderson, director of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo in Indiana, started at the zoo as a seasonal worker. “I was home from college as a music major looking for a summer job,” he says. “I happened by the zoo and thought, ‘That would be an interesting job.’ I was hired as a summer seasonal, driving the train, mowing grass, cleaning restrooms, and feeding and cleaning the animals. That was 32 years ago. I moved up from summer employee to zookeeper, supervisor, curator, assistant director, and now director.
“I loved that first summer at the zoo,” he says. “I liked being in the role of caregiver. I liked learning about animals — in the wild and at the zoo. I liked the public aspect of the zoo — showing people animals and seeing them enjoy their experience while they learned a little.”
Anderson advises people interested in the profession to make sure it is the right calling. “Working in a zoo isn't just watching monkeys swing on the vine all day. Make sure you have the right character attributes, personality, and skill set for the position you seek. Then learn all you can and seek experience where you can find it.”
He recommends joining the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which posts jobs on its website. “Be willing to start from the bottom, gain experience, and work your way up,” he adds.
In addition to getting a bachelor's, master's, doctorate, or veterinary degree, it helps to have a business background. Additional schooling in business, marketing, and/or communication is a big plus. “The zoo business can be tough to get into,” says Anderson, “but the former director here used to say, ‘There's always room for the good ones.’ It is a very tight profession, but there are opportunities. Some success may depend upon good timing.”