There was a time long ago when the zoo manager, supertintendent, CEO, president or whatever you choose to call the zoo director attained the position of distinction by first pursuing a job of zoo keeper. Indeed, in the history of keeping wild animals many zoo directors began their careers as bonified zoo animal husbandry specialists. With common sense, animal sense, good people skills, an intense drive and passion, and an appreciation for the zoo visitor experience, it was possible for an ambitious zoo keeper to become a zoo director. It is not to say that you can’t follow that path today, but zoos are far more complex than they once were. Different skill sets are required to manage a zoological park today.
Running a zoo is more than just managing a live animal collection. I’ve heard people liken a zoo directorship to operating a farm or a domestic or alternative livestock ranch, but running a zoo is much more complicated. Within the administrative hierarchy of a zoo, there are people dedicated specifically to managing the animal related programs. These individuals work under the zoo director as curators and animal care supervisors, managing the animal collections and the keepers who directly care for the animals. The scope of work performed by the zoo director is extensive and he or she must be proficient at multi-tasking. Zoo directors lead dynamic organizations, shape their future and instill a conservation ethic in their staff. Managing people in various disciplines is a standard operating procedure for the head of a zoological park.
As cultural attractions, zoos must compete with other public venues, and continue to draw crowds to generate revenue just to sustain themselves financially. Some benefit from associated fundraising organizations and others do receive subsidies and government funding, but by and large a zoo is a business and it requires more than a manager; it requires a strong business leader.
We certainly don’t want to discourage you from pursuing your dreams in the event that you want to run a zoo. Many people are quite content as zoo keepers or as other non-administrative zoo professionals. However, if you do have ambitions to become a zoo director the good news is that the positions are now held by a much wider range of visionary leaders from a diversity of backgrounds. Many come from fields entirely unrelated to animal husbandry.
Although an education in animal science or biology may be deemed helpful, a business degree won’t hurt. Again, zoos are businesses. Whether a zoo is a for profit or nonprofit entity and whether or not they receive government funding, they require fiscally responsible and politically savvy leaders at their helm. A zoo director must manage a multitude of department heads, including the division managers of PR, visitor services, advancement, education, horticulture, and facilities maintenance. This is all in addition to managing the head of the animal care department.
So it may not surprise you that many zoo directors have MBA’s or certificates in executive leadership. There are also a few directors who hold advanced degrees like PhD’s and DVM’s, but it is increasingly rare to find a zoo director with credentials other than a business degree, unless they have commensurate experience. And regardless of one’s academic training, leadership experience is everything. Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach leadership. Leadership doesn’t come with any specific credential, it comes from passion, confidence and emotional intelligence. So when you are ready to pursue your first zoo directorship make sure you know what you are getting in to. It is a zoo out there!
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