So you want to work in a zoo?

You study zoology? So what do you want to do with that then, work in a zoo?

It’s a question I have heard over and over again.

I suppose that part of me finds it amusing, but another part of me just wants to beat my head against the wall.

I suppose for anyone who doesn’t know what the subject of zoology entails, thinking that I want to work in a zoo is a reasonable assumption – in reality, I wouldn’t need a degree in zoology to get a job in a zoo; a qualification in animal management would be sufficient.

‘Zoology’ is derived from the Latin ‘zoo’ – of animals – and ‘-logy’ – denoting a subject of interest

Zoology encompasses a broad range of topics relating to animal life; for example so far in my first year I have studied modules in biochemistry, cell biology, animal anatomy and physiology, ecology, animal behaviour and genetics.

I appreciate that zoology is a somewhat unusual subject (the reaction I get anytime a person asks me what I study is a testament to that), but I have to admit it is rather frustrating to have to repeatedly explain that I won’t be mucking out rhinos for a living.

Personally, I’m not actually particularly keen on zoos. Initially they were simply exhibits where people could pay to see interesting animals, although in recent years the focus has shifted to the conservation of endangered species and I believe that zoos can be used to produce insightful and constructive studies into animal behaviour and disease.

Green mamba at Chester Zoo

Studying animals in a captive environment compared with their natural habitat does present challenges in itself and could produce results that are not representative of wild populations.

Behavioural studies in particular are likely to form very different conclusions when they are conducted ex situ as opposed to in situ: captive animals often develop repetitive behaviours that arise from stress or boredom. However, studies into how animals learn could be successful in zoos, as the environment is more easily controlled than it would be when studying wild animals.

I was pleasantly surprised on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park to only see a couple of animals displaying the stereotypical pacing behaviour that I had been expecting – the enclosures there are well enriched, and I saw many animals actively engaging with the materials that had been provided for them.

Ring-tailed lemur at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Research into diseases can be conducted in zoos: for example, Chester Zoo is leading the way with research into elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV), which can be fatal and currently has no effective cure.

Asian elephant at Chester Zoo

While this aspect of conservation would no doubt be a fascinating and rewarding place to work, it is not an area that I feel particularly drawn to.

Studying zoology here in Lincoln is a stepping stone to the career I would like to build and I am constantly thinking about what I would like to do after I graduate… at the moment I am not entirely sure about what I would like to focus on; I am keen to become involved in conservation projects and I find reptiles, birds and insects especially captivating. Whenever I get chance, I head out to practice with my camera and I am considering options that would take me down the route of wildlife photography and film-making.

Studying ecology over the past few weeks has given me a new appreciation for considering ecosystems as a whole, and the complex network of relationships and fine balance maintained between species is proving to be fascinating.

Wild elephant herd in Tsavo National Park, Kenya

The next two years could present opportunities that I haven’t even thought of yet, so I am trying to remain open-minded about the future – one thing I do know however, is that I am unlikely to end up working in a zoo!