Launch - In Depth - July 2018

Keeper-for-a-Day Programs Delight Guests and Provide Zoo Funding

by Keith Miller

COLCHESTER ZOO 
Participants in the keeper-for-a-day program at the Colchester Zoo
spend a half day learning about animals and their care.
(Credit: Colchester Zoo)

A trend seeing enormous growth in popularity at attractions of all types gives guests exclusive behind-the-scenes access and special experiences. 

At zoos and aquariums, hands-on keeper-for-a-day programs provide visitors with an extended visit to back-of-house areas they’d otherwise never get to see. 

The Toronto Zoo (www.torontozoo.com) in Ontario, Canada, first began its “Keeper for a Day” program around 1999, becoming an early adopter of the concept. The zoo offers a half-day program for $200 to zoo members and $300 for a full-day experience. Non-members pay $50 more for each. 

“They get a half-day or full-day look at the behind-the-scenes space of the zoo, but they also clean the habitats and prepare animal meals. They are allowed to do most of a keeper’s duties,” explains Ashley Fell, an animal care keeper at the Toronto Zoo. “We also get to share some stories with them that zoo guests don’t normally hear, and they get all their questions answered.”

Ryan Hegarty, a wildlife care keeper at the Toronto Zoo, says the fees guests pay to participate are reinvested in growth and protecting natural ecosystems.

“It supports the continuing education of the keepers, and another portion goes to conservation programs that are near and dear to the keepers,” Hegarty says.

Unlike many zoos that allow only guests ages 18 and older to participate in keeper-for-a-day programs, the Toronto Zoo accommodates teenagers 14 years and older. Fell says often keepers will tailor experiences to cater to teens.

“Sometimes we also need them to focus on multiple things, which they’re not always able to do! Also, a lot of them sign up because they’re interested in being a keeper, and they often think it’s a glamorous job. But they see it involves things like cleaning up.” 

The Colchester Zoo (www.colchester-zoo.com) in Colchester, Essex, England, offers a half-day keeper-for-a-day program available to guests for £210. Hayley Wells, a marketing assistant at the zoo, says the program helps to fund the continued development of enclosures, the construction of new areas for animals, and general maintenance on zoo grounds. 

Beyond the revenue the program generates, Wells says she feels the personal experience can spark an interest in becoming a zoo keeper as a career.

“We are always keen to inspire the younger generation to work with animals and learn more about conservation. It is also a great way for them to appreciate the work that is involved in becoming a keeper, as well as learning some exciting new skills that can be applied to their future,” Wells concludes.