Dan Rumsey (pronouns: he/him) is a seasoned zoo keeper with many years experience working across many Australian zoos and reptile parks including famous institutions like Australia Zoo. Dan has always been passionate about reptiles and by building his experience and maintaining a positive attitude, he has been able to build and sustain a successful career in the industry.
Dan knows the zoo industry inside out and his career has given him so much fulfilment. In this article, he shares what a typical day as a zookeeper looks like as well as his advice for pursuing a job in this industry from his own experience to inspire the next generation of keepers.
From a young age, Dan had always been fascinated by reptiles and kept them as pets.
“I remember when I was young, I got my first pet blue tongue lizard. I still remember getting my first pet snake when I was about 10 or something – so it was really reptiles that caught my interest from a young age, and I guess I’ve followed that through my career as well.”
Dan has kept reptiles for a number of years and still does. He laughs –
When he left school, Dan travelled around until he realised that he wanted to pursue a career in something he felt passionately about – and for Dan that was reptiles. He shares –
“When I left school, I did a bit of travel and fluffed around for a few years to be fair, much to my parents’ dismay. And then I still remember I was actually traveling through Europe when I thought to myself, I’ve always loved reptiles, why don’t I try and do that as a career?”
Dan wondered how he could make that possible – and when he thought about it, he decided zookeeper or keeper might be something he wanted to get into. From there, Dan packed up his life in Queensland and moved south to start volunteering as a reptile keeper at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia.
“And it just went from there.”
From there, Dan has worked at many zoos across Australia as a reptile keeper – Symbio Wildlife Park in Ellensburg, Taronga Zoo in Sydney, the Australian Reptile Park and Australia Zoo in Brisbane to name a few.
uh, as a reptile keeper. And I guess my career just kind of slowed from there. Amazing stuff. I love the way you’ve sort of explained your career as all spiraling. From your own keeping of reptiles, but you mentioned there was a huge amount of negative, I guess, vibes around a lot of reptiles, and that educational component has become a huge part of what you do today.
ADDRESSING MISCONCEPTIONS AROUND REPTILES
Although Dan always had a passion for all reptiles – snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles – he grew up in a time where there were a lot of negative attitudes towards reptiles. Dan and many other reptile enthusiasts have been working extremely hard over the years to change this perception through science communication and Dan happily reflects that he has seen this change a fair bit, especially over the last 10 years. He explains –
“When I was young with pet snakes, every second person would say, the only good snakes are dead snakes. I heard that my whole life growing up, but I don’t hear it as much now.”
“And I genuinely think that people these days are more open to understanding and appreciating snakes, particularly in Australia, possibly because with modern medicine here in Australia, your chance of being killed by a snake is incredibly small. We’ve got great education around snake bite and first aid treatment – and wonderful anti-venoms.”
And Dan feels social media has been important for addressing common misconceptions of reptiles with traditionally bad reputations – especially snakes and crocodiles.
“On social media now, people upload incredible photos and videos of snakes and snake behaviour in a non-confrontational way – and I think snakes have almost become a little bit cool!”
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A ZOO KEEPER
The role of a zookeeper can change dramatically day to day. Dan explains –
“Today is a very good example. Lots of animal stuff – cleaning, feeding and customer interaction. And I guess now, a lot of my role particularly is behind the scenes in the office – managing the collection, motivating staff and teaching the next generation.”
As Dan puts it, the nuts and bolts of zookeeping is cleaning and looking after the animals, making sure they’re provided the best possible care that they can have. Visitor engagement is also really important – guiding their experiences and inspiring them to make small changes in their lifestyles to benefit wildlife and nature. Dan explains –
“Just from messaging, you can actually make a huge impact with small changes, whether it’s reducing plastic usage or making sure waste is disposed of properly – this has huge flow on effects for animals like turtles.”
The zoo is an incredibly important space for many people to engage with nature. Dan says –
“Most people don’t want to walk around the bush for 10 hours and maybe see a koala. Instead, zoos provide that opportunity for people to see and interact with koalas so they can appreciate how important they are, not just to Australia, but around the world!”
In this way, zoos have a huge role to play in bridging the gap between nature and the community in a comfortable way – and inspiring the next generation. Dan reflects –
“I remember as a kid we used to go to Symbio Wildlife Park on Sundays – and then I ended up working there all those years later. It blows my mind.”
Dan has pictures of himself as a kid at Australia Zoo, at the Australian Reptile Park and at Taronga Zoo as well – and he’s been a part of all these institutions since.
CAREER ADVICE FOR ASPIRING ZOOKEEPERS
For people looking to get their foot in the door and work as a zookeeper, Dan sees a few different avenues you can take to get there – but above all it’s about your why and the way you approach it. He says –
“A lot of people ask me about zookeeping and I think a lot of it does come back to having a positive attitude, a willingness to learn and surrounding yourself with really good mentors, networking, and I guess just being passionate.”
“I feel like it’s that above and beyond attitude that gets people places. And I remember when I first started volunteering at Taronga Zoo and I was working two other part-time jobs, but I was so passionate and dedicated, I thought this is my dream, I’m going to do it until it happens – and I was very lucky that it did.”
As someone who now feels fortunate to be in a position where he can provide people with opportunities to grow and develop in their zookeeping career, Dan maintains that it’s all about attitude –
Showing up with a positive high vibe attitude, and putting your best foot forward in everything you do is a really attractive quality in an industry that is fuelled by energy and passion.
Despite this, Dan says that the wildlife industry as a whole could look at providing better pay, career growth and more contract stability to sustain people in the industry:
“It really is a cool job but I have a lot of friends who are keepers above 30 leave the industry or take other opportunities, basically for financial reasons.”
“And that’s scary for the industry as a whole, because it’s 10-, 20-years of knowledge and experience that is lost instead of being passed on to guide the next generation of junior keepers.”
Dan feels that building pathways for people to develop throughout their career and be rewarded in a greater way financially is important so they don’t have to choose between contributing to this industry and buying a house or starting a family.”
Dan also emphasises the importance of looking after yourself throughout your career. He explains –
“Passion fatigue is a term you hear a lot in wildlife fields, and I’m not an expert on it or anything like that, but it’s important to start talking about these things because we do get passionate, dedicated people that burn out.”
Luckily, these issues are being discussed more and more in learning institutions like TAFEs, and there are more and more resources and coping strategies being taught to increase awareness of challenges like passion fatigue and burnout – and hopefully, help the next generation of wildlife enthusiasts to avoid falling victim to them.
For Dan, staying positive and grateful is important to weather the storms and stick out the tough times. Having a positive attitude has been key to his success –
“Definitely attitude’s the key word to take from this chat – having the right attitude, positive attitude, willing to learn, willing to absorb information… Not everything will go your way, but at the end of the day, life’s good, especially if you’re working with animals – sometimes we forget that.”
For Dan, self-reflection is important to remind him of this –
Working with animals continues to inspire his passion for them – and something that keeps him excited about them is taking time to go and see wild animals he has spent so many years caring for in captivity. And when work feels challenging, this is something that always brings Dan back to that positive place –
“Although I wish I knew the absolute secret, for me it’s travel with mates seeing critters that brings it all back. Those moments keep me going and to be honest, it’s probably what inspires me now.”
“And that’s not to say that I don’t still love going to zoos, but it’s getting out in the bush and disappearing in nature for a few days looking for reptiles that keeps me going.”
So, in summary, Dan’s top tips for starting out (and sustaining) your career as a zookeeper:
- Nurture your passion
- Show your dedication by taking opportunities to expand your experience
- Surround yourself with really strong mentors, people that inspire you
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