Zoo keeping is not a new career path: there have been people hired to manage wildlife collections since ancient times. Hieroglyphs in the tombs of ancient Egyptians and engraved on the Assyrian royal palaces of Mesopotamia clearly show antelope, baboons, lions, falcons, and other local animal species being held on display for royalty and those of a high social class to enjoy.
Similar collections also appeared in parts of ancient China, India, Persia, and Greece. Explorers to the New World in the 16th century found extensive animal collections among the Aztec and Inca civilizations, which also included the creation of fresh- and salt-water ponds for various fish and other aquatic species.
Though the animal displays in antiquity were created mainly for the enjoyment and status of the monarchy and the wealthy in society, people of lower social status were hired to catch the wild animals and care for them in captivity. The standard of care was understandably much lower than it is today. These early zookeepers didn’t have the specialized knowledge of diet, behavior, and habitat requirements of the species in their care, and as a result many of the animals became ill or died after a short time in captivity.
Zookeeping was much less sophisticated and animal-centric than it is today and initially likely only involved giving the animals food and water and occasionally changing their cage and bedding material. “Care” often involved beating the wild animals into submission or keeping them tethered out of arm’s reach. Behaviors such as aggression or noise were dealt with harshly, with many animals sustaining broken bones from the punishment inflicted by their keepers.
As time went on and the maintenance of the animals was passed down through the families charged with their care, more knowledge was acquired through experience. With proper care and training, the animals became more docile and were less likely to become ill in captivity. These animals, which sometimes even included dogs, didn’t have an invisible fence. Zookeepers became proficient in handling and medically assisting with the animals in their care as zoos evolved slowly from shows of power and luxury in ancient civilizations to collections for scientific discovery in the late 1700’s. It was at this time that zoos became open to the public, and the zookeepers began using their developing knowledge to educate the patrons about the species of animals in their care.
With the emergence of the study of ecology in the 1970’s, it became clear that zoos had to start focusing on animal conservation, as some of the animals being kept in captivity were of endangered species, the decline of which was brought on by human activities such as overhunting and clear-cutting. Zookeepers began assisting with the breeding of endangered species in captivity, with the ultimate goal of releasing them back into the wild. Their role of educating the public on conservation methods and environmental concerns became more and more important.
Zookeepers today in the 21st century consider their jobs to be part caretaker, part teacher, and part conservationist. Specialized care to the animals is of the utmost importance, followed by educating the public about the animals and their habitats and participating in conservation measures and programs through observation and study.