So you’re going to work in a zoo?

This is the question that has haunted me since I decided I wanted to study zoology. For years I answered people with the same pre-recorded spiel that everyone in my class has engrained in their brains, “not all zoologists work in zoos, there are so many options – conservation programmes, research, academia, post-grad veterinary medicine” and so on. It was only when I started the final year of my degree that I realised I hadn’t actually answered the question – where was I going to work? It was during an in-situ management lecture that I realised what had been in front of me the entire time. The infamous question was put to our class again by our lecturer, but the key difference was that it was rephrased. It wasn’t the presumptuous statement that we were used to, he genuinely wanted to know if anyone in the class was interested in animal husbandry and it hit me, I was. Fast forward to the middle of my final exams and I had been accepted onto a husbandry internship as an aquarist.

So here I am, 3 months in and my only regret is that I didn’t realise this is what I wanted to do sooner. I love my work, my smelly, dirty, exhausting work. Now there’s a new question – what does an aquarist do? Being an aquarist means being a chef, waiter, cleaner, gardener, chemist, doctor and target of water fights. As an intern I’m not authorised to carry out any treatments or water chemistry resets, but I’ve got plenty of other jobs to keep me busy.

Mornings are usually the busiest as there are certain jobs that have to be completed before the aquarium opens to the public. Tanks need to have their water changed, filtration systems cleaned, any algal build up has to be removed, tank glass cleaned and gravel must be cleaned and raked. Water temperatures must be checked daily as well as salinity and levels of dissolved oxygen. We have the luxury of being located on the water’s edge as we can pump the salt water we need directly in from the sea. Inland aquariums need to make their own salt water, a delicate process getting the balance right. Though not the most glamorous of work, I do look forward to it because I get to don waders and hop in with our red-bellied piranha to clean their tank. Alongside these tasks the day’s food also needs to be prepared, this is where a strong stomach comes in handy. The food used varies depending on the animals being fed and is changed from day to day so the animals have some variety. Not only that, but some animals are fussy about what they eat; certain types of fish or vegetable are preferred and even certain parts of the fish are preferred.

Now, the fun part – feeding time. There is a different feeding routine for each tank in the centre. Some tanks have their food scattered in, others are target fed to ensure each individual gets their share and others must complete challenges to get their food.

Rocky the lobster
Rocky the lobster is target fed to make sure the wrasse in his tank don’t steal his food, he loves to pull the feeding stick into his tank and he almost won once! (Photo by Ciara O’Higgins)
Our 8 terrapins are also target fed which keeps me on my toes, they can leap up out of the water if they’re hungry enough and I’ve almost had my fingers mistaken for food. Though sometimes they are far too busy basking to bother coming near me, their servant. (Photo by Ciara O’Higgins)

Our 4 cownose ray – Beth, Derek, Daisy and Tim – are each target fed and then scatter fed twice a day, usually a pleasant experience except when our coral cat sharks take it upon themselves to steal food off the stick which is sometimes half their size. Mondays are mackerel days and the rays can get very excited, especially our common Atlantic stingray, Ali. Ali will lurk in the shadows of the seaweed and spring up in a surprise attack, soaking me from head to toe until I feed her. All fun aside, target feeding is important as it allows us to deliver nutrient supplements and oral medications to specific animals without causing them the unnecessary stress of removing them from their tank for treatment.

Bonnie the bonnet head
Bonnie the bonnet head can be a diva when it comes to her food. She won’t take it if it’s moving, but she won’t notice it if it’s held still. When she does decide to go for it she does so in clichéd shark fashion, circling around gradually getting closer until that killer bite. (Photo by Ciara O’Higgins)
Spot the octopus
“Spot” the octopus. (Photo by Ciara O’Higgins)

Always a crowd-pleaser is our young common octopus, yet to be named by the public, though I call her Spot. Spot gets her food in a different game each day; twist-top containers, building block houses and hamster mazes. A record is kept of the method used each day so we can make sure she gets a different one everyday so she doesn’t get bored. She also gets daily playtime with water fights, tug of war, rattles and mechanical swimming fish.

So where to next in my animal husbandry adventure? As much as I love where I am now, I can’t survive as an unpaid intern forever. I plan to head abroad where there are more opportunities in this field and expand my experience to include creatures living on land. I am currently looking up leads in Canada where I aim to head in the New Year, hopefully it won’t be too long before I’ve another post detailing my experiences with the new animals in my life!

Ciara O'Higgins
About Ciara O'Higgins 1 Article
Enthusiastic Zoology graduate from Trinity College Dublin, currently training as an aquarist with the National Sea Life Centre Bray. Recently completed my final year thesis focusing on ecological community stability. Aspiring animal behaviourist and conservationist.

3 Comments on So you’re going to work in a zoo?

  1. A title I am sure pretty much every zoology graduate in the country can relate to! Thanks for contributing Ciara although the work sounds exhausting dirty and smelly … still really interesting! especially the different ways the octopus is kept entertained

  2. Great article Ciara! I can’t wait for future updates from Canada. I think what annoys me most when people ask if you’re going to work in a zoo is the condescending tone that’s often used. I think it’s a fantastic career path, even if it is a bit smelly!

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