Careers in Biology – Zoo based conservation

How can I work at a zoo? What do employees at a zoo do behind the scenes? Dr. Eric Miller, from the Saint Louis Zoo, provides students with an insider’s view on the day-to-day responsibilities of directing a zoo, tips on getting hired in the zoo/conservation field, and so much more!

Zoo wordle

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

This week in Careers in Biology – a series of interviews: Dr. Eric Miller on Zoo based conservation. Dr. Miller’s interview was conducted by graduate students Courtney Pike, Whitney Collins and Alicia Marty. This is a guest post by one of the students, Courtney Pike, who is doing a Masters at the Biology Department, University of Missouri, St. Louis under the supervision of Dr. Parker.

Dr. Eric Miller, senior Vice President of the Saint Louis Zoo. Photo from the Saint Louis Zoo website.

Dr. Eric Miller is Senior Vice President at the Saint Louis Zoo. He also serves as the zoo’s Director for both Zoological Operations and the WildCare Institute and holds a DVM.  Dr. Miller was inspired to enter the zoo conservation field at a young age.  After reading the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson when he was a child, he decided to do many of his school projects on the effects of pesticides. Dr. Miller knew he wanted to pursue a career in biology and the applied aspects of being a veterinarian was the perfect fit. When he learned that he could be a Zoo Vet and have an impact on conservation programs, he knew he was on his ideal path.

Below are Dr. Miller’s answers to some of the students’ questions:

What is your job actually like on a daily basis? Do you spend the majority of your time in an office, around the zoo, traveling, doing fieldwork, or anything else particularly?

Dr. Miller: A typical day primarily includes working in an office and in administration roles, managing people rather than managing animals.  Traveling is required approximately 6-8 weeks out of the year to check on research projects and gain a better understanding of what is actually going on, along with attending meetings and conferences (WAZA, AZA, etc). As an active veterinarian, there are also opportunities to attend conferences related to medicine.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for having a DVM versus a different graduate degree?

Dr. Miller: A DVM (and most graduate degrees) will provide you with problem-solving skills, which are essential to succeed as a conservation researcher. The main difference with a DVM is that it is mostly applied science, rather than theoretical. Many of the conservation research programs have a veterinarian that is involved, but it is not necessary to have a DVM to work in conservation, even in conservation medicine.

What types of entry-level positions are involved with zoo-based conservation?

Dr Miller made a few important points:

  1. Positions available: The WildCare Institute is a branch of the Saint Louis Zoo that formalizes their interests in and commitments to worldwide conservation. There are very few positions within the WildCare Institute as many researchers are hired in-country by NGO’s and other conservation organizations. Positions available within the WildCare Institute are zoo-based; specifically, the curators, zoological managers and zookeepers are also involved. Also, many graduate students from local universities are involved with some of the centers. Students are encouraged to contact the specific center leaders (usually the curators) to find opportunities to become involved
  1. How to enter the zoo field: Currently most zoo curators began as zookeepers and worked their way up; however, this is not always the case and there are occasionally openings based on expertise, including: Anthropologist, Endocrinologist, Educator, Curator for a specific taxonomic group, Nutritionist, Pathologist, and Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies (currently Dr. Parker). There may even be positions available related to environmental policy, such as a lobbyist. Having animal management experience is great and anything that gets your foot in the door can be useful experience. Positions are very competitive; therefore, candidates must be persistent! The Saint Louis Zoo is a relatively stable organization and there is not a high turnover rate for researchers and curators. Some people that work in zoo-based research jobs have come from academia, but others may take the alternative path and leave zoo research for academia. However, the majority of people come from other zoos.
  1. Internships: There are many unpaid internship opportunities at the Saint Louis Zoo that could provide great experience while you obtain your degree. There are animal care internships, and a variety of research internships that focus on Animal Behavior, Animal Reproduction and Contraception, and Endocrinology. There are also internships available through the Institute for Conservation Medicine. Students interested in these internships can find more information at these links: 
  1. Other zoos may have similar opportunities as well. San Diego Zoo has Post-doctoral positions in Applied Behavior, Ecology, etc. The Saint Louis Zoo may have similar opportunities for post-doctoral work, but it would be on a case-by-case basis because there is not a formal program. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. used to have an internship program that took Ph.D. students and taught them the animal management side of zoo operations.
  1. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago houses the Population Management Center that occasionally has openings for graduates with skills regarding population management, genetics, and database management. Other opportunities can be found on the AZA website.
  1. Occasionally, the zoo may need someone to spearhead a new laboratory. Dr. Parker is the go-to researcher for genetics work, but other zoos may need similar people. However, not every zoo needs the same research labs and may sub-specialize within genetics, for example. The San Diego Zoo has an in-house genetics staff and lab, while the Saint Louis Zoo has an in-house endocrinology staff and lab, and nutrition staff and lab. They also have a modest genetics lab used by keepers and zoological managers that were trained at UMSL.
  1. All positions at the Saint Louis Zoo receive on-the-job training in addition to any formal degree requirements specific to each position.
  1. Specific positions for CMB students would include some of the aspects of the research with endocrinology, physiology and contraception, and population genetics. Additionally, there is more genetic research being conducted at the San Diego Zoo.
  1. Students interested in the education programs at the Saint Louis Zoo can contact Louise Bradshaw, the Director of Education.
  2. Alternatively, aquariums may also involve conservation efforts and have positions, such as an aquarist/aquarium keeper, available.

What qualifications and skills sets are necessary to be a top candidate for these positions?

The three skills that Dr. Miller utilizes most frequently are communication, problem solving, and animal management. It is crucial to understand and excel at all three aspects.

Dr. Miller: The specific skills that are required to be a conservation researcher depend on the area and the skill set that is needed. It is best to be a free thinker who can also work in a team setting. One must be able to work in a group, but also maintain his or her opinion and identity. It is important to be passionate, but also to understand that your coworkers are just as passionate and that you should work together to solve problems. In addition, every zoo should be involved with fieldwork in some way and most are. It is important to have the skills to manage wild populations similarly to captive populations until the conservation threats are eliminated.

What would a typical salary range be for these positions?

Dr. Miller: For Zookeepers at the Saint Louis Zoo, salaries range from the mid to high $30K range, while research biologist salaries, depending on their experiences, range from $60K to $85K. Another important point is that zoo jobs are not similar to industry jobs- it is not typical to rise up and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

What are job securities and benefits like for these types of positions?

Dr. Miller: There is no tenure for zoo-based researchers and benefits are on a zoo-by-zoo basis. Globally, economies are changing and so are benefits programs, but the Saint Louis Zoo has a great benefits package and retirement plan.

What are the specific types of research projects researchers are in charge of?

Dr. Miller provided references for different types of research programs. The specific programs are chosen because there is someone (typically a curator) that is passionate about a specific species or region of the world. Then, the program can proceed from there and often involves collaborations. Below are links to the various programs’ websites:

1.See for information on the WildCare Institute programs, most of which are led by one of the zoo’s animal division curators. The Curator leads their conservation center in addition to managing the animals and staff in their departments at the zoo.

2. See for information regarding the Institute for Conservation Medicine for additional research projects.

3. Also see for information regarding the Saint Louis Zoo’s reproductive biology program for additional research projects.

4. Other zoos, such as Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, offer additional research programs or are involved in collaborations. See for information regarding projects.

How do you obtain funding for these programs? Do you specifically write grant proposals or is it provided by the zoo?

Dr. Miller: Funding for the zoo and its research programs comes partially from the Zoo Friends Association and the Conservation Carousel at the zoo. There are also outside donors that financially support the zoo. The Curators can also write grant proposals and work with outside organizations to obtain funding. There are some grants that the zoo is not eligible to apply for directly, but by working with universities or museums, the zoo can apply for them. Significantly large grants are becoming rarer, as we often see in academia, but there are many small grants available.

Are there many publications that result from this research? And who writes them?

Dr. Miller states that many publications result from this research, but in his opinion there should be more. He feels that it is not worth doing the research if you do not plan to publish your findings. The partners and scientists doing the work often write the publications. If the curator or staff involved has a graduate degree and the ability to write publications, they certainly do.

Do you collaborate with outside institutions or governments? How important is this when doing conservation work?

Dr. Miller: The Saint Louis Zoo has 180 partners in collaboration. There is a great deal of collaboration that takes place between the zoo and in-country NGOs and existing conservation organizations. There are no formal collaborations with the WWF, for example, but the zoo is always willing to cooperate with them when needed. Researchers at the Saint Louis Zoo also have collaborations with many institutions in Saint Louis, including Washington University, Saint Louis University, and primarily with University of Missouri-St. Louis. Collaborations also occur outside St. Louis, such as one with Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

We would like express our gratitude to Dr. Miller for sharing his experiences while working in the zoo field and for providing advice to students pursuing a similar career path.

Courtney Pike

About Courtney Pike: I am fascinated by many aspects of science, but my interests gravitate toward behavioral ecology, disease ecology, and conservation. I also have a special fondness of birds and amphibians. Currently, I am a Master’s student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Dr. Patricia Parker’s lab. For my Master’s thesis, I am collaborating with Charlotte Causton and the Charles Darwin Research Station to study Philornis downsi, an ectoparasitic fly in the Galapagos Islands and exploring its potential role in avian disease transmission there. Additionally, I am interning at the Audubon Center at Riverlands.



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