In the Wild Workplace
Strategies for Successful Seasonal Zoo Staffing

September 11, 2012 No Comments

For some of us, the summer means kicking back and relaxing, but for zoos, the summer means more visitors and the need to hire workers to attend to those visitors.
Located on the banks of the Red River is the Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton, N.D.  The zoo, whose name translated from Native American means “end of the woods,” sits on 18 acres and is home to more than 200 animals representing 70 species from six continents.
“Our season runs from April through Halloween,” explained Elizabeth Kayvold, an administrative assistant for the zoo who conducts job interviews with prospective employees. “We need people who can be there in the summer and workers to help with our special fall events such as our Zoo Boo, where vendors and businesses from the region come and set up Halloween candy for our visitors. Before we open in April, we make up signs and post most of them in schools and colleges throughout the area. We promote the seasonal work as an educational opportunity to learn about animals, zoos and conservation.”
Chahinkapa Zoo hires between 10 and 15 seasonal workers who must complete an application and interview process.
“There is usually a one-on-one interview with either myself or the zoo’s director,” Kayvold said.  “We look for a specific type of person who is outgoing, positive, possesses a true love for animals and who likes the idea of working with different people each day.”
The seasonal workers usually are assigned to guest services, concessions and the gift shop. As a reward for good job performance, all workers can take behind-the-scenes tours at the zoo where they watch the animals coming in and out of their shelters and being fed.
“It’s fun to see the animals in a different way than how guests see them. Workers appreciate them more and behind-the-scene tours also emphasize to the individual the need for conservation and why our mission is what it is.”
As Director of Human Resources for the Chattanooga Zoo, in Chattanooga, Tenn., Liz Crowe oversees the hiring of seasonal zoo employees. The 13-acre zoo, which is completing a 10-year, $12.5 million expansion program, has opened new exhibits such as the Himalayan Passage, which boasts the largest red panda exhibit in the world. The expansion also included a new front entrance complex with parking facilities and a concessions and gift shop area.
“Hiring seasonal help is an important task,” Crowe explained. “The biggest challenges are finding people who are motivated to perform the jobs.  Typically those hired as seasonal staff are younger and not invested in a certain career path as other zoo personnel may be.”
At the Chattanooga Zoo, the hiring process differs from job to job.  A seasonal staff candidate will either come into the zoo and fill out an application or download the application from the zoo’s website.  Applications then go through the hiring manager who reviews it along with the candidates’ resumes. Zoo staff interviews suitable candidates and hires them about three to four weeks before their starting date so permanent zoo staff can train them. While the zoo does not have specific rewards programs for workers, it does offer employee benefits even to seasonal workers.
“All staff, including seasonal workers, receive a certain number of zoo passes for family and friends each year,” Crowe said.  “Also, all staff get employee discounts at the zoo.”
While motivation of seasonal workers can be a challenge, Crowe believes giving workers varied experiences keeps them interested and committed to the zoo.
“Giving seasonal employees a chance to test the waters and try out different jobs often helps them find a job they truly like – a job they will want to return to the zoo to do the following year. If you pigeon hole workers and do not give them a chance to grow, they might not discover that they have a talent or passion for something else.”
Hiring seasonal workers can be an enriching experience for both zoo and employees – even employees from other countries. The Center for Cultural Interchange, or the CCI, acts as a facilitator between United States businesses and international university students through its J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program and Career Advancement Program.  According to Elizabeth Brennan, Business Development Specialist, programs like those offered by CCI work well with seasonal businesses because international university summer break dates often align with the high season for many businesses.
“CCI works with vetted partners in various countries to recruit and screen students,” Brennan noted. “CCI offers boutique hiring options based on employer needs. Sometimes larger clients will travel overseas for the hiring process or clients can use services like Skype for the hiring process.”
Each employer might have different hiring criteria, so CCI screens and matches the best candidate for each position.
“Our participants are all currently enrolled and in good standing with the university in their home country.  They are also tested for various levels of English proficiency,” Brennan explained.  Before the participant is allowed to participate in the program, they must also interview with the U.S. Embassy in their home country.
“This is foremost a cultural exchange program and all the students are in it to learn about American culture and what it’s like to work and travel in the United States. Zoos provide a great opportunity for everyone to learn.”
The Topeka Zoo in Kansas, which is home to more than 380 animals, welcomes about 175,000 guests this year.  During the spring and summer months, the zoo hires an additional six to eight employees who are assigned to guest services.
“We have a set procedure for hiring workers for our busiest season,” explained Dennis Dinwiddie, Education Curator for the zoo. “Our first step is to advertise, gather applications and then conduct interviews. Since we are owned by the city, we need to go through all the steps required for city employment. Finally, we provide training and orientation.”
Dinwiddie believes the most important aspect of hiring seasonal help is determining who possesses the best attributes for the positions.
“Even though it is seasonal work, we hire by matching the best personality to the service oriented needs of meeting, greeting and helping tens of thousands of people per year. It takes an outgoing and pleasant personality to work with so many people day to day.”
Whether an employee is permanent or seasonal, the Topeka Zoo provides positive reinforcement for its staff and demonstrates care for its employees on a daily basis.
“We like our employees to know that we do care about each and every one of them. We also offer special experiences for our seasonal workers to help them bond with the zoo and each other. They participate in behind-the-scenes tours and special animal encounters.” –

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