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Zoo and Aquarium Curators and Directors


Prehistoric humans did not try to tame animals; for purposes of survival, they hunted them to avoid danger as well as to obtain food. The full history of the establishment of zoos and aquariums can probably be traced as far back as the earliest attempts by humans to domesticate animals. After realizing that they could live with animals as fellow creatures, humans attempted to domesticate them. The precise timing of this phenomenon is not known; it apparently occurred at different times in different parts of the world.

Ancient Sumerians kept fish in manmade ponds around 4,500 years ago. By 1150 B.C. pigeons, elephants, antelope, and deer were held captive for taming in such areas as the Middle East, India, and China. In 1000 B.C. a Chinese emperor named Wen Wang built a zoo and called it the Garden of Intelligence. Also around this time, the Chinese and Japanese were breeding and raising goldfish and carp for their beauty in a garden setting.

Zoos were abundant in ancient Greece; animals were held in captivity for purposes of study in nearly every city-state. In early Egypt and Asia, zoos were created mainly for public show, and during the Roman Empire, fish were kept in ponds and animals were collected both for arena showings and for private zoos. Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conqueror, created a fantastic zoo in Mexico in the early 16th century. The zoo had 300 keepers taking care of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

Zoo and aquarium professions as we know them today began to be established around the mid-18th century with the construction of various extravagant European zoos. The Imperial Menagerie of the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria, was opened in 1765 and still operates to this day. One of the most significant openings occurred in 1828 at the London Zoological Society's Regent's Park. The London Zoo continues to have one of the world's most extensive and popular collections of animals, with more than 750 species, including some of the rarest animals. The world's first public aquarium was also established at Regent's Park, in 1853, after which aquariums were built in other European cities. In the United States, P. T. Barnum was the first to establish a display aquarium, which opened in New York in 1856.

Today's zoos and aquariums are built around habitat-based, multi-species exhibits designed to immerse the visitor in an experience simulating a visit to the wild places from which the animals came. The keeping and breeding of captive animals is no longer an end in itself, but a means of educating and communicating a strong conservation imperative to the public. The public has embraced this change, with visitor numbers rising steadily each year.

Along with this expanded public role has come a professionalization of the industry, marked by advances in animal husbandry, veterinary care, nutrition, and exhibit technology that have greatly improved the conditions under which animals are held. These advances have been costly, and the rise in operating expenses reflects these increased costs. Modern zoos and aquariums are big business.

Today, curators have a host of responsibilities involved with the operation of zoos and aquariums. Although many zoos and aquariums are separate places, there are also zoos that contain aquariums as part of their facilities. There are both public and private institutions, large and small, and curators often contribute their knowledge to the most effective methods of design, maintenance, and administration for these institutions.

The director's job has changed radically over the past two decades years, reflecting the overall maturity of the zoo and aquarium business. Directors no longer have direct responsibility for working with animals or managing the people who care for them. The director's role has broadened from animal management to overall management, with a focus that has shifted from the day-to-day details of running the facility to ensuring the ongoing success of the entire operation.

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