By Nick Slater
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BILLINGS, Montana (Billings Gazette) – Allyson Dredla lives her childhood dream every day. She is surrounded by birds, badgers and bears and has even raised river otters in her bathtub.
“That’s the life of a zoo keeper,” she says, laughing. “You have to do what you have to do for these animals.”
Dredla is the chief wetland manager at ZooMontana in Billings. She takes care of the animals that live in the water.
The zoo is currently building a new exhibit called the Foster Waterfowl Refuge. The fly-in-fly-out habitat, first announced in October 2021 after receiving a $200,000 grant, is intended to be an urban sanctuary for migratory waterfowl — such as geese, ducks, or other waterfowl species that make their way through the river find state.
Fly-in, fly-out habitats are designed as fueling stations within urban environments for migratory birds. Just as road trippers need to stop and refuel, so do birds.
Billings is on the Central Flyway, one of four migratory bird routes in the United States.
The zoo also focuses on the fish that become part of the sanctuary. An underwater fish viewing window for zoo visitors is part of the sanctuary. The fish are all native to Montana, including the prehistoric-looking pale sturgeon. In collaboration with Montana FWP, catfish, suckers and possibly gar will also be channeled.
According to Jeff Ewelt, CEO of ZooMontana, the new exhibit is slated to open fully by the end of next spring.
More and more of the traditional waterways used by migratory waterfowl are being eaten up by urban development, reducing essential access to the bird’s vital habitat.
Dredla has been at the zoo since 2017. The California native always knew she wanted to work for ZooMontana since she visited them on a family trip as a child.
Her bubbly personality underscores her love for her job and the animals under her care. She is known for speaking to animals in a voice that many people reserve for their dogs. A graduate of Moorpark College in California, which has a zoo on campus to teach its students, she has long trained as a zoo keeper.
She currently oversees three birds who act as zoo ambassadors: Lurch the turkey vulture, Gabel the great horned owl, and Amarillo the red-tailed hawk.
As zoo ambassadors, the birds are trained not only to be around people outside of their habitat, but also to perform tricks or tasks during presentations.
She takes special care with each animal because although they are used to her presence, they are still wild animals.
One of the exercises she works on with the birds is following commands given by hand signals. As a reward, she gives them treats, like a dead mouse.
The three birds came to the zoo for different reasons and stayed because the zoo determined that they could not survive on their own. Amarillo arrived with a mangled wing and can no longer fly. Gabel was hit by a car and his wing had to be amputated. Lurch grew up in the zoo and was too attached to his caretakers and could not have survived without them.
Also in her care are three North American river otters. Ben, Mia and Sam, the three otters, immediately rushed to the glass edge of their habitat in search of food when Dredla approached, although they were unable to get anything.
She trains every otter like birds. With food and treats as rewards, she makes them try to nose-touch a blue ball attached to a pole that holds them at different heights and in different places. This teaches the otters to follow commands.
Sam has also become an ambassador like the birds. He was born in the zoo and as such has no experience in the wild.
She explained that it is currently unclear what role she will take on in the new sanctuary but is excited for the new opportunities it brings.
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