Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work with wildlife? We caught up with Allyson Dredla, an animal caretaker at ZooMontana, to learn more about what life is like as a full-time zookeeper.
Zookeepers and working with animals
What’s the typical day look like for you as a zookeeper?
Most people think that I get to come into work and play with animals all day long. Of course, there is some of that, but not as much as I’d like! When we arrive in the morning, the first thing we do is check the animals to make sure they are alert and bright. Then, the animal’s morning diet is placed within their outdoor habitat to encourage foraging. Once they get all clear, then we begin to clean the outdoor habitats. After completed, the animals are moved outdoors, and we shift to the indoor habitats for cleaning. Next, we have the afternoon for various activities. This can include animal training, creating enrichment (toys for the animals) or building new and better habitat features, such as perching, pools and ramps.
It takes a village! Can you tell us about the different roles that people have at ZooMontana?
As a small nonprofit, we all wear many hats. For example, not only am I the Training and Enrichment Coordinator and Lead Wetlands Keeper, but I’ve sat on the safety committee, AZA accreditation committee and our animal wellness committee. At the end of the day, we couldn’t do our job without the help and support of others, such as the maintenance staff, gift shop staff, event planners, landscapers or the director. It really is a village that makes this place work. I love ZooMontana because that is really engrained into all of us here.
What’s your favorite animal you’ve interacted with?
Oh, that’s so tough. I have so many that have worked their way into my heart, even the ones I didn’t expect to. One that comes to mind — a North American Badger named Tonka. Not only was he an incredible animal with a wonderful personality, but he also helped me grow as a person. He had amazing confidence, which helped me become more confident when I worked with him. I loved him so much, I have is paw print tattooed on my wrist!
What’s your favorite thing about being a zookeeper?
Easy — getting to be best friends with wild animals. Note, I did say wild, because no matter how much you think an animal likes you, they still have wild instincts and can turn on you. So, I guess best friends with caution is a better way to say that! Getting to see each animal’s distinct personality is a treat as well and then being able to share that with the public is incredible. There’s really nothing like it. I also love to use my passion for animals to help folks get over a fear or hatred of an animal.
Behind the scenes as a zookeeper
There’s a lot happening behind the scenes when it comes to animal well-being and conservation efforts that many visitors don’t see. Can you talk a little about that?
Zoos have come so far over the last several decades. Animal welfare is such a high priority and it’s amazing to see and take part in incredible techniques to ensure an animal is healthy. A good portion of an animal wellness exam is now done through training. For example, our tigers are trained for tail draws, which means they are trained to present their tail to us so we can draw blood to ensure they are healthy. Why would the tiger do this? Whipped cream treats! So many animals (and zookeepers) are benefiting from amazing training techniques that minimize stress and potential harm.
We also take part in classes and workshops to learn new ideas or guidelines that will benefit our animals. By providing the highest possible level of care to our rescued animals, we provide our guests with a sense of empathy that translates into understanding and acceptance that ZooMontana, or any AZA Zoo, takes pride in the well-being of our animals. The better our guests feel about our animals, the more likely they are to visit again which translates to more dollars that we can use for on-the-ground conservation efforts around the world. Amazingly, this adds up to over $250 million dollars per year that’s collected by AZA-accredited zoos for conservation efforts around the globe, literally saving species.
What’s a misconception about zookeepers?
Although we get to hang out with animals for a good portion of the day, we don’t spend all day with them as we would like! A good part of our day is spent on supply runs, vet consultations, toy building or even helping in other areas of the zoo. One thing that surprises a lot of people is how physical a zookeeping job is. We’re always moving, lifting and walking!
Becoming a zookeeper
Why did you want to become a zookeeper?
I have always had a love of animals. I remember being a kid and watching animal shows on tv, just fascinated that you could do that for a living. Shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom have the power to make a real difference in someone’s life!
What advice do you have for others who are interested in animal care?
Work hard and stick with your dreams. Getting experience with animals is key. Whether that be through volunteering at your local zoo or sanctuary or getting a job working with hamsters and parakeets like I did, learning the fundamental basics of animal care will go a long way. When looking into colleges, know there are colleges that specialize in zookeeping! If you don’t have one near you, getting a degree in biology or even psychology will go a long way on your resume. And last, network. Don’t be afraid to talk with people and let them know your goals. The more people you know in the field, the more name recognition you will have, leading to a fun job!
Did we catch your attention yet? If you want to hear more from ZooMontana on getting involved with animals and zoos, check out this video.