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Otters in the bathtub: How a Montana zookeeper is living her dream

<i>AMY LYNN NELSON
AMY LYNN NELSON, BG
AMY LYNN NELSON

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 bath tub.

“That’s the life of a zoo keeper,” she said with a laugh. “You have to do what you have to do for these animals.”

Dredla is the chief Wetlands Keeper at ZooMontana in Billings. She cares for the animals that call watery habitats home.

The zoo is currently building a new exhibit named the Foster Waterfowl Refuge. First announced in October 2021 after receiving a $200,000 grant, the fly-in, fly-out habitat is designed to be an urban refuge for migrating waterfowl — like geese, ducks or any other aquatic bird species making their way through the state.

Fly-in, fly-out habitats are designed as refueling stations within urban environments for migratory birds. Just as road trippers need to stop and refuel, so do birds.

Billings is located along the central flyway, one of four migratory bird routes within the United States.

The zoo is also focused on the fish that will become a part of the refuge. An underwater fish viewing window for zoo visitors is part of the refuge’s design. The fish are all native to Montana, including the prehistoric looking pallid sturgeon. Working with Montana FWP, there will also channel catfish, suckers and potentially gar.

The new exhibit is projected to open fully late next spring, according to ZooMontana’s executive director Jeff Ewelt.

More and more of the traditional waterways being used by migrating waterfowl are being eaten up by urban development, limiting essential access to the bird’s crucial habitat.

Dredla has been at the zoo since 2017. The California native always knew she wanted to work for ZooMontana since she visited as a kid on a family road trip.

Her bubbly personality highlights her love for her job and the animals under her care. She is known to talk to animals with a voice that many people reserve for their dogs. A graduate of Moorpark College in California, which has a zoo on campus to teach their students, she has trained to be a zoo keeper for a long time.

She currently oversees three birds that 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 to not only be around humans outside of their habitats, but perform tricks or tasks during presentations.

She takes special care when working with each animal, because even though they are used to her presence, they are still wild animals.

Exercises that she works on with the birds include 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 have stayed because the zoo determined 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 was raised in the zoo and became too attached to his handlers and would not be able to survive without them.

Also under 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 for food when Dredla approached, even though it was impossible for them to obtain.

She trains each otter like she does the birds. Using food and treats as a reward, she has them try to touch their nose to a blue ball attached to a rod that she holds at various heights and places. This teaches the otters to follow commands.

Sam has also become an ambassador like the birds. He was born at the zoo and as such does not have any experience in the wild.

She explained that it is currently unclear what her role will be within the new refuge, but is excited for the new opportunities it brings.

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