Talk with the Animals

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Dylan Boyd at Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary
Biology major interns at Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary

Dylan Boyd, senior in Biology, learned about animal personalities during a special topics class last school year, but a summer internship at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary in Red Lodge, Mont., brought his classroom knowledge to life. 

"It was really cool to see [what I had learned] play out in front of my own eyes as I was there, looking at all these different animals," he said.

  • Bison - Outgoing. Put on a show and ran around her pen if lots of people were watching.
  • Mountain Lion - Didn't like people. Wouldn’t come out when offered meat or called by name.
  • Bobcat - Energetic. Enjoyed adults. But when kids were around, he would hide and growl.
  • Crow - Friendly and accustomed to people. Ate food out of the dish before Boyd finished filling it!

"I got to go visit the crow every day and scratch his head until he was satisfied enough for me to leave," Boyd said.

Most of the animals came to the sanctuary from Montana, Wyoming or Colorado after being deemed "unreleasable” by wildlife officials. Some had injuries that wouldn’t heal. Others had been pets. 

A female bison was raised in a local home and rode around in a convertible before she grew too big and entered the sanctuary. Three black bears were orphans that tourists tried to adopt.

"As you can imagine, raising a black bear as a pet didn't turn out very well," Boyd said.

Boyd observed the head animal care specialists for two weeks before working on his own. He discovered professional methods that enrich animals’ lives in captive settings.

The workers used a variety of techniques to mimic natural environments:

  • Place apples in a pool so bears will go bobbing. Put meals and toys up high so they climb.
  • Spray deer spray (like hunters use) to get mountain lions up and moving around.
  • Change enclosures (new tree branches, move things around) to make animals’ lives more interesting.

One of his favorite tasks was clicker training — a technique commonly used with bigger cats like mountain lions, bobcats and lynx. Boyd extended long tongs from outside the enclosure. He asked the animal to raise its paw. If it did, he made a clicker noise and gave it a meat treat.

“The first time was really, really cool,” he said.

On an average day, Boyd prepared individual meals for each animal, checked water, changed bedding and interacted with visitors. Around 400 guests came through the sanctuary every weekend. 

Boyd, who grew up in Harveyville, Kan., toured Yellowstone National Park several times as a child and regularly visited the zoo. This internship gave him a new perspective on all the work needed to keep animals alive, healthy and thriving in captive settings.

“It’s important to get these real-life experiences so that you know what you want to do when you get out of college,” he said. “I wish I had known that as a freshman … I would have done one [internship] each year.”

As president of KWU’s Biology Club, Boyd is coordinating a spring semester field trip to a nearby zoo. He’s eager to share his new-found knowledge with classmates.

Next up for this soon-to-be graduate: searching for seasonal jobs. He wants to gain hands-on experience in several biology fields before applying for grad school. 

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