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ZooMontana volunteer grows fresh food for animals

Helping cut down on costs
Duli snacking on bamboo at ZooMontana
Posted at 9:27 AM, Apr 01, 2024

BILLINGS — At ZooMontana, volunteers make the zoo go around. Its volunteers put in a combined 10,000 hours per year—working to make the zoo a community hotspot.

But one volunteer in particular deserves a spotlight on her green thumb.



“Mary Alice, she embodies everything that is a volunteer," said Jeff Ewelt, the executive director of ZooMontana, on Thursday. "She cares about the organization, she works really hard at helping us here, and makes a true impact as all volunteers do."

Jeff Ewelt
Jeff Ewelt

Mary Alice Spencer has volunteered at the zoo since 2011. She and her husband took over the zoo's backyard bamboo garden after it had seemingly been forgotten for years.

"The gal that was in charge of the volunteer activities came to me one day and said, ‘How would you like to work with the bamboo garden?’ And I said, ‘The what?’” Spencer said on Thursday.

Mary Alice Spencer
Mary Alice Spencer

It was tedious work—but she has since brought the backyard bamboo garden back to life.

"Nobody had been taking care of it for a while, so it required a bunch of weeding and stuff like that," Spencer said. "That's how I got to the point where we've got this nice big facility up here."

Fresh bamboo at ZooMontana
Fresh bamboo at ZooMontana

She's now been a volunteer for 13 years.

"The zoo was in terrible shape before they hired Jeff" in 2011, Spencer said. "So I decided I'd volunteer. So I've been here since probably just before (Jeff was hired)."

Thanks to her dedication, the zoo has been able to cut down immensely on costs.

Part of the bamboo garden at ZooMontana
Part of the bamboo garden at ZooMontana

"This bamboo garden in the summertime cuts our bamboo bill in half, which is huge," Ewelt said. "And that really translates obviously to real dollars."

Last summer, the garden ended up saving the day.

"We had one emergency that the (bamboo) shipment we get on a weekly basis didn't come," Spencer explained. "And (the zookeeper) was able to go and cut the new stuff (from our garden) because it had grown so well to feed (the animals)."

Duli the Red Panda facing away from the camera while eating bamboo
Duli the Red Panda facing away from the camera while eating bamboo

Yellowstone County's climate is surprisingly suitable for growing bamboo.

"The stuff that we grow is cold-climate bamboo. The stuff that grows in Nepal and in the Himalayas and the northern part of Japan and China," Spencer said. "They're tough. And because they're grass, their root system stays in the ground and keeps going during the winter so that when it gets warm enough, they'll start putting out new shoots and grow some more for us this year."

Bamboo is a key factor in the red panda's diet but can also be offered to the other animals as enrichment.

Pabu the Red Panda enjoying some bamboo
Pabu the Red Panda enjoying some bamboo

"The red pandas can eat upwards of 25,000 bamboo leaves a day, which is insane for such a small, cute, little animal. Our Takin is also an animal that you may occasionally watch eating the bamboo," said Ewelt. "Occasionally it could be given out to some other animals just as enrichment. Things to play with."

A Takin laying down at ZooMontana
A Takin laying down at ZooMontana

Ewelt said all of the zoo’s volunteers are equally appreciated and that the zoo is always looking for more.

"I can name so many things that our volunteers do here. And it literally saves us hundreds of thousands of dollars and translates to almost 10,000 in hours of time worked by all of our volunteers here. It’s absolutely spectacular. And that’s why I think we’ve had the successes we’ve had," Ewelt said. “We are always looking for new volunteers. We’re trying to get better about doing our orientation so you can come in. One thing to remember is, working with the animals in the volunteer sense, you do have to be at least 18 years old. Which I know is a bummer for some of those kids out there. But for the kids, we’ve got some great options. Like shadowing a zookeeper for the day (or) internships. We’ve got some great opportunities."

He’s especially grateful for Mary Alice Spencer.

"She’s been absolutely instrumental," Ewelt said. "She is just everything we want to see in a volunteer. She’s the best."

It’s a labor of love she’s happy to provide.

Close-up of bamboo at ZooMontana
Close-up of bamboo at ZooMontana

"You go to the grocery store in the winter and you buy those hard little red things. And then you go to the farmer's market and you get those beautiful, freshly picked tomatoes," Spencer said. "That's the difference between what we have to buy commercially and what is the stuff we grow. When the keeper picks it, they really enjoy it because it's so fresh. She clips it off the plant and it's in that enclosure within a few minutes."

To learn more about ZooMontana's volunteer opportunities, click here.