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Tonya Allison standing in front of waterfall and forest

Sloths, toucans, kinkajous, hawks—this zoology senior has handled them all

By Srila Nayak

Tonya Allison, zoology major

Growing up in the tiny city of Independence, Oregon, Tonya Allison recalls never being encouraged to think about higher education or plan for college. Then she saw her older sister leave to study psychology at the University of Oregon, and college became a more realistic possibility for Tonya. The senior, who is set to graduate in a matter of days, has had many great experiences as a zoology major in the Department of Integrative Biology. She dreams of one day having a career internationally in wildlife conservation.

Tonya was immediately drawn to Oregon State University when she attended a campus tour as a high school student. It was spring and the campus was looking especially lush and beautiful. She applied and was accepted within a week to study animal sciences. Always interested in animals, Tonya initially set her sights on becoming a veterinarian. But she found herself disinterested in the agricultural sciences classes she took her first two years at OSU. On the advice of her roommates who were zoology majors, Tonya decided to give zoology a try and changed her major halfway through her sophomore year. She added a double minor in chemistry and Spanish.

Tonya found her classes in ecology and conservation both illuminating and useful. The zoology major also afforded her the opportunity for extensive hands-on lab work which solidified her love for the subject.

The highlight of Tonya's educational journey was her three-month study abroad experience this year at the Toucan Rescue Ranch (TRR) in Heredia, Costa Rica, where she was a wildlife husbandry and rehabilitation intern. Tonya found out about and applied to the internship through IE3 Global, OSU’s international internship and study abroad program. As a Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship recipient, Tonya received financial support to intern in Costa Rica. For her Gilman scholarship project, she will create a blog of her trip and experiences in Costa Rica.

Tonya never imagined she would go abroad as an undergraduate, because after changing her major she assumed she wouldn’t have sufficient time for all the experiential learning projects that interested her. By taking many summer classes, she was able to catch up with her course requirements.

She was thrilled by the opportunity she had to work hands-on with exotic birds and animals for the very first time in her life. In Costa Rica, Tonya handled sloths, toucans, owls, nutria and kinkajous to name just a few. There were nearly 150 animals and a wide variety of species on the ranch, and Tonya cleaned cages, prepped the food and fed the animals. Her willingness to take on any task that came her way and her fluency in Spanish enriched her time at TRR and paid off in a big way. Tonya got the rare and amazing opportunity to visit the TRR release site to help set free sloths, toucans and owls.

“I got to actually grab a sloth, put it on the tree and release it to the wild. It was an unforgettable experience,” said Tonya.

She also enjoyed speaking Spanish exclusively for three months and translating for the other volunteers. “Coming back to the airport in Oregon, I forgot I had to speak English,” she exclaimed. Tonya believes knowing Spanish gave her a deeper and more satisfying experience as an intern at TRR compared to the student volunteers who didn’t speak the language. It was also meaningful in other ways. She was also able to take on a leadership role and train incoming volunteers.

“Overall, my internship abroad gave me a wider perspective on a lot of things—the importance of conservation, learning to get out of your comfort zone and trying out different things,” Tonya said.

Tonya’s mother is from Mexico and has seasonal employment in the fruit canning industry. Her father, who passed away, was from Oregon. A first-generation college student, Tonya has worked two jobs continuously to support herself since the age of 16. She has worked as a server, a barista, a cashier, a drive-through attendant, a student clerk, a meal services attendant and an event planner.

Her scholarships have helped. She has received OSU’s Diversity Achievement Scholarship, the Oregon Opportunity Grant and federal Pell Grants.

“Work and school have been nonstop. I have had to support myself. In fact, this is the first term I am working at just one job.”

After graduation, Tonya plans to use the reprieve to think and plan for graduate school to “study animal behavior or conservation.” Her ultimate desire is to move abroad and work in the area of wildlife conservation.

Despite the many obstacles she has faced, Tonya has admirably persevered and stayed on track to explore her academic and professional interests in animal welfare and the environment. Currently, she is the Raptor Education Program intern at Chintimini Wildlife Center where she is undergoing training to work in the areas of wildlife rehabilitation of large birds of prey that can no longer be released in the wild, such as eagles, hawks and owls, and public education.

Tonya looks forward to continuing her internship as she will have the unique experience of handling large birds closely, learning their stories and then sharing them with school children and other visitors. Although the internship is an unpaid one, Tonya loves her work at Chintimini, engaging with it every chance she gets, pointing out the many professional benefits of this close association with the majestic birds.

“My internship will pay off in the long-term because of the knowledge and networking experience I am acquiring in the field of conservation and wildlife protection.”

Prior to that, Tonya worked in animal care for eight months at the Cascade Raptor Center where she provided a safe environment to raptors and kept their enclosures clean and engaging.

Tonya volunteered as an interpreter and educator at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in her junior year helping raise awareness of marine animals, the ecology of the Oregon coast and the importance of conservation to visitors at the Aquarium.

In her first-year, Tonya volunteered at the Heartland Humane Society as a pre-vet medical room assistant, handling domestic animals and assisting in the medical room with cat and dog care.

Given her broad range of experiences with several animal habitats and organizations, Tonya has valuable advice to offer other zoology majors.

“My biggest advice is to try to gain experience in your field because it has helped me in so many ways. All of my volunteer experiences helped me obtain an internship at Costa Rica. And that internship in Costa Rica led to the internship at Chintimini.”

Tonya ’s love and passion for wild animals and birds are inspiring, and will serve her well as she journeys towards a satisfying career in animal welfare and wildlife conservation.