Students Take a Walk on the Wild Side

BY LAUREN MCEWEN, third-year agricultural communication major

Every day, three times a day, students travel to a facility tucked away on Mount Bishop Road at the northern edge of campus to care for 17 sisters. They are 17 leopard tortoises, all from the same clutch of eggs.

Entering a small barn with windows open to shed natural light, students step into antiseptic foot baths and diligently wash their hands before greeting the tortoises. The leopard tortoise colony expands the Learn by Doing species experience to meet the diverse and evolving interests of Cal Poly students. More than 40 animal science undergraduates participate in the program annually, many of whom go on to provide care to the more than 750,000 animals in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Cal Poly’s program stands unrivaled by any other university in the United States for its student-led animal care and research elements. Through the course, students learn to manage long-term animal care including practicing observational skills, using the metric system, developing a detail-oriented work ethic and working as a team to provide consistent, quality care for the tortoises.


In 2008, the leopard tortoise colony made the cross-country journey to Cal Poly from the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The tortoises trailed Professor Mark Edwards who joined Cal Poly after many years of working as an animal nutritionist developing and coordinating the clinical zoo nutrition program there. Edwards has been a champion of the program since, introducing Cal Poly students to a unique educational experience that offers them a chance “to learn about the standards of exotic animal husbandry, while simultaneously developing skills to be broadly used in animal science to improve the quality of life for the animals under their care,” he said.

Leopard tortoises, whose natural habitat is on the savanna in southern Africa, are not well documented. Research done on the colony at Cal Poly has paved the way for improved nutrition, as students have conducted studies on the composition, as well as flavor, color and aroma of feed with these animals. These findings were shared with Purina, which then developed an exotic animal feed through its Mazuri line. Products produced through these collaborations have now been on the market for more than 10 years and are used by professional animal care specialists in zoos and aquariums globally.

The tortoises have also served a critical purpose since relocating to Cal Poly – providing a pathway into animal agriculture for students eager to learn but without past experience. The program promotes interdisciplinary collaboration, with students partnering with computer science students to improve data collection and engineering students on facility enhancements.

Edwards noted that there is a demographic shift in the types of students coming to Cal Poly, reflective of the adaptations happening across the agriculture industry. “We aren’t getting as many students coming from family farms anymore, but rather, students who come from big cities without much experience in animal care,” he said. “The tortoises are a gateway into animal care because they are very forgiving and easily approachable and are helping newer students from diverse backgrounds comfortably gain experience and confidence.”Maya Tjan, a second-year animal science major, serves as the tortoise colony student manager coordinating student schedules, animal care, as well as topics related to facilities, equipment and supplies. She said that the skills she has gained are applicable to other jobs on and off campus. Because management of the colony is done within a small group, she has learned how to “efficiently communicate with others the standard procedures of animal care.”

Every Thursday, the students meet at the unit to meticulously weigh and measure each tortoise. The students work in assembly line fashion, taking great care in handling the tortoises. They record each measurement, from the animal’s length to the width of individual scales on the carapace (shell) called scutes, as a part of the research and data collection on the colony.

Edwards noted that when the tortoises arrived at Cal Poly, they were the size of a fist. Now, the sisters weigh more than 20 pounds each and will continue to grow throughout their lifetime. At almost 20 years old, each tortoise has the potential to live for a century. Because of that long lifespan, Edwards thinks that these animals can potentially have a more profound impact on students than any other species because of their longevity and the opportunity to do long-term research.

Austin Tinsley, a first-year animal science major, said that despite only having experience with domestic dogs and cats, he specifically expressed interest in exotic animals when coming to Cal Poly. One of the most valuable aspects of the enterprise for him included developing a schedule and consistency in management, measurements and atmosphere. “For me, it is very relaxing to spend time with the animals and I find it very enjoyable to work with them," he said. "It’s a really nice introduction to the enterprise system at Cal Poly.”


Zoos and aquariums where Cal Poly graduates now work are reaping the benefits of the Learn by Doing facet of the leopard tortoise enterprise.

At the San Diego Zoo, Zoe Strachan-Payne (Animal Science, ’18) works as a wildlife care specialist in the Safari Park. There, “the wildlife in my care travel all over the park participating in a variety of programs and events and serve as ambassadors for their species,” she said. Since starting her position at the zoo, “everything I’ve done in the past assists me every day.”

I learned about following standard operating procedure protocols, providing enrichment and the general husbandry of an exotic species—things I do every day at work now. I also got a chance to see how research projects run alongside the husbandry of the species which I’ve experienced in my career.”

Zoe Strachan-Payne (Animal Science, ’18), wildlife care 
specialist at the San Diego Zoo

Strachan-Payne said that her time at Cal Poly, especially with the tortoise colony, opened her heart to working with exotic animals as a profession. While the leopard tortoises were her first encounter with exotic animals, she says she appreciated how Edwards runs the program as a zoo husbandry team would. “I learned about following standard operating procedure protocols, providing enrichment and the general husbandry of an exotic species, things I do every day at work now,” Strachan-Payne said. “I also got a chance to see how research projects run alongside the husbandry of the species which I’ve experienced in my career.”

She credits her Cal Poly degree with supporting her through challenges and team decisions at the Safari Park, all which began in a similar environment under Edwards' direction. “My education from Cal Poly allows me to work more effectively with these teams and understand the decisions they help us make for the care of our wildlife,” she said.

Alumna Xana Luehs (Animal Science, ‘18), works as an animal care specialist at the Oakland Zoo. Participating in the reptile husbandry enterprise was a highlight of her time at Cal Poly. “I enjoyed it so much that I even came back and helped out during breaks when other students were out of town. It was the epitome of Learn by Doing in all aspects,” she said.

The skills she learned during her time at Cal Poly directly transferred to many of her duties as an animal keeper, Luehs said. “A lot of what I do every day at work, I had already began building a foundation for during my time with the tortoises at Cal Poly, and for that, I am forever grateful.”Edwards recently launched a $500,000 fundraising campaign to build a new on-campus facility for the tortoises as part of the new Animal Health Center, which is slated to open in fall 2025.

Enhancing their living conditions, such as imitating their natural savanna with native plants and adding heated surfaces to suit their ectothermic bodies, will increase their quality of life and longevity, and therefore the efficacy the students experience alongside them, he said.

Edwards hopes the new location will one day benefit the local community as a learning opportunity which extends beyond the classroom and campus. “Even the most timid student warms up to an unassuming animal,” he said.

To learn more about donating to the project, contact Tim Northrop, senior director of development, at or by calling 805-801-6662


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