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Professor Leah Knapp, DVM, teaches her students that all creatures, including Sneakers, a ball python, are essential to the world around us.

A building can be more than just a structure that stands permanently in once place – the case for Mott Academic Center, the 50-year-old heart of Olivet College learning and development. Nearly every student’s educational journey includes Mott at the core, but more importantly, the relationships and memories that were created within. The building is named for Charles Stewart Mott, an engineer and entrepreneur, but also a philanthropist and public servant. Like the founders of Olivet College, Charles Mott was forward thinking and dedicated to helping others be more and do good.

In the spring issue of Shipherd’s Record, a special collection of stories shared more about Mott Academic Center’s past and future in “If These Walls Could Talk.” Mott has not stood still. It is alive, and it’s moving toward the next 50 years.This piece was written by Samantha Pearl ’00, director of alumni engagement. It shares a look into the learning that happens inside Mott and the incredible animals who call Mott home. Read the full magazine online now.

The science programs at Olivet College offer a unique experience for students through interactive encounters with living creatures – teaching animals. The biology department “zoo” and student hangout area on the first floor of Mott Academic Center includes mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and insects, all available to students for interaction and hands-on learning.

Leah Knapp, DVM, professor of biology, instructor of biology, medical, and ecology/ environmental classes, and a formerly practicing veterinarian, has been teaching at Olivet College since 1990, and her unique approach to instruction has added to the quality of science education at OC for more than 27 years. Knapp’s use of wildlife as part of the learning experience is very purposeful. “We have a number of animals in our department,” Knapp explained, “and the fact that we do is very unique. It’s not uncommon for a college to use them for research. Our animals are ‘working animals,’ used for education purposes. They are teaching tools, as well as teachers themselves.”

Jojo the sulcata tortoise helps Professor Leah Knapp teach students about conservation and animal welfare.

The animals that live in the science department are used inside classes for teaching and outside the classroom for community outreach and education. They are also available for students to come and learn more informally about their behavior, care and handling. Students are able to work with the animals directly, and they enjoy the attention.

Animals also help students in less obvious ways. Abigail Slater, a sophomore, values them because they allow her to experience things that can’t be taught in a classroom. But she also enjoys the experience of just spending time with the wildlife. “They’re a stress reliever,” Slater said. “They’re able to connect with us and we can come in here and just chill with them and be more ready for class.”

Taahir Muhammad, a junior, agrees. When asked about his experience with the live animals in the department, he explained, “It’s great for exposure, for being able to learn in ways beyond just reading about them. I’ve had a connection with animals since I was a kid, and being able to handle them and interact with them, as well as learning from books and lecture, is very important to me.”

Julie Crone, a senior, describes another benefit of having animals on campus. “I think a lot of people are able to bond over their mutual love of animals and especially when you’re coming in as a freshman. To have a place that is easily recognized as a friendly place to come and talk with other students who share your interests is really important. And having them in an accessible place really helps people come together and make new friends.”

For Knapp it’s about more than teaching the basics of a species. “Teaching people about these animals is about more than just what an animal is. It’s about who it is. We teach about the individual animals and their stories,” she said.

Most of the animals are rescues coming from situations of neglect or abuse, like Yuli, a wild-caught Russian tortoise, who ended up in a pet store after being shipped across the world, stuffed in a box with other tortoises with no food, water or protection, and suffering serious head trauma. “One of our students was working in the pet store and noted that Yuli had not eaten for two months,” Knapp explained. “By the time she got him to me, he was nearly dead. After a month of force feeding and good care, he recovered, but he still has residual effects of his ordeal. He’s been a great addition to our animal family, and an important teaching tool. It’s a real-life story about the terrible practice of the wildlife trade.”

Bowser, a bearded dragon, is both a stress reliever and a teaching tool for students.

Learning about the animals’ backgrounds, their history and their journey from birth to their life at Olivet College helps students and community members alike understand the ethics of the animal trade, both wild-caught and captive-bred, and the responsibilities and complexities of their care. Understanding how an animal suffered helps to make the lessons about conservation and animal welfare real. And Knapp is fiercely committed to the survival and well-being of species and the natural world in which they live. “These creatures are essential to the world around us, and it’s important for people to know the threats to them and their environment.”

The current wildlife residents of the science department include Jojo, a 50-year-old, 150-lb sulcata tortoise, a ball python named Sneakers and other beloved reptiles, including Theodore, a uromastyx lizard, and Bowser, a bearded dragon. There is also Molly, the deaf rabbit, Yuli, the Russian tortoise, Pip and Squeak, the tiny button quail, assorted fish, and a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The first to arrive in the department was Thurston, a red-eared slider turtle, adopted from a loving home with an alumna and still thriving. “The presence of these animals on campus makes Olivet College something very unique, and they really enhance our classes and our teaching. They are a distinctive part of the Olivet College experience,” said Knapp.

The animals of Olivet College can be viewed and handled (with supervision) by students in and outside of the science department, as well as others who live and work on campus and in the community. Anyone interested in learning more about the animal residents of Mott Academic Center may contact Knapp at lknapp@olivetcollege.edu.

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