From caring for Bengal tigers to excavating a 17th century settlement in Poland to working at a body farm in Tennessee, Katie Murtough’s five years at Cal Poly Pomona have been packed with action and education. When the animal science and anthropology double major walks across the stage at commencement this weekend, it will surely be the start of a new adventure.
Soon after graduation, Murtough flies to Rwanda and will spend seven weeks exhuming, cataloging and studying gorilla skeletons. The research trip immediately immerses her into the doctoral program in hominid paleobiology — the study of early human ancestors and our development as a species — at George Washington University in the nation’s capital. Murtough has not only been accepted into the highly competitive program — only three or four students are admitted annually — she has also earned a fellowship covering tuition and living expenses.
Because of her background in animal science and zoo keeping, Murtough calls herself the “odd ball” of the anthropology program at Cal Poly Pomona. But her unique background also helped her into graduate school. Animal science courses taught her histology, pathology and how to understand animal behavior. Anthropology classes exposed her to previously unknown cultures and took her on archaeology field excursions to Big Bear.
“I saw myself as a veterinary professor focusing on pathology, but I wasn’t truly passionate about it,” she says. “That’s when I discovered my passion for anthropology, especially biological anthropology. I can see myself teaching anthropology and traveling the world as a researcher.
“My two interests came together perfectly. It’s a harmonious marriage because I’m going into biological anthropology, and I needed a strong science foundation, which is what I got from Cal Poly Pomona.”
Last summer, Murtough participated in a weeklong program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in forensic taphonomy — the study of how the body changes when it dies. Students observed cadavers at the university’s one-acre body farm as they went through stages of decomposition and disturbances by animals and weather.
Murtough also spent a month in Drawsko, Poland helping researchers at the Slavia Field School in Mortuary Archeology excavate a site in the middle of an agricultural field. The site, which had repeated burials for more than 2,000 years, possessed clay cups for the afterlife and urns for cremated remains, as well as intact bodies.
“That was an interesting experience. It was my first field archeology experience,” Murtough says. “The days were either split between being in the field for several hours or in the lab. I probably learned more in those four weeks than I could at any university.”
Dorothy Wills, professor and chair of the Department of Geography & Anthropology, says Murtough’s experience with animals, their anatomy and behavior, are valuable assets in bio- and paleoarcheology.
“Katie developed a lot of work discipline and an acute observational capability when she was working at the zoo,” Will says. “She has a strong sense of ethical treatment of animals, which extends to human beings and artifacts.”
Whether in class or off campus, Murtough says that learning should be about “getting your hands dirty — getting in there and getting those experiences.”
When she’s not in school, Murtough works part-time as a zookeeper at Rancho Las Lomas, a private ranch and zoological garden in the canyon region of Orange County. She primarily trains, cleans and cares for the ranch’s four Bengal tigers, teaching them to follow her commands to sit, stand, lie down and show their paws — actions that aid in their medical care.
Not surprisingly, Murtough grew up in an animal-loving home, with cats, birds, snakes and a rat. She’ll bring just one of her pets with her when she moves to Washington, D.C. — the rat.
“It’s a really sweet rat. I call it LP, which stands for Little Prince because it’s so spoiled,” she says. “It was supposed to be food for a snake, but this particular one was special. It was so cute.”