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Department: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Haefele Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Holly Haefele ’96

Director of Animal Health, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

Freedom to do what I loved

If you told me during my freshman year that a typical morning at my job would involve darting a wildebeest, cleaning a cheetah’s teeth, and vasectomizing a deer, I would not have believed it. And while Princeton didn’t teach me how to shoot a tranquilizer gun, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) did something much more important: it fueled my passion for wildlife conservation and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams. My choice to study EEB was based only on the fact that it allowed me to spend time studying the things I found most interesting. For my thesis, I studied the behavior of feral horses on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, not because it would help me get into vet school, but because I loved living in my tent and spending all day watching animals interact. What I eventually learned was that my choice to study ecology, evolution, and animal behavior was the best way to begin learning how to protect the habitats and species I loved learning about.

A chance encounter

After vet school I did the obligatory poodle work, that is, I worked in a small animal hospital, honing my medical and surgical skills. To keep my foot in wildlife medicine, I wrote academic articles and worked on injured native wildlife. Four years after graduation, I was asked to be a temporary vet at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. I drove my belongings from Massachusetts to Glen Rose, Texas, planning on a three-month stay, but after being on staff for two years, I was named head veterinarian. In July 2006, I was promoted to director of animal health. Fossil Rim is a large wild animal park that maintains and breeds threatened and endangered species in semi-free ranging habitats. It’s a paradise for me, because I do things like anesthetize giraffe (difficult and dangerous due to their wonderfully evolved anatomy and physiology), perform surgery on black rhinos, and raise orphaned cheetah cubs at my house. I get to indulge my nerdy side by designing research projects, writing about strange clinical cases for publication, and puzzling through unusual presentations of medical problems in unusual species. Just like at Princeton, I took advantage of something that looked fun, and things fell into place.

How my Princeton studies helped

I can safely say, that while studying hyrax in Kenya in an EEB tropical ecology course, I had no idea how important my experience at Princeton would be to my future career. But now, I use the principles of problem solving, which I learned in Henry Horn’s field biology course, to pursue medical diagnoses and treatments. I use the training I got writing my thesis to critically evaluate scientific articles, design studies, and analyze data. I use my understanding of animal behavior to provide the best care possible for species in captivity. Perhaps majoring in molecular biology would have made my precarious vet school passage through biochemistry, pharmacology, and cellular biology much smoother. But following my interests taught me that loving what you do is the best way to get what you want.

“If you told me during my freshman year that a typical morning at my job would involve darting a wildebeest, cleaning a cheetah’s teeth, and vasectomizing a deer, I would not have believed it. And while Princeton didn’t teach me how to shoot a tranquilizer gun, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) did something much more important: it fueled my passion for wildlife conservation and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams.”