Staff Spotlight

This issue, Hollis Stewart from Wildlife Health in the Naples Field Office was kind enough to sit down and tell us about herself. Thanks, Hollis!

What is your professional experience?

I went to the University of Georgia for veterinary school. I have had some wonderful vet experiences pre-and post-graduation. I worked with howler monkeys in Belize, jaguar, tapir and short eared dogs in the Peruvian amazon, marine animals in Hawaii, painted dogs in Botswana, lemurs and turtles off the coast of Georgia, horses, donkeys and mules in Morocco and dairy cows in Israel. Prior to joining FWC, I was veterinarian at Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia and then worked for seven years in Dubai, on falcons and captive wildlife.

What are you working on now?

I am currently investigating Feline leukomyelopathy (FLM) a novel neurologic condition in Florida panthers and bobcats. The condition causes damage to the spinal cord resulting in weakness and incoordination. The FWC team is opportunistically performing necropsies on road-kill bobcats, in addition to panthers.  FWC has a numerous camera traps deployed to monitor for signs and symptoms of FLM. We are also compiling citizen reports with video that has added to our database of probable cases. There is still so much to know and learn about this disease, what causes it, where does it come from, what is the prevalence, what is the impact on the wild panther population.

How is this information beneficial?

There are around 200 Florida panthers in the wild, already threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation, in addition to vehicular collisions. We have yet to determine the impact or threat FLM has on their population.

What is your typical work day like?

The job is quite dynamic, some days I am flying doing aerial telemetry to track collared panthers and bobcats, some days I am responding to roadkill calls, other days I am in the field checking remote cameras. I am 24/7 on call in case of a panther emergency. The position is a seasonal with the summer months focusing on captive panther populations, evaluating data and working on manuscripts. The winter months is capture season, so the focus shifts to capturing and collaring panthers.

Who has been your favorite mentor or role model?

My mother has had the biggest impact on my life. She encouraged me to pursue my dreams and follow my heart. Animals were not her passion, but she understood they were mine and she was my number one cheerleader and role model.  I never knew any women of color veterinarians growing up. I still know very few that have a career in wildlife.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

Getting a foot in the door was a challenge. I knew that I always wanted to work with wildlife, but in order to do so, you need to understand domestic animals as well. With so many animal jobs, you must start out volunteering or accepting lower pay. If you have student loans and no financial support, it can be quite difficult just to live. At the beginning of my career I was working at a zoo but had four other jobs just support myself.

What do you like most about your career?

I like that my career is varied.  Veterinarians can choose to practice small or large animal clinical medicine, lab animal medicine, research, pathology, production animal health or other animal health positions.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?

I cannot remember a time that I did not want to be a veterinarian. It was my dream since I was less than 3 years old. I do not think it was a decision that I made, but one I was born into.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?

I do not know what I would be doing. I still have a strong interest in anthropology (my undergraduate major) and man’s historical connection with animals. So perhaps something along those lines. But is that social science? Hmm… in my head I wish I was a great artist or musician or dancer. I envy people that can express their emotions through art. 

Do you have any advice for women looking to enter the field?

Volunteer, find a mentor, talk to everyone, make connections. Also, to stay open minded, many people think they know what they want to do, but when they try it or see something else, and they change their minds. Changing your mind is ok. Changing your goal is ok. Opportunity is everywhere, just stay true to your passion and trust the process. But network and make connections. Always. You never know who you can help and who can help you. And stay humble. Always be humble.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I just started taking flying classes. Being a pilot has been a dream of mine. I decided to stop procrastinating and make it a reality. I also love to travel. Covid put a damper on things, but I have an endangered species bucket list I need to get through. I’m grateful to have been to the places I have been, but travel is addicting, and you never regret traveling. I also enjoy anything that involves nature, the outdoors and my dog.