Anthropology Major Becomes TV's 'Wild' Child

When you hear the word "anthropology," do you immediately think of a trendy clothing store, or an esoteric major that promises a long waits in the unemployment line? Does anyone even study anthropology in this day and age when even the most practical majors, like accounting, medicine and computer science, can't guarantee decent jobs?

If you're one of those who are majoring in anthropology now and it's too late to back out, or if your freshman has just announced that that's what he/she wants to study and you're envisioning supporting your kid forever, you'll be inspired by National Geographic's Mireya Mayor. Not only did her major qualify her for an exciting job that takes her to exotic locations all over the world, but it also helped her become an Emmy-nominated television host whose latest series, Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor on 'National Geographic Wild,' is raising eyebrows and getting killer ratings.

Being an animal expert on television was the last thing Mayor expected to do when she graduated high school. She was the daughter of over-protective Cuban parents who wouldn't let her join Girl Scouts because they thought that was too wild. She did a stint as an NFL cheerleader and intended to go to school to become a lawyer, but once she took her first anthropology class, she was hooked.

She changed her major, got a Fulbright Scholarship, and was working on her PhD in the dreaded field of anthropology -- "the study of humankind, in all its aspects, especially human culture or human development." So, where does being a wild animal expert fit in?

"There are four sub-fields of anthropology," Mayor explains. "Archeology, culture, physical and linguistics. Under physical is the study of primates, which was my field of study." She was in Madagascar, studying the fossa, a natural predator of the lemur. (Lemurs are primates. Who knew?) That's where she ran into a National Geographic film crew that was working on one of their famous lemur specials. They saw an attractive blonde who knew her stuff, and invited her to come on board with Nat Geo. The next thing she knew, she was hosting wildlife shows for the popular cable channel.

"I was a real girly girl," she says. "I'd never even been camping before I was on my way to the Amazon to do a show." Now she's literally up to her elbows in muck and goo, and facing wild animals eye to eye on a daily basis.

Her 'Wild Nights' series explores the surprising amount of wildlife found living among humans in urban centers. She was stunned to find sea turtles the size of Volkswagons on Florida beaches, and in Rio de Janeiro, she found giant capybaras, which are rodents -- some as big as a German shepherd. Alligators are common on tropical urban streets, and bats and snakes are rampant in just about every city, the latter because people acquire them as pets and then, when they get too big, release them in parks or sewer systems. "People don't know this, but the snake population is really out of control in most urban cities," Mayor says.

"It's amazing how well wild animals adapt to live among humans," she notes. She gives the example of wild boars running free and flourishing in a city park in the middle of New Orleans. "As our cities expand, we encroach on their natural habitats, and they have a remarkable way of adjusting. You don't have to go to some exotic, faraway place to see wildlife," she says. It might be living just down the block, or even in your backyard. Check out Asylum to see what city-dwelling critters may be creeping around your town.

Speaking of backyards, as much as Mayor travels, she still concedes that there's no place like home, where she has a husband and two young daughters waiting for her. Sometimes she gets to take her family along on her exotic trips, and shes believes she's exposing them to unique and invaluable experiences. Her upcoming book, 'Pink Boots and a Machete,' chronicles her travels and experiences.

"I like to encourage women especially to follow their dreams and their passions, and not limit themselves," she says. She thinks of herself as living proof that an anthropology major can be practical and employable after all.

Watch Some 'Wild Night' Clips

Enjoying a swamp dinner:

Mireya Mayor makes friends with gorillas:

Next: 10 Jobs That Let You Work With Animals >>

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