African wildlife discovery helped launch career of Mireya Mayor

What: National Geographic Live; Pink Boots & a Machete
When: Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
Tickets: $32.50 to $44.50 at rmts.bc.ca or phone at 250-386-6121 or at the McPherson Box Office.

While studying law to seek justice for her uncle who was gunned down in a Miami bar, Mireya Mayor took a required science course that catapulted her from a potential courtroom to the jungle. It was anthropology — not because she was particularly interested, but because it fit her schedule.

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“It changed the entire course of my life,” said Mayor, the first staff female wildlife correspondent hired by National Geographic.

“I fell completely in love with the subject.”

Mayor was intoxicated by the potential for discovery in unexplored parts of the world. “I came to learn that there were all these critically endangered primates, our closest living relatives, that were on the verge of extinction that had never been studied before, some of which there were only line drawings of, no photographs,” said Mayor, whose credentials range from anthropologist and primatologist to Fulbright Scholar, Emmy-nominated TV correspondent, mom of six and former cheerleader. “I couldn’t turn away.”

National Geographic Live returns to Victoria this week, with Mayor bringing her Pink Boots and a Machete lecture to the stage of the Royal Theatre, along with stunning photographs and video clips from the Amazon to Africa.

Mayor, who researches, lectures and travels as a wildlife correspondent, figures determination is in her genes.

On Oct. 10, 1965, Mayor’s grandmother, mother and aunt, who spoke no English and had no money and no plan, left Cuba for the United States.

Mayor’s parents met in an English course at the University of Miami, but her dad, a medical student from Spain, abandoned her when Mayor was 10 months old.

Mayor said she was raised by “three mothers,” all strong women “who never took no for an answer to this day.”

Her mother and aunt alternated working less-than-minimum-wage jobs to put the other sibling through nursing school.

“I witnessed my entire life what it really meant to work hard and pursue your dream and do the best you could with what you had, and I suppose that’s where my inner strength comes from.

“I never saw anything as impossible and my mom … on the contrary, my mother would say: ‘Try again, aim higher.’ ”

Life in America wasn’t all successes, though.

In 1982, when a stout, drunken man hassled another in a Miami bar for repayment of a debt of about $20, Mayor’s six-foot-three-inch uncle, a father of six, stepped in.

“The guy took out a gun and shot him nine times in the head, all because he offered to repay this measly debt,” said Mayor.

The shooter was released from jail after seven years, only to re-offend and die in jail.

“The injustice is insane. It’s one of the reasons I initially set off to become a lawyer. I was a pre-law student at the University of Miami and very well on my way … and I had to fill a science requirement.”

Anthropology, the study of humans, which uses primates as a model for ancestral human behaviour, changed her life.

As an NFL cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins (the only way she could afford to go to football games), Mayor said she was the “antithesis of a scientist stereotypically,” but professor Linda Taylor, a biological anthropologist, believed in her.

Mayor recalls being told: “You’ll never find a job — you’ll never make any money as an anthropologist,” but she says she never let it faze her.

“What I’ve learned is that when you do something you love, everything else will fall into place and that’s truly what happened to me,” said Mayor.

In 1996, she headed off to South America to find a white-faced saki monkey, of which little was known, and to conduct a biodiversity survey of the Amazon. Over the next two years, seeing animals such as baby monkeys hunted to be killed or sold as pets cemented conservation as her priority. In that second year, she also went to Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa to study some of the most endangered animals in the world and to set up a study on a lemur species that had never been photographed.

In 2001, she co-discovered a rare new species of mouse lemur, believed to be the world’s smallest primate, prompting Madagascar’s prime minister to establish a national park to help protect the new species.

“There are still animal discoveries happening all the time,” said Mayor. “And there are still species of primates that are virtually unknown.”

National Geographic was in Madagascar filming the rare nocturnal fossa, a creature that eats lemurs, and asked Mayor for comment on lemurs, which later led to a profile of her work.

“And that’s how it all began for me,” said Mayor, who was subsequently hired as a wildlife correspondent. Her book, Pink Boots & a Machete, with a foreword by Jane Goodall, was written for National Geographic.

Since then, she’s consumed cow blood in Tanzania, shared a raw goat kidney with the Maasai warriors of Africa, and survived a confrontation with an angry silverback gorilla in Congo by acting like a fellow gorilla, pretending to eat leaves to appear submissive.

She’s survived poisonous insect bites, been chased by elephants and stepped over Fer-de-lance snakes, an extremely venomous viper. But the biggest dangers, she said, are the smallest of insects, such as mosquitoes spreading malaria or dengue fever or bacteria spreading disease.

“I came close to dying so many times,” said Mayor, who is based in Great Falls, Virginia, where she lives with husband Phil Fairclough, an executive producer on Grizzly Man, and their six children, ages three to 13. “I got a bacterial blood infection, no one knows the source, and when I finally hacked my way back out of the jungle and got onto a plane back to [the United States], the doctor said if I had waited 24 hours longer, I would have been dead.”

And there’s the political strife — she’s had her passport taken from her and thrown in a ditch — and other misadventures, including surviving a a plane crash.

Despite it all, she says she’s never been on an expedition she didn’t love.

“I will be in the very thick of things — where we have completely run out of food and I’m sick and everything that could go wrong in an expedition has gone wrong, [and] I’m already mentally excited preparing for the next one,” said Mayor.

There is much to look forward to, after all: “There is nothing like standing in front of a majestic 400-pound gorilla. It’s really an incredible, almost emotional experience every time. I love wandering the forests of Madagascar. All of the animals look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

And she’s drawn by the different cultures, with the Maasai people one of her favourites. “You walk into one of Africa’s most ancient forests with them and you see trees and they see an entire medicine cabinet. It’s really incredible to learn how to really co-exist with nature.”

Mayor said she hopes to make a difference through discoveries in the field, inspiring future anthropologists, sharing information on the plight of endangered animals, and working with local people to show how some animals are worth more “alive than on the dinner table” — and discover with them alternatives to deforestation and hunting.

“That’s how you really make a difference, because at the end of the day, it’s not going to be me or the Jane Goodalls of the world,” said Mayor. “It’s not one person — it’s a community of people who will make the difference.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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