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She's a female Indiana Jones: Mireya Mayor explores rain forests with pink boots and machetes

Mireya Mayor drank cow blood in Tanzania, swam with aggressive sharks in Mexico and faced a 400-pound silverback gorilla in the Congo. But the South Florida-raised wildlife expert still can’t get a “that’s cool, Mom” from her daughter, Emma.

“My other kids are really into animals and exploration and science, but I don’t think my 12-year-old thinks I’m as cool as they do,” says Mayor, who lives in Virginia with her husband and six children.

Of course, friends and colleagues already heap plenty of praise on the researcher. As a globe-trotting anthropologist, primatologist, conservationist and correspondent for National Geographic, Mayor’s life plays out like a nature travelogue, prompting friends to dub her a “female Indiana Jones.”

Mayor, 45, won’t object to that title, although she prefers saving endangered animals to chasing Holy Grails. On Thursday, April 19, Mayor will bring her talk “Pink Boots and a Machete” to the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, part of a lecture series organized by National Geographic.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants who raised her in Miami Beach, Little Havana and Pembroke Pines, Mayor loved surrounding herself with animals as a child. “I grew up with a zoo in my house,” Mayor says with a laugh, adding that her grandfather built cages for stray chickens she caught.

While a student at the University of Miami, she spent about a year as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader. But after enrolling in an anthropology class, Mayor traded in her cheerleader pompoms for pink hiking boots on a whim. Fashion would not take a backseat to her career, she says.

“I just fell in love with the subject, and what really captivated my interest was the section on primates, ones that haven’t been studied and ones on the verge of extinction,” says Mayor, later encouraged by her anthropology professor to apply for research grants. One week after cheering at her final game, Mayor hopped a plane to Guyana.

Mayor describes hiking through Guyana’s lush, impenetrable Amazon forest as an adventure of misadventures. She survived in dugout canoes for several months, after discovering that poisonous snakes on the ground made camping in tents impossible. Four months in, mysterious red spots and wounds began streaking her leg.

It was a life-threatening blood infection. Mayor dashed home to South Florida for treatment.

That was hardly Mayor’s closest brush with death. She has, in no particular order, dove with great whites, rappelled down cliffs, discovered a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar and trekked 1,000 miles from Zanzibar to Tanzania with the Maasai warrior tribe. During that last journey, captured in the 2009 History Channel documentary series “Expedition Africa,” Mayor says an explorer nearly died of malaria, and they subsisted on cow blood and termites.

On another expedition to the Congo, Mayor narrowly survived a plane crash.

“I had set off to study the female behaviors of western lowland gorillas, because the [male] silverbacks usually draw all the attention,” Mayor recalls. “We all survived the crash, and were taken to a brothel while we waited to be rescued. I’m still so glad everyone was safe.”

Today, obligations at home prevent her from taking expeditions longer than six weeks, although Mayor says the pink boots are still part of the wardrobe.

“You always need a nice outfit wherever you go. I have a little black dress as a staple, too, because you get invited to special village ceremonies and such,” Mayor says.

She uses her femininity as a force of empowerment in the field, and for her children.

“I never wanted to hide my femininity in order to be taken more seriously in the field, so I made a statement to wear pink boots,” Mayor says. “I feel like I’m in overdrive these days, because I see the state of the planet, and all of the magnificent creatures my kids might not see, and it drives me to do more for their sake. They need to see who their mother really was, so I can show them that they can do it all.”

“Mireya Mayor: Pink Boots and a Machete” will take place 7-9 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., in Delray Beach. Admission costs $15-$25. Call 561-243-7922, or go to OldSchoolSquare.org.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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