ARCADIA, Calif. — When she was a little girl, Mireya Mayor's parents wouldn't allow her to join the Girl Scouts, saying it was far too dangerous. An only child of Cuban immigrants, she was soundly protected throughout her youth, she said.
When she grew up, she made up for lost time. Mayor earned her doctorate in anthropology, specializing in the study of primates. And that academic leap took her to the wilds of Madagascar, the jungles of the Congo and the forests of America's Northwest.
"The expeditions that appeal to me most are the ones where there's a possibility of discovery and deemed difficult/nearly impossible," she said. "Those are the ones that appeal to me the most."
Mayor's intrepid journeys have resulted in the co-discovery of the world's smallest primate and the unearthing of a new frog species.
"I feel equally comfortable and at home in the dense forest - no running water, no electricity - as I do in the big city environment," she said. "I love being there."
During her forays, Mayor has survived a plane crash in the Congo, been charged by a 450-pound silverback gorilla and been pursued by an unpredictable forest elephant. But the scariest encounters involve people, not animals, she said.
"I've been in some pretty hairy situations in Guyana, for example, with the miners who live out there and were following me down the river," she said. "In Congo, I had my passport taken away and thrown into a ditch because, apparently, it wasn't me. So I've had some scary encounters. With animals, I know enough about animal behavior to know what to expect."
But in her latest mission, she has no idea what to expect. Mayor is one of the team tracking the elusive Bigfoot in the wilds of Oregon on the Travel Channel series "Expedition Bigfoot."
She insisted that hasn't lost her scientific integrity to do so.
"My goal is not any different on this expedition than on any traditional expedition that I've been on, which is to find evidence," she said. "And that's all I am interested in. Science isn't based on belief, it's based on fact. There are moments where there is a lot of excitement about things found, and I am the inquisitive skeptic. I'm very open-minded.
"I was a pre-law student, former NFL cheerleader, never your 'typical' scientist, and I've always kept an open mind. So I went into this with an extremely open mind, also knowing there are more than 10,000 modern-day eyewitness accounts. And those need to be taken seriously, because all of them may not be true. What you actually need is one of them to be true to warrant an investigation. In my work as a scientist, there have been endless times when I rely on accounts of the local people when I'm searching for an animal. And I've heard accounts of an animal being in an area when no other scientist believed it could be there, and I myself found it hard to believe, that turned out to be there. So you do need to listen to these stories."
It was her mother, a nurse, who sheltered her as a child, but later encouraged Mayor in her unconventional choices.
"She was terrified I was going to Guyana in South America to one of the most remote regions of the Amazon, unexplored — that I was going to get sick and die in the jungle," she said.
"So for many years, she didn't understand why I kept going back and doing this. So when I had my first daughter, I thought, 'I guess that's it.' And it was Mom, who initially didn't want me to do all this, who said, 'You can't stop exploring. It's not what you're doing, it's who you are. And you do your daughter a disservice by not being who you are.' She was absolutely right. So I grabbed my baby and went off to Madagascar when she was 9 months old."
Mayor has six children, five by her first husband and a 4-year-old with her executive producer husband of six years. She manages her family with the same precision she applies to her work.
"I treat my life verymuch like an expedition — even the logistical planning with six children is no different than what I do when I plan the porters, the food, the timeline, the contingency plans — plans A, B, and C," she said. "You can plan and plan, and then Africa happens. The same with kids.
Filming on "Expedition Bigfoot" has been completed, but Mayor won't yet say what she found.
"What I can say is this, without giving away too much, is that I walked away from Oregon with a completely different way of thinking about Bigfoot and its existence than when I walked in. I saw and experienced things out there that had no logical or scientific explanation, things that really took me by surprise, that perhaps if I hadn't seen with my own two eyes, I wouldn't even believe."