Describing what the past month has been like for us is going to be an impossible task. So many good experiences, but so many bad ones as well. With no experience necessary, volunteers always needed and everybody welcome we never really thought about NOT giving it a go. That is, until we met a traveller who had recently been kicked out of the park. He had quite a few bad things to say, but then again he also broke the rules by smoking weed, so he was an absolute idiot anyway. We had no idea what to expect but for the chance to work with and look after a puma or an ocelot or even a jaguar we were prepared to put up with a few hardships, forgo a few luxuries and do the odd bit of manual labour. Neither of us was quite prepared for what we found at Ambue Ari Park, even allowing for having the absolute lowest of expectations. It certainly didn’t help that our arrival coincided with the end of 3 days of continual torrential rain. Absolutely everything was covered with mud or dripping wet and that included all the people, all the dorm rooms, every single item of clothing and a fair few of the animals also. Little did we know at the start, but torrential rain would be an almost constant companion for at least half of our stay. The dry season it most definitely was not.
But first let me explain where we’ve been: 6 hours north of Santa Cruz, deep in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon jungle is an animal rehabilitation park called Ambue Ari, one of three parks that make up the Inti Wara Yassi community. The nearest town (and by this we really mean a collection of small shacks and shops) is a 45 minute bus ride away. There’s no electricity (well apart from a generator that runs a couple of hours a day to charge phones/ipods etc), no hot water, dorms rooms with no walls – just netting supports, no alcohol, and no flushing toilets. But it is also home to 26 cats; mostly pumas, 6 jaguars, a few ocelots and one Brazilian wildcat. It was for this reason alone that we chose this particular park over the other two where the conditions are certainly better but can’t offer the same feline experiences that we were after. Inti Wara Yassi provides home to a variety of abandoned, abused and neglected animals, not just cats. Almost every cat in the park had a difficult start in life before finding a loving and care-free home at the park. Cats rescued from the circus, the military, the wealthy and even some zoos are cared for, as well as an assortment of other animals. My favourite non-feline animal was most definitely Herbie the tapier; a cross between an elephant and a hippopotamus. Mike’s favourite non-feline animal was a close tie between the night monkeys and a parrot called Gordo, see the video of Mike talking “parrot” with him below.
Mike speaks Parrot
We arrived at the park on a Friday night but had to wait until Sunday to find out what cats (if any, nothing is guaranteed) we would be working with. Those first few days were a strange mixture of nervous excitement, apprehension, intense anxiety, adjustment and learning the ways of the jungle.
For every incredible “pinch me, is this real?” moment there was an equally devastating “get me out of here” moment in the month that followed. It seems unlikely I can do the experience justice here; I can barely organise my thoughts on the whole month in my own head, let along record them with any sense or skill here. So what follows are some of the highs and lows, in no particular order:
High: Receiving a lick from mu puma Koru on my second day. It meant he had accepted me, in record time, and I could continue to look after him. Over time I was able to hand feed him grass, pat his head and tickle him under the chin and, my favourite, hold his tail as we walked through the jungle together.
High: We met some fantastic people, all at the park for the same reason we were: the cats. Friday night was party night – a chance to have a few drinks and unwind away from camp. Our first Friday was a bit of a shock – it seemed the object was to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible. Alcohol is banned in the park so all the drinking is done in a place called Santa Maria, a 15 minute hitchhike ride away. We kinda thought it would be a dry month but could not have been more wrong. Friday nights were great fun and by our last one we were swigging back the rum with the best of them. All part of keeping one’s sanity in the jungle. A proper full size bottle of rum (if you can call it that) cost about 14bs (that’s a wopping £1.40!), so at least it was a cheap night. One Friday night will be remembered for the auction the park held – all manner of stuff was up for grabs such as a visit to a cat you don’t work with, cooked breakfast for a week, no jobs for a week, not having to clean the toilet ever, or a personal slave for a day etc. Another Friday night will be remembered for the “cup competition”. Essentially a team of 8 all skull a drink, then flip the cup from an upright position to an upside down position on a table edge. The second person in line can’t start until the person in front has completed the task. The teams were America/Israel/French Canada vs. Australasia and Britain/Europe vs. Australasia. The ANZAC’s lost both times although Mike and I each got complemented on the speed of our drinking skills.
Ambue Ari - The gang on auction night
Friday night, party night
Low: Rats. Firstly finding poo absolutely everywhere: on the ladder up to my bunk, on my bed, on food containers, on the tables, in bags and all over the kitchen; literally everywhere. Secondly hearing rats all night long as they scurry along beams, across floors or over our mosquito nets and let’s not forget the frequent baby making attempts which was definitely the worst noise of all! All in all this led to many a sleepless night. Thirdly actually feeling a rat crawl across my shoulder; true event, but luckily only happened the once. Fourthly knowing a rat attacked one of the house Toucan’s but luckily the bird lives on. And finally finding chewed holes in clothes, back packs and even a dry-bag, even when no food had ever been anywhere near these items; frustrating and gross. The only ‘good’ rat news we have is an awesome video of the Brazilian wildcat being fed and playing with a baby rat – one of five that was found in a nest outside our dorm.
High: Playing “stalk the human” with my caged jaguar Sama. I would walk around his cage while he crept up behind me. If I waited at the corners he would ever so slowly advance, and at the last moment charge the cage. Then we would run together down the next section but if he got too far ahead of me, he would look back, realise I’m not right behind him and wait for me to catch up. Then we would walk side by side for a while until the “stalk the human” game started again. In this manner Sama and I would do perhaps 7 laps of his cage every afternoon. I never got tired of it.
Stalk the human with Sama, bear with the video - it gets good at about the 1 minute stage
High: Seeing Mike at the end of each day, and sharing with each other stories about our respective cats. What they had done that day, affection given, trees climbed, animals chased, injuries sustained, paths walked etc. After over 6 months of practically spending every minute of every day together it was nice to have different experiences to share with one another. At the park you only have contact with the cat or cats you are responsible for, so I didn’t meet Roy or see the river he swam in. Likewise Mike was unable to even see Koru, let alone play football with him. But I looked forward to hearing Mike’s accounts of Roy and the progress he made day by day.
Low: Not being able to wear insect repellent was pretty tough. The cats react badly to the chemicals; some have even had bad reactions to citronella so to avoid any toxicity we either wear two or sometimes three layers of clothing or get hundreds of bites. Even with multiple layers, a head net, gloves and gumboots we both got eaten alive. Luckily there hasn’t been a case of malaria in the area for a few years now, but even still we took our beloved Lariam anti-malarial medication just to be on the safe side. Our hands suffered the most – they still look horrendous. Applying alcohol gel before meals was torture indeed.
High: Every now and then it became necessary to “walk the trails” before taking the cats out in the jungle to make sure no trees or vines had fallen overnight and the trail was still passable for the animals. This happened twice while we were there after some pretty bad storms. The first time this happened, myself and two other people headed out to Koru’s trails to discover an enormous tree, probably close on 12 meters long had fallen across the path. It took the best part of two hours for the three of us to hack away at the surrounding jungle with machetes to create a new path through that area. In the end we were able to use the fallen log as part of the trail; Koru would be able to walk the length of the fallen log jumping over it at the end. The first time Koru went down that trail and seeing him jump up and along the tree was so awesome. I had helped to create a new “feature” for him, to enrich his environment and to encourage him to improve his climbing skills.
Koru sees one of his toys in the distance and comes over to check it out
High: Each cat has different needs. Most cats are on some sort of medication, to remedy the effects of past ill-treatment, mal nourishment or simply old age, as the cats often live much longer in the park than they would in the wild (up to around 20 in captivity, whilst 12-13 in the wild for a Puma). Mike’s puma Roy needed medication for arthritis and the way Mike gave it to him was ground up and disguised in mince balls. These he hand-fed through the cage wire, Roy gently licking any left-over mince from his fingers. I was, and still am, so incredible jealous of this. Had I tried to hand feed Koru anything other than grass I would have lost a hand for sure. But Roy was different and for Mike this was a real highlight.
Low: A Norwegian guy at camp, Stig (that’s his real name but we were sadly disappointed to see he did not wear a helmet!) was working with a puma called Yuma. On his third day he went into the jungle for the mornings work. Yuma was a half day cat, and only required a single volunteer so Stig should have been back at camp for lunch at 12.30. By 1pm the search began. By 3pm the search party had increased to 10 people. By 6pm everyone was pretty worried, it getting dark and all. The jungle is not a friendly place to be lost or injured or both, especially with a puma attached to you. It took over 6 hours to find him; he was more than 5km away from where he should have been. He had been lost in the jungle for 8 hours, but both he and Yuma were totally fine, if slightly shaken by the whole experience. Yuma had charged after an animal off trail and Stig couldn’t find the trail again. After walking through the jungle for more than an hour he realised he was lost. That was at 10am in the morning. When Stig got back to camp, exhausted, dirty, tired and hungry he said he “had made peace with death in the jungle”. I will never forget that moment; the look on his face, the relief, the gratitude. I can’t even begin to imagine what thoughts were running through his head, and of his girlfriend’s, for those hours.
High: Playing football with a Puma. Koru would chase after the ball if you kicked it to him; sometimes he even pawed it back! We placed the ball 4 meters high in a tree, and he could jump up to get it down. So agile, so fast, so playful. Koru had three main “toys”: the football, a bottle attached to a long stick, and another bottle that we could throw to him. At first it was the most un-nerving thing to get Koru interested in the toy in your hand, to see him come stalking or charging at you at full speed. His eyes would be locked on you until the very last second before the “toy” in question became his primary focus. As we got to know each other better, I became more confident with the toys, but it still made me a little nervous. Koru is attached to a ‘runner’ when we play with him like this, a long rope attached to two trees with a second rope attached to him. He can roam about 6 meters either side of the runner, more if he uses the bungie elasticity to his advantage. Going into his “runner space” always requires extreme caution.
Koru's ball skills
Low: Tragedy occurred in our third week. Not wanting to go into too much detail, suffice to say that one of the pumas died. After a life of constant battles and medical problems, a miscommunication basically resulted in a fatal medical complication. I think it was the first time anything like that had happened in the park, everyone was naturally devastated by the news. The sight of Marco, the head chief of the park at the time, breaking down into tears when trying to tell us will stay with me forever. Needless to say camp morale took a hammering for a few days afterwards.
High: Gaining the trust and affection of my jaguar Sama. He’s the wildest and fiercest cat in the park so to be able to pat his head through the cage, very quickly before retracting my hand, and one time being able to stroke his back, was incredible. I didn’t think that would be possible but he seemed to really like me. Probably wanted to eat me, but he had a real gentle side to him also. He even allowed me to squirt some medication onto his chin, where a scar from a chin operation was failing to heal. As a special treat I would give him an egg every now and then – he could rip my throat apart in seconds but to crack an egg he very gently pressed his nose against the shell – it was the cutest thing to see. Every afternoon at 2pm he would be waiting for me, perched on his platform, watching me emerge from the jungle surrounding his cage. The first thing I would do when I saw him was call out “hola Sama, hola chico”, then sit on a little wooden seat a previous volunteer had constructed. After a few minutes of initial growling, Sama would eventually come and say hello, allowing me to reach in and pat his head.
Sama: Growl vs Purr
Low: It was meant to be the dry season but Mother Nature had other ideas. It was raining when we arrived, it was raining when we left but we did get some great weather in-between. Unfortunately the jungle is a wet environment so many of the trails we walked were flooded and stayed flooded for the whole time. To even get to Koru’s cage required a 30 minute walk, some of it down the road before turning off into the jungle for a bit. Most days the water level would be above gumboot height though. Having wet feet for 30 days was not ideal, walking around with puddles of water in the gumboots for 6 + hours at a time was not ideal, nor was the infected blister that required daily dressings and antibiotics that I got on the 3rd day (before I found the perfect pair of gumboots). Talcum powder and buying new socks made all the difference though. Mike had a bit of a problem finding the perfect pair of gumboots, what with him having rather large feet. He managed to inherit a pair off another volunteer Paul who had to leave early. They were almost the right size – bit of a performance to get them on every day though! Lol. (Paul, he fell off the roof of a taxi on his way back from the pub on a Friday night, aka party night destroying most of the skin down one side of his body. Riding on the roof of a taxi was a common occurrence, at least until Paul’s accident. Don’t worry Mum; I never rode on the roof). Also my foot infection was preferable to the countless fungal infections others suffered from. Anti-fungal cream was worth gold in camp, but luckily neither Mike or I needed to beg, borrow or steal any. Checking ourselves for ticks was another part of the jungle we could have lived without. At final count Mike: 2, Me: 1. Gross!
Mike off to see Roy in the rain
Typical camp scene, gumboots and dirty wet clothes
High: The volunteers who introduced Mike to Roy were a little wary to give him affection and advised Mike to be cautious also. Roy had been a difficult cat in the past, un-predicable and at times aggressive – getting “jumped” was just part of working with him apparently. It was for this reason that only men are assigned to Roy. However, Mike and his walking partner Cedric made a distinct effort to, in certain places/times, increase the amount of affection given to Roy. It took a few days, but eventually Roy really responded to the affection and by the end of their month was often initiating the patting episodes himself. Not to be under-estimated though, Roy got the last laugh by pushing Mike into the river towards the end of our month. As Mike tells the story Roy had come in for some affection, so Mike willing gave him a pat. Roy got a bit excited though and started to jump up, which would have been perfectly OK had the water level not been so high. Instead of merely stumbling a bit down the bank, Mike lost his footing and fell backwards, completely submerging himself in the water. When Mike came up for air Roy was looking down at him, for Mike a truly vulnerable position to be in, but Mike swears Roy had a very crafty look on his puma face. Cheeky bugger! I thought it was hilarious, wished I could have seen it happen, and was gutted to find out that Cedric (Mike’s partner) had been filming the affection and patting bit, but dropped the camera instantly when he realised Roy was about to jump Mike and so missed the best bit.
There's a good kitty cat, Mike with Roy
Roy goes swimming
Low: Bolivia has a problem with Yellow Fever with an outbreak of the disease killing three of the park’s monkey’s (one while we were there, two just before we arrived). Any monkey found dead in the jungle had to be brought back to camp for testing. Pretty grim stuff. Luckily both Mike and I never found any dead monkeys.
High: DIY. Sama doesn’t like having more than one person at his cage at any one time. Two people make him aggressive and it’s difficult to calm him down afterwards. He also likes seeing the same person each day, so when some maintenance needed to be done on his cage it was me, and me alone who had to deal with it. To any-one else this would probably be a simple task, but let’s be honest – I’m not really the handy kind of girl. So check me out: I used a bolt cutter, replaced a rusty lock, removed corrugated iron from his cage (we wrap it around trees so he can’t climb up and escape), cleaned carabinas and cleared fallen vines. It might not sound like much, but for me it’s so far removed from my usual skill set and I felt good doing everything that was needed.
Sama's platform and cage
Dinner time for Sama
High and low: The jungle can be both a blessing and a curse. On a good day, early in the morning, sunlight streamed through the canopy above reflecting off dew. Brilliant blue cobalt or orange butterflies fluttered around. Every shade of green represented, from a dull dark to a vivid florescent. The jungle humming with the sounds of insects, monkeys and birds. The temperature just perfect and the puma attached to me behaving perfectly. At these times, most of my mind would be on the Puma, but the rest would be free to wander and enjoy the peace and serenity of it all. The jungle can have a certain magical fairy-tale feel to it; like the jungle book only Bolivian style. On a bad day, when we’re running behind schedule and really need to get the puma back to the cage so we can have some lunch, finally, the jungle is not so magical. When it’s raining and every layer I’m wearing is soaked, or when the constant ‘buzz’ of hundreds of mosquitos is driving me mad, or after I’ve wiped my face for the millionth time because I’ve walked through another spider’s web. Or after almost stepping on a tarantula. At these times the jungle is nothing but frustrating. But we took the good with the bad and all things considered the good far outweighed the bad.
There’s still so much more to say. Noticeably absent are descriptions of our respective cats, their personalities, problems or how they came to be at the park in the first place. These will be in the next blogs: what it was like to walk a puma, how to use the ropes, learning the trails, and what it felt like to be attached to a puma when it decided to climb a tree or chase after an animal. There’s also a great story which I will let Mike tell about Roy that involves a snake.
The jungle was an incredible experience. We got to work with, care for and walk puma’s. I got to pat a wild (but caged jaguar). No-where else in the world would this be possible, but in Bolivia, a county we have fallen in love with. Fact – it was difficult at times. The first week was really tough, but the second week we found ourselves enjoying more and more, and the last two weeks just sped by. If we didn’t have places to go and flights to catch hundreds and hundreds of miles north, we MAY have been persuaded to stay longer. True: we were delighted when our 30 days were up, even more delighted with we reached civilisation again. But also true: the jungle will always have a special place in our hearts, as will our beautiful cats Koru, Roy and Sama.
P.S. Can't take credit for any of the Koru videos or photos - thanks Lock!
P.P.S We tried not to double up with the photos on Facebook. We will add a few more photos here of our cats in the next few blog entries, promise.