Walking through the jungle with a Puma named Roy
Trip Start Aug 26, 2005
125Trip End May 26, 2008
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Since arriving in South America I have been hearing rumors of an animal refuge somewhere in Bolivia. Over my travels I have met two people who volunteered in the park and gave me directions. One I met in Buenos Aires, an English guy, who had spent a month in the park and worked with a Puma named Roy. I thought this was a strange name for a Puma and dismissed it. Now, many months later, here I am in Villa Tunari.
Five hours north of Cochabamba, along a collapsing road, cut into the side of a cliff is a small village called Villa Tunari. Its deep in the jungle, surrounded by rivers, mountains and awesome plant and animal life and is home to an Animal refuge called 'Inti Wara Yasi' which means ‘Sun Moon Stars’ in the local language
I arrived in Villa Tunari, late in the afternoon and found a cheap and nasty hotel, where I dumped my bags and set off to find the Animal Park. The third useless local I questioned was willing to help and pointed me down a two lane road, across a bridge and there it was. I was greeted by a scruffy bunch of travelers, covered in mud and scratches. They had ripped clothes and busted shoes and were a strange looking bunch but greeted me warmly and asked if I was there to volunteer. ‘Hell yeah I am’. I didn’t just travel for 5 hours to get here to take a few photos. ‘Where do I sign?’ I met the manager who asked me some bizarre questions: Are you fit? Are your knees strong? Are your ankles strong? Do you mind getting wet? You will get scratched and bitten, how do you feel about that? ‘Whoa’ I said, ‘what am I getting myself into?’ ‘Roy needs a new handler’ she said ‘Who is Roy?’ ‘A Puma. Fantastic. I’ll take it.’
The park has a huge variety of amazing South American animals:
- 8 Pumas, (Roy, Yuma, QuirQui, Leoncio, Gato, Sonko, Lishu, Simba) (in order of preference)
- 3 Ocelots, (Millie, Tigre and Rico)
- 1 Jaguar, (Sama)
- Hundreds of Monkeys - Spider, Capuchin, Squirrel, Howler, Night etc (Teo, Bebe, Dedos, Talia, Hiha, Martin) just to name a few
- 2 Boa constrictors
- A thousand turtles (All called Donatello - they are painted purple to stop fungus growth)
- Birds of every shape and size, eagles, hawks, toucans etc
- Techons or Coatis (a strange furry animal with a pig like nose, that giggle when tickled
- 2 Tyras A type of weasel, native to South America (Chica and Tito)
- A whole array of other adorable furry critters.
The park is in desperate need of funding. They have animals coming in every day. Depressed, stressed, abused monkeys. Birds in various conditions and all kinds of problematic animals. They get no government funding and are absolutely strapped for cash to feed all the above mentioned animals. They have a quarantine section for the new animals. Currently there are 2 spider monkeys with mental problems they can’t work out, so the poor monkeys are on harnesses, tied to trees. One is called Teo, who was found in a small cage on top of the bar. People broke his fingers and put cigarettes out on his body and abused the poor guy. He is extremely messed up but after a month with him, he is giving me Hi-5´s and dancing on the roof of his cage when I call his name.
They only have 2 vets, and neither is overly qualified
There are around 40 volunteers working here from all over the world, some donating the minimum of 2 weeks, but others have been here for months. One English girl in particular has been stuck here for 4 years. It’s easy to see how and it’s not hard to end up in her position. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no zoo out here, it’s serious rehabilitation stuff. I thought maybe it would be a place to hang about and play with big cats and animals, but I discovered soon enough it’s a full time job. Absolutely hectic with all the managing, feeding, cleaning, medicating and all the associated jobs required to keep the place running. And while doing all that, you have to remember to keep yourself running at the same time. Everyone has breakdowns from the physical and mental stress of keeping this place going.
After my interrogation, I agreed to work with Roy and have donated at least a month of my time
Roy is a 4 year old mountain Puma, who arrived in the park when he was only a few months old. The park has been battling with the governments of Bolivia and Brazil to try to get him released, but Pumas need at least 100km sq and neither country has this amount of land to donate to a cat, so sadly, Roy is destined for life in a cage, with people like me exercising him every day.
After my first night in town, I moved into the volunteer house. For $3 a night, the volunteers all stay together, in a hostel down the main road, 5 minutes from the park. There are 20 small, twin share rooms, with two shared bathrooms for the 40 of us. The rooms are as simple as you can imagine, fitted out with two small beds, and fly screen windows and a loosely swinging door that’s locked with a padlock. There are ants and mosquitoes everywhere and very little privacy. I moved in with an English girl called Tyler, who worked with the monkeys.
Life as a volunteer is challenging, the days are long and tough and always result in me loosing at least a few drops of blood - at the minimum
I wake at 7am in the volunteer accommodation and stumble down the road to the park where the 40 volunteers gather in a coffee shop owned and run by park volunteers. We get daily updates on the animals from each other and discuss tasks for the day while eating a breakfast of pancakes and the occasional bowl of cereal. At 8 am, we march into the jungle to our various animals. All Pumas and big cats need 2 people to work them, while the small squeaky animals and monkeys have a small army of people to feed them, clean poo, feed, and clean poo and repeat.
First we pick fresh grass. Roy is very specific about what type of grass he likes if you get him the wrong stuff he will be upset all day and will probably jump us. No joke. So we cautiously scrutinize each piece of grass, with only the fresh green soft pieces with dew on them making it in. After 20 minutes of picking grass we hike through the jungle to Roys cage. Pumas are solitary animals and can’t be allowed to hear or see each other so we have to walk a fair way into the jungle to his cage along a narrow slippery dirt / mud path. When we get within a few hundred meters of him we start calling, making Puma noises "Maaaaaaaaaaaw" he responds to each one and as we get closer, we can hear the rumble from his purring travel through the jungle. At times, it feels as if the ground shakes with his deep purr.
Arriving at his cage, he is so happy to see us and crazily, we shove our arms in for him to lick the sweat from and say hello.
Once he has licked all the skin from our arms, we prepare his runners, harness and double check his ropes for the day. Roy is a happy cat in the morning and occupies himself licking our arms and sometimes if we are game enough, even our faces. He has a strong cable attached to his cage that runs about 50 metres through the jungle to a big tree at the bottom of his area. We attach one end of a rope to his collar with a caribeena and the other end to the metal runner. Once his harness is securely on, one of us stands back at the edge of his reach, while the other quickly opens the door and bolts for safety. Roy sprints out of his cage and spends the first few minutes running up and down his runner, stretching his legs after a night in his small cage. Then he finally comes over for his grass, which we hand feed piece by piece, ensuring absolute quality before we put it in his mouth. He loves this part of the day and purrs loudly, allowing us to pat him and rub our faces on him while he dribbles everywhere, chewing on his fresh grass.
After his grass he gives a big happy Puma smile. We call it his 'happy face'. It’s the cutest thing ever with his big teeth and tongue showing. After grass time, he gets impatient and wants to go on his walk. We get our harness on and tightly grip the ropes before letting him off his safety runner
Roy jumps us every day. It’s a bit of a game and fun for him and he is never serious about tearing our bodies apart, but a game for him is dangerous stuff for us and leaves us with scratches and bite marks every day.
On my first day, he turned and jumped me. It was the scariest moment of my life. He bit and scratched and had to be pried from my leg, I will have a few good scars from it. I got out easy apparently and after that initial attack, he hasn't shown much interest in eating me. But my heart still races for the entire time I am with him.
There are sections of his run where we can’t keep up, so metal runners have been tied to trees. We unclip him from our waist harnesses and attach him to the runners. He absolutely sprints down and waits at the bottom for us to tumble down the hill after him. If we take too long to get to the bottom and keep him waiting too long, he gets bored and tries to jump us, so we have to be super quick or we will get a Puma stuck to our torso.
We cross a few hills and rivers and arrive in the Coca plantations, where we walk up and down rows and rows of coca trees, chewing a few leaves along the way. Before we enter the plantation, we stop and call out. Occasionally there are locals there, harvesting the leaves and if they respond, we divert our route, leaving them in peace
After the excitement of running through the rubber plantation Roy takes his pleasure out on us, trying to jump us and play with us. We battle to keep him occupied on walking and move along the trail quickly, trying to focus his attention on the birds and jungle rather than us.
We cross through a few valleys and up a beautiful creek, where he often sits and cools himself down. At this point, we can cup our hands and he drinks water from them. We splash water on him and give him a good scratch until he is ready to move. The home leg is the hardest, as he knows when we are getting close to his cage and refuses to go back, sometime sitting down on the trail and sleeping for an hour. On the way back to the cage, we pass ‘affection rock’, where occasionally, if he has enjoyed his walk, he will sit on the rock and purr, giving us about 10 seconds of licking and love, where we can grab him round the neck and give him a proper hug before he starts growling and hissing
We clip him back onto his runner and he flops down, exhausted from his morning walk. We are equally as tired and normally sleep for an hour in our hammocks. One of us will run back down to base and bring back our lunch and Roy’s food.
After an hour or so, Roy starts to meow and get impatient and lets us know that he is ready for his afternoon walk. We clip him on and repeat the same walk we did earlier in the day.
The afternoon walk is a little slower and takes a little over three hours. We enjoy it as we get more affection from him the second time round. After his walks we try to get him back in his cage without being mauled and give him his dinner - 2 kilos of prime meat, chicken and delicious guts. We often get a lick or 2 and then our Roy day is over. Phew, we survived. It’s around 5pm and with Roy done, it’s time for Puma number 2. A feisty little thing called ‘Yuma’.
Yuma is the most beautiful thing ever, but at the same time is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. We call her the T-Rex. Probably more dangerous than a T-Rex she is the only female Puma in the park and us – ‘The Roy boys’ are the ´lucky´ ones that get to handle her. Nobody is allowed to visit the Pumas as they get extremely pissed off when they see someone new. We use this to our advantage and at dinner every night we tell everyone how beautiful Yuma is with her amazing blue eyes, and nobody can go anywhere near her to see
Yuma is a terror. She is 1.5 years old and the moodiest, craziest thing I have ever seen. She has a run just like the Velociraptors in Jurassic park but it’s not enough to keep us safe.
She seems like the most adorable thing when we arrive at her cage, exhausted after our day with Roy. We are able to put our full arms into her cage and stroke her and get licked by her. The affection lasts for around two minutes, and then she has enough and snaps. She starts hissing and showing her teeth and tearing around her cage like a maniac. The problem now, is that we need to get her onto a harness and out of her cage. We only have one chance and with the help of an egg, we coax her to the edge of her cage. While one of us is distracting her with the egg, the other uses a metal pole with a hook on the end to grab her collar and pin her against the side of her cage. We attach a caribena to her collar, onto which, we attach her rope and are able to use this to extract her from the cage.
Once she is strapped in, we quickly open the door and dive for safety. She goes absolutely ballistic for 30 minutes, bolting up and down her 50 meter runner
Finally she will settle down enough and we can cautiously approach, just out of her reach and give her a rub. Then we clip her into the most intense harness ever designed and take her walking. If I said Roy was terrifying, it’s nothing compared to Yuma. During Roy's walk we chat to each other and are able to have a good conversation, but Yuma needs 100% concentration and attention and its silence all the way. The slightest twig snap sets her off and she bolts up trees and gets herself stuck.
We take Yuma for a short walk through the jungle, on a double harness, with one person in front and one at the back, so she can’t go anywhere. Believe it or not we are lucky enough to have the only 2 pumas in the park that show affection. Most people can’t even touch theirs, so we brag about how we are able to cuddle Roy and give Yuma the odd tickle.
We safely make it around Yumas circuit and get her back into her cage and finally, the work part of the day is over. It’s around 6pm and by that stage we have walked for over 6 hours through Bolivian jungle, up mountain ranges and through rivers and valleys
That basically sums up a typical day for my two pumas. Repeat that 7 days a week for two months and you get an idea of what I have to deal with. Work aside, the park provided one of the closest knit group of people I’ve ever come across. There are around 40 of us and due to the stressful nature of our work we bond very closely like a big family. I started working with an English guy called Richard. He was Roy’s best mate and the two got along so well together. But when Richard left, it was up to me and the new handler, an Israeli called Adam. Adam and I worked together for about a month and called ourselves ‘The Roy Boys’. We quickly developed a reputation of nonstop partying and shenanigans. And, looking back on my time in the park, I don’t know how I managed to pull it off. But I did and it worked just fine.
My two months in the park were filled with loads of bonfire parties, dressup nights, trivia nights and lots of good times. But our lives were dominated by the animals.
Monkeys - bloody monkeys. They broke into Roys food safe today, and stole his dinner
After the day with cats, we head back to base and clean and sterilize all our cat stuff then, it’s the fun part – the squeaky fluffy animals. We get to play with the small animals for an hour or so, and they are amazing. There are Ocelots and Coochy Coochys, Armadillos, Techones, Monkeys and other crazy squeaky animals that don’t even have names. There are two of these unidentified fluffy animals that sleep on my lap in the afternoon. It’s unreal. I tickle them to sleep and when they start snoring, I place them in their cages for the night.
Tomorrow morning is one of the more interesting dates I’ve lived through its the 6th of June 2006, or 06/06/2006, or 666. It has sparked many interesting conversations and it’s the day that I am on ‘Observation’. A dreaded choir that requires waking up at 6am and heading into the bloody monkey lookout which is about an hour’s hike up the hill. I have to clean all the monkey pens while they are being fed. Apparently I will get pissed on and shat on and they will try to steal everything I have. I hate monkeys. There are spider monkeys, squirrel, capuchin and night monkeys and once again, more animals than I know the names of. It’s going to be a tough day. Unfortunately there are way too many animals and not enough volunteers so if anyone out there wants to help out, visit: http://www.intiwarayassi.org
After the monkey cleanout, it was time for Roys walk
The initial shock was heightened when we began to figure out where he might go. Straight after this runner was the rubber plantation that we thought he would run straight to, in order to hunt the locals. Damn! We sprinted down to the plantation, calling out his name. Luckily there were no workers there, but also, there was no Roy. We started to panic. We have lost Roy. We didn’t know what to do then realized that about 30 minutes after us, another Puma called Sonko uses the same trail. Roy and Sonko don’t get along, and we thought that Roy might be hiding out, waiting for Sonko to come by with his handlers and attack them. We ran back up and to our relief, found Sonko and his handlers, but no Roy! We instructed them to take Sonko back to his cage, and lock him up while we ran back to base to tell everyone that Roy was on the loose. We returned to the Sonko cage to find them bailed up. Roy was standing in the middle of his trail, staring and hissing at Sonko. I approached cautiously and managed to get Roy back onto my waist and lead him away. We were saved. We continued his trail, back to his cage, and locked him up. We sat by his cage for the next hour, shaking, terrified and trying to get over the stressful morning.
Life is tough out here and it takes a special type of person to survive this place. Most people here have lice, those that don't have live will have ringworm or even better, stitches from animal bites and pumas scratches. The vet spends more time stitching up the people than the animals.
31 days later
I'm still here with no end in sight. It’s been the craziest month ever with the animals but also with the partying - bonfire nights, quiz nights and lots of fun. This place is just like a school camp, but with alcohol and no teachers to tell you what to do. It’s fairly hectic - we wake up early every morning, with new bruises, scratches and stitches, ringworm and other crazy tropical issues, dreading the day but then we realize we are about to spend the day walking a puma through the jungle and jump out of bed, hitting our head on the roof and running to the park to start our day with these amazing animals.
I can’t believe it, but I’m still going strong. I am now one of the long term volunteers and have responsibility beyond my Puma. I have a whole park of responsibilities. I have the position of ‘Cat Coordinator’. I am the single point of call for the 8 Pumas, 3 Ocelots and Jaguar. Basically if the volunteers have any issues, they report to me, I then relay the information to the Vets or advise them on the best course of action for their situations.
There are continual issues with the Cats, for example. Rico - Our Male Ocelot has skin and intestinal parasites. We have him on a heavy dose of medication. Tigre, another Ocelot needed to be sedated in order to change a collar. I was the lucky one that had to go in the cage with her and pin her down while the vet gave the injection. Gato - Our 10 year old Mountain Puma has arthritis in his back legs. The girls walking him have trouble getting him moving, so I spent a day with them showing them how to coax him along. Sama - the Jaguar broke his runner. It was a terrifying experience for the people with him but we managed to get him in his cage and make some repairs. Yuma is now in heat and is a monster, pacing in circles growling and hissing. It takes a while, but we manage to get her on her runner and take her for a carefully planned afternoon walk.
After 50 days with the crazy Roy, I am officially broken. My knees are ruined and my ankles are swollen. I physically can’t walk with him anymore, so have retreated to the small animals department, where a group of us look after 8 Tejons, 2 Tyras, a whole stack of turtle's, night monkeys and coochy coochys. It’s a good change and gives me a chance to rest my busted body slightly. I'm still managing the cats and organizing fund raising nights in my spare time. We even painted the house last night, of course, not much paint ended up on the walls.
I am winding down my operations but it looks like I will be here for another few weeks. The end is near.
My plan was to stay in the park until I woke up one day and didn't really enjoy it. That day came sooner than expected after a few dramas, so I packed up and headed to La Paz - the world’s highest capital city, at 3600 meters above sea level.
I'm fairly broken from Roy, with loads of huge scars on my legs and arms, one particularly brilliant scratch across my chest, which won’t ever be going away and looks amazing. I have busted knees and ankles but as bad as it sounds with all the injuries, it was worth every second and every bit of pain. I was walking pumas through the jungle in Bolivia! Does it get any better?
The last week at the park was a little crazy, a few traumatic things happened that brought my departure time forward. Being animal people, we had rescued a number of cats and dogs from the streets, moving them into our hostel which has a huge backyard. We ended up with 3 dogs and 3 cats. All arrived in terrible condition, starved, full of worms, fleas and lice crawling all over them. They were hideously malnourished and days from death.
It started with Lucy - A skinny, sick, lifeless dog which we thought would die within days. We brought her back to the casa and arranged for the park vets to come and check her out. They wormed and vaccinated her and then it was up to us to fatten her up and bring her back to life. And that we did. With 30 people bringing food home every night it didn't take long. By the time I left she needed to be put on a diet. Everyone loved her. It was such a reward to save a life like that and she knew it too. She was the happiest dog on the planet.
Then we found Bingo - A Black Alsatian, donated to us by a local family moving to the big city. He was in pretty good condition and didn’t need too much attention and seemed to look after himself, disappearing every few days then coming back happy.
After bingo came the 3 kittens - Yoda, Tubsy and Black Kitty. All were sick and we were certain they would die, but once again, the vets did their stuff and we fattened them up with left over puma food.
Bella came about 2 weeks before I left. We on our way home from a few drinks and saw this scruffy thing lying in the gutter. We seriously thought she was dead and decaying. We picked her up and thought she would die in our arms on the way back to the hostel. She was the skinniest little dog I have ever seen. The vets looked at her and said, nope, she won’t make it. They didn’t even want to give her any injections, thinking she would be dead by the morning. But someone was looking out and over the 2 weeks I was with her, she became energized and started putting on weight.
We loved our animals, but a tragic thing happened a few days before I left. Yoda - the smallest of the kittens, constantly running about the hostel was trodden on. Her paws were all broken instantly and her head was crushed. We rushed her to the vets, who gave her steroids and did all they could but we all knew she was pretty busted up. The next morning when we turned up for work, she was dead. We were all fairly upset, considering the amount of time, food and love we gave her. A few people cried - not me of course and that night, we painted her on the walls of the hostel and buried her in the garden.
Its breeding season for the monkeys, which we have a few hundred of, and all of them have gone berserk. Each day, the monkey volunteers would come down, one after the other and get treated for massive bites and scratches by our resident vets. They would stop the bleeding and disinfect the wounds then send them off to the local hospital.
At the end of each day, all the volunteers would sit at the café at the base of the park and polish off a few well deserved beers. Conversation revolved around who was in hospital, who has stitches, and who got chewed up by a monkey or Puma. It was a crazy time of year with the monsoonal rains and strange weather. The animals were going berserk. New volunteers would turn up and see us sitting there, nursing our wounds, covered in mud and scratches and do a complete U turn and get back on the bus. It looked like battlefield. There was blood and bandaged limbs everywhere. Clothes were drenched in mud and animal poo – we were messed up!
An English girl was savaged by a spider monkey and needed 4 stitches in her neck and another 6 in her arms. Then a guy got attacked by a Capuchin monkey, 3 bites on his left arm that needed stitches, his fingers were mauled and mince meat made of his leg. Then an Irish lass was attacked by a Howler monkey and needed 4 stitches in her arm. Luckily I survived and only received a few little bites, nothing major.
The line was crossed with me and monkeys when a Capuchin broke into our safe and found my camera. He chewed it to pieces then smashed it on the ground. This is the camera that I bought in Chile which took me out of my way by 2 days and cost me over 800 US Dollars (my old one was stolen by the Chilean police) So now I'm camera less again. I am about to buy my third camera of the trip and frankly, I'm over it.
So after a few dramas I left the park with a few others and now I'm in La Paz.