Walking With Puma´s Part II

Trip Start Apr 27, 2007
Trip End Jun 24, 2008

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Where I stayed
Parque Ambue Arie

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, March 3, 2008

Walking With Puma´s Part II

So I´m in the middle of the jungle in central Bolivia at Parque Ambue Arie, with a charity called Inti Wara Yassi, and I´m here to volunteer and work with ocelots, puma´s or jaguar´s.  I´m also here thanks to a chance encounter in the Galapagos Islands where I heard 2 strangers on the street talking about walking puma´s! 
I accosted them, demanded to know everything, and thoroughly changed my travel plans as a result. 

The park takes in any and all mistreated animals with an aim for re-introduction to the jungle; generally not possible.  They have 4 ocelot´s, 8 puma´s, 4 jaguar´s and an African lion, as well as many many birds, a few monkey´s and a few other animals.  For the cats, the usual sad pattern is that the mother is shot, cubs are sold as pets to wealthy towns people, and then the cubs grow up, and raising an adult jaguar in a house suddenly seems a trifle awkward.  Or someone finds out and alerts the police, and the park takes them in.  As they usually have zero skills for jungle life, a cage is built for them in the jungle, and we spend time playing with them, being with them, walking them if possible, cleaning their cages, and feeding them. 
Walking and playing are definitely the fun parts!! 

There´s a constant flow of volunteers in and out, with people having to stay a minimum of 15 days, a month being normal, and much longer for some hardy volunteers!  There´s also a small permanent Bolivian contingent there.  Each volunteer pays about $10 a day which covers all food, lodging and other costs, plus all animal food, and other items necessary for the animals.  They rely on donations to build new cages, and all cages are built by volunteers too.

"Hola Chicas"    "Hola Inti, Hola Wara, Hola Yassi," day 1
After trekking through the jungle for 30 minutes, trying in vain to keep the inside of my boots dry, we were standing in waist deep water, and Noemi was beckoning me into the cage to meet the 3 sisters I would be working with, Inti (Quechua for Sun), Wara (Stars), and Yassi (Moon).  They are 3 puma´s (mountain lions) three and a half years old, brought to the park aged 3 weeks after their mother was shot (she was shot with a view to illegally selling the cubs).  Noemi, the park manager, has effectively played the role of their mother and you can see that in the relationship she has with them.

So here I am standing in the cage with 3 puma´s, each capable of killing me;  "Can I stroke them?" I tentatively ask.  I sort of got a half yes and not knowing the protocol, I stepped across and stroked a fairly disinterested Inti.  It turned out the day 1 plan was to walk them, and this didn´t happen to anyone else on day 1 who worked on Inti Wara Yassi for the 6 weeks I was there, but day 1, I was given my own puma to walk, rather than just accompany 3 other people walking the 3 sisters - the normal protocol.  Also, Noemi preferred 5 of us to be walking 3 puma´s - 1 to go between each puma as we could often be 100´s of metres apart, and one to return to camp and get help in case of emergencies.  On day 2, there were just 3 of us and I was already completely alone with my puma!  Eeeek.

Walking a puma isn´t easy when your most relevant experience is walking 2 King Charles Spaniels when you were 13.  There were many instructions, all of which go to pot when it´s new, and especially when the puma is dragging you through the jungle at Warp 8.  Really, for the first 10 days, the puma was walking - well running - and dragging me through the jungle.  Cries of ´no corremos´ (don´t run) don´t work whilst you´re being dragged at high speed.  The other slight difficulty was that half the walk was knee to waist-high water.  The sisters had no choice for example but to swim the first 200 metres out of their cage.  So picture this, and bear in mind puma´s can swim a great deal faster than we humans can trudge through deep water...

You have one puma attached to you that doesn´t much like cold water and is desperate to get to dry land.  So whilst you´re trying to maintain some kind of control and a little self dignity (forget it), the puma is ploughing ahead through the water at high velocity.  Meanwhile you can´t see the jungle floor, so every 5.2 seconds you bash your shins into tree stumps or roots, tripping over, falling into the water, in agonizing pain, being dragged by the puma at speed, and repeating the cycle half a minute later.  Finally you get close to dry land, your puma now dashes for it without any warning, and proceeds to run (puma speed) for 100m or so, with you attached.  Having beaten the land-speed record for humans, you feel like you´ve just completed an epic assault course (except blindfolded as you can´t see anything in the water where you´re going), and with a puma attached to you (the lead is wrapped over your shoulder and under your arm).  And at this point you´ve barely done 3% of the walk - not even started.

I was determined to stick this out for a month, but during the first few days, I found I was counting down the days!!

So this continued for the next hour until we got to the river where the sisters get in and have a swim for half an hour, still attached to us on land.  At this point, I might note that weather wise, it´s frackin´ hot - extremely - with stupidly high humidity levels, somewhat compounded by having just run a few km through the jungle.  But due to the intensity of the mosquitoes you have to wear 2 pairs of trousers and 2 shirts, making you insanely uncomfortable.  Add to this the sudden appearance of 80 million mosquitoes the second you stop, and you can appreciate that total and complete misery ensues. 
And then there´s the dilemma that with the mosquito net;  there seem to be more around your face when you wear it than without it (and there´s always 1 or 2 inside the mosquito net).  Also my mosquito net was way too small, and I couldn´t see out of it as I was given one by a guy who left, and I had to duct tape the 28 holes it had in its head.  There was one very precise 1cm square which I could see out of.

Ok, and then add this in.  After letting the sisters swim in the river we would put them on separate runners in a clearing in the jungle, for about 2 hours.  I´d get annihilated by mosquitoes, despite the layers of clothing, and time would pass slowly.  Then when it was finally time to go back, we would walk or run for a few hundred metres, then your cat would stop, lay down for 3 hours and rest, doing anything to avoid the next part of the walk, as that was back into water.  3 hours and there´s nothing you can do than somehow avoid going utterly insane by the mosquitoes, and your sheer soaked-through-over-hot discomfort, and you had to stand there with dense jungle all around, and simply tough it out.  Finally finally finally Noemi might coax one puma along, and you would get to the water, get in, and after 20 minutes or so come to dry land again.  Problem was the whole cage and surrounding area is flooded and there was still another deep water-laden path to negotiate.  No No!  Not as far as Inti, Wara & Yassi are concerned.  After the water, they get to dry land and absolutely insist on stopping again, spend 2 hours drying themselves (even though they know they have to get wet again), and then sleep for another hour.  It´s absolutely soul destroying, especially when no-one forewarned you and it´s been 10 hours without lunch, snacks, a book, or... water!  No water, in these conditions, for 10 hours.  I was ready to give up.  The worst day was 11 hours, getting back to camp at 8pm (it get  dark at 6.30!)  jungle - dark - like pitch black, and with 3 puma´s!

Anyway one day I got it, it all came together.  Another girl who arrived was wanting to work with the sisters and Noemi was in a round-about way telling her she couldn´t do it, as you could see she wasn´t quite up to it.  Noemi was explaining that if you work with the sisters, the job description is long long hours, patience, love for the sisters, respect for their wishes, love of mosquitoes(!), and that was the job. 

But it was an honour to be with them. 

And I really got it.  And at the same time I had built a relationship with them, and I now knew how to be in control during the walk.  If they ran ahead, I could stop them in their tracks, unless I wanted to run.  If they played tug of war with me, wriggling backwards with all their weight, biting on their rope, trying to get out of their collar, then I could cope.  I´d stood my ground for 15 minutes with one of them doing this once - now they understood I would never give in, so these struggles would now be 15-30 seconds, not minutes.  I had control, and we had a good ´working relationship´ and lots of affection.

Suddenly after about 10 days, I was really enjoying it, and no longer counting the days down, and I was even considering staying longer.

As someone who knew lots once said, ´it was the best of times, it was the worst of times´.  He was most definitely talking about living in the jungle, and walking puma´s - no doubt at all.  One of the ´best of times´ moments was when I was with Yassi, and a friend, Matt, was in front of me with Wara.  We were in deep water, and there was a fallen tree trunk, with maybe a half metre gap underneath, with just a few cm not under water.  Often the cats would try to go under as it was slightly easier for them, and you would pull the rope a little, and suggest they may wish to go over the top - you know, a bit of consideration for the lumbering humans.  Anyway Matt singularly failed to convince Wara, so he found himself on his stomach, in the water, with his eyes just poking out above the water, and then Wara dragged him under the trunk and dragged him for another 15 metres in this position, dragging this dead weight along under water, with Matt´s head occasionaly popping up until he could regain some kind of control.  It was absolutely hilarious seeing him dragged under water, unable to do anything about it - I laughed for weeks!  Tee Hee.

Well I have much more to share, including the Bolivian nightlife we found nearby whilst staying in the jungle, tales of escaped puma´s and rescue missions, a personal story of being pinned down and used as a toy by a jaguar, along with outlining the basic park living conditions - think refuge camp in rainy season. 
More soon...

Take care,
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