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Diary of a cat walker - Pt 1

Day 1
Arrived at Ambue Ari, Inti Wara Yassi’s main big cat refuge in the North East of Bolivia, after a 6 hour bus ride from Santa Cruz. Everyone in the nearest big town refers to the place as ‘El Parque’ pronounced ‘El Parkie’.

I was informed that the timing of my arrival was spot on because they had just finished fighting 4 days of fires and were in desperate need of more volunteers.

After a communal dinner, I caught the bus to the nearest small town, called Santa Maria, about 15 minutes away, for a drink with other volunteers who were letting off some steam (excuse the pun) after their week of fire fighting.

Had my first night sleeping on a hay mattress – actually not too bad, although was kept awake for 2 hours by snoring. He must have turned over eventually.

Pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitoes!

Day 2
Woke at 6.30am. Work starts at 7am here. I had my orientation and was assigned to two cats: Katie, a female Jaguar, and Leoncio, a male puma. Both are well-liked and supposedly great cats to work with. Spent the morning sitting in the hammock reading cat files.

After lunch I helped cut up food for the house animals and fed the birds. I squeaked louder than they did as big macaws flapped around me. I also watched a tiny monkey, who I later learnt was called Lucas, eat a banana in a tree. Lucas was a monkey who used to live in the park but was released. His integration into other monkey communities hasn’t gone great, however, so he returns to the park on a daily basis for food and company.

Got bitten by my first big bull ant. Ouch!

Still haven’t been bitten by a mosquito, but have noticed there are loads of flies, tiny ones that fly straight into your eye balls and are very annoying.

The weather is perfect, not too hot and not too cold, and lovely singlet temperature in the evenings. The sun goes fire orange when it sets in the afternoons. Probably still due to the fires.

There is a very established tight-knit group of volunteers here. The place has a school camp feel, which I think will be both good and bad. Definitely feel like the new kid on the block, but people seem nice enough. Lots of Aussies!

Day 5:
Started my weekly morning task of feeding Herbie, a big Tapir, and Ruldolpho and Bambi, two deers. Herbie is apparently a harmless thing but I kept my distance on the first day. He is probably the ugliest animal I have ever seen but also one of the cutest in the true meaning of the word (‘ugly but interesting’). Ruldopho has a reputation for charging at people with his horns, but they were much more interested in the food than they were in me.

Had my first day of walking Katie with an experienced volunteer, Matt. He is studying to be a vet and has been to the park several times so I felt like I was in good hands. It felt very surreal following a jaguar along a jungle trail connected by a rope. Katie seems a very calm and composed cat. She will stop to smell or observe things on her walks for short bursts of time, but she doesn’t frequently hunt, pounce or run(unless it is raining, as I discovered later…). She does like to sleep though and has a favourtie sleeping spot on her fire trail, which she is known to stay at for long periods of time.

When we arrived at “the spot” today, Katie consumed some grass and then proceeded to vomit it up. Apparently she does this every day and it’s quite normal. After that she slept for a good couple of hours. When Katie is sleeping it is almost impossoible to get her moving again. She is very intelligent and stubburn and doesn’t fall for any common tricks like walking on ahead. She will sleep until she is ready to move. There is one technique, though, that does work, but it is not a good idea to use it very often. It’s holding out a water bottle or a backpack. Katie loves them and will immediately pounce at one if you hold it infront of her. We used it today because due to the low number of volunteers, we had to get back in time to also walk Leo in the afternoon. It worked like a charm but is not the best or safest asociation to encrouage so we try to keep its use to a minimum.

Unfortuantely, we still got back too late in the day to walk Leo, so we just fed him. This was my second meeting of Leo and the first time I had seen him out of his cage. He is very different to Katie, not only looks wise, but in personality as well. Upon arriving to his cage every day, Leo has a routine of being pat through the wire for 5 mins or so before doing anything else. During this time, he is adorable, pushing his head into our hands and purring loudly the whole time. He also has the cutest comfort behaviour with his special blanket, which has been with him since he arrived in the park. Either before or after walking, he will decide to go to his blanket, which gets laid out on the ground for him, and proceed to lie down and suck it for an extended period of time, while simultaneously stretching his claws and purring. When he is on his blanket, we don’t interrupt him. He is in his own blanket trance. It is the cutest thing to watch!

Everything we do with Leo is part of a very set routine that we stick to like glue. This is because Leo was a very aggressive cat when he arrived in the park, due to his history of being abused by his owners. They used to beat him, hard enough to break his back legs. This is why Leo is such a special and complex cat to work with. But he has been extremely lucky to have some long term volunteers who have worked with getting him settled again, and largely by getting him into a regular, fixed routine in which he feels safe and calm.

Leo also has thing for boys and I am told not to take it personally if he is more affectionate with them. He especially likes their hairy sweaty arms and beards, and goes crazy licking their faces on a hot day. But he is also affectionate with girls and licks them too. His tongue is rough as sand paper and takes off a few layers of skin, but it is lovely to have a lick from Leo. He purrs loudly when he does it, which makes it all the nicer.

But Leo can also be quite temperamental and his mood can change quickly. He is known for becoming fiesty and aggressive at times. Today, he decided to demonstarte this. When Matt tried to put him back in his cage after coming off his blanket, he was very jumpy and tried biting him. Matt handled it well and it was good for me to see both how to handle it, and how Leo can suddenly switch.



Look at the face! Leoncio.

Look at the face! Leoncio.

Leo on his blanket

Leo on his blanket

Day 9
This morning we fed Katie, she was cool and calm as usual. In the afternoon we took Leo on a walk. He really is a cat after my own heart. I love how affectionate he is and how much he loves the jungle. I know he’s a big, grown up, adult puma but he looks so adorable when he is stalking along his trails, which he loves to do often.

Today we came across a racoon looking animal. It was behind us, and since we don’t let Leo go backwards on his path, I tried to stop him chasing for it. I failed miserably, but successfully managed to get some nasty rope burns. He also bolted ahead a few times and I had to run fast to keep up, once heading straight through a big branch. My only injury was a bite from a fire ant behind my ear, but god did it sting.

Leo was mainly calm and affectionate today but did get a little bity and jumpy when we didn’t allow him to go down one of his paths. He bit Ellie’s (another volunteer’s) boob, which is unlike him. I still feel nervous around Leo when he gets in these moods, but I am slowly becoming more confident about how to handle them.

In the evening we went into Santa Maria for a trivia night. It was also a costume party and the theme of the night was “trashy”. I had a lot of fun earlier in the day running around and making costumes for some of the boys out of what ever clothes were lying around camp. I was very impressed that they all willingly wore what I offered them. I then proceeded to get, shall we say, more than a bit tipsy on Bolivia’s 95% alcoholic drink, known as `portable´, the cheapest alcohol you can find here. I did a great interpretive dance with a very funny boy called Martin, then felt dizzy and passed out. All in all a typical “trashy” night.

Day 10
Still sticking to lastnight's theme, I woke up feeling still more than a little tipsy from the night before and went to breakfast still wearing my costume.

On Saturdays we have the afternoons off. It is our only break from work during the week. Me and few other girls headed into the nearest bigish town, called Guarayas, a 45 min bus ride away, to do some second hand shopping for formal dresses in the markets there, as there is a “ball” next Friday night. I had dinner with some of the girls in there and had an early night.

Day 11
Walked Katie today in the rain. Just as we set off with her it started to pour and didn’t stop for the next 2 hours. Katie is a completely different cat in the rain. Our usual one loop of her trails turned into about 4 circuits. She walked fast and without stopping once. We got completely drenched, but Katie loved it.

In the afternoon we walked Leo. It had stopped raining by then. He was beautiful and affectionate but also quite vague. I am slowly getting to know his numerous different moods.

In the evening we went into Santa Maria. The power cut out just after I put 5 songs on the jukebox (the only source of music that exists in thispart of the world), so we hitched a ride home.

My initial impression of a lack of mosquitoes has been altered due a lot of physical evidence of their existence… very itchy indeed!

A regular night at Santa Maria pub

A regular night at Santa Maria pub

Day 12
Fed Katie this morning. She seemed to have lots of energy so we did some running around her cage with her. She hid in the bushes and peered out at me. I peered back at her through the branches and she would eventually pounce out at me and start chasing me around the cage. We both enjoyed it and I think it helped us to bond more too. Hopefully she won’t see me as a toy the next time we go walking though.

Walked Leo in the afternoon. He was in a lazy, vague mood again, being more interested in sitting than hunting. I put his carabina on for the first time, in his double doors - a small cage with two doors attached to his big cage (like a little foyer). If Leo is going to act up, he often does it in the double doors, so I was a bit nervous. But he was absolutely fine.

At night me and some of the others chilled out in the comedor (the one and only communal space in the park). We played homemade scattegries and uno. I experienced a mini, personal uno renaissance after learning a new version of the game called “nazi uno”. Good laughs with the other volunteers.

Day 13
Chris (a new volunteer) and I walked Katie for the first time alone without our trainers: Ellie or Matt. Katie was great and walked a lot, although she still fell asleep in her favourite spot for a couple of hours. It took us a while to get her moving again (we are still on 2x cats per day so it is important for us to get back for Leo). We tried numerous things that didn’t work, like waving a branch in front of her. Unfortunately this only frustrated her and resulted in her trying to bite me. Lesson learnt with that one! I still get nervous when I see Katie’s big jaw coming toward me but she never hurts. Despite this, I feel like my bond with her is growing and she lets me give her more affection now on her trails. Chris and I both felt very proud to have done it by ourselves.

In the afternoon we walked Leo on our own too. Leo was calm, purring and affectionate today, but also very active on his walk. It is amazing that an animal with such killer instincts looks so adorable when he hunts. His stalking is my favourite part. I love following behind him trying to be as quiet and still as posible, wondering what he has seen or heard ,and waiting for the moment that he will pounce. He is much more of a hunter than Katie, and walks with him are always an adventure. He was very focussed on hunting today, constantly ducking in and out of the bushes and doing lots of running. But he always makes time to stop for a little pat and a purr along the way.

I had my first fall runnining behind him today. Unfortuanely I didn’t fit under the branches like he did and went tumbling. But I didn’t hurt myself, and actually I loved trying to keep up with him.

Both Katie and Leo, along with myself, have warmed quickly to Chris. He is a real natural with the cats and is very calm around them, even when they are jumping and biting him. He also has a great personality and I think we’re going to get along well, so I don’t mind spending all my days with him.

A lovely lick from Leo

A lovely lick from Leo

Katie and Chris

Katie and Chris

Day 14
It was rainy and windy today. We were warned at breakfast that our cats may be a bit more fiesty than usual. Such was the case with Katie this morning. She attacked me for the first time just after I put her carabina on. I managed to put it on her fine, but since Chris wasn’t there to meet us at the door just yet, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stayed in the cage with her. Katie got restless and started to try and bite me. I was too nervous to put my fist in her mouth (a recommended technique to deal with biting, apparently this is uncomfortable for them and makes them stop) and just tried to pull her off, without much success, until Chris got there and grabbed the rope. Although I knew she wasn’t really going to hurt me, I still felt quite scared and was nervous walking her after that. After reflecting on it, I think she got bity because she was keen to leave her cage and the thing to have done would have been to have left her cage straight away and just start walking. I know that for next time.

Once we got walking, Katie was great. Because of the rain she ran a lot and even climbed a few trees. You always have to be careful with Katie of your body position or else she will jump you. Such as if you have your back turned (especially if you’re wearing a backpack!), or if you’re lying down and she has the upper ground. The latter happended to me today but she didn’t have her claws out and jumped off straight away. I am getting much less afraid of her jumping me now, and almost find it fun when she does.

My goal by the end of my time with Katie is to overcome my fear of putting my fist in her jaw and to feel confident to stop her from biting me.
There were tonnes of monkeys out in the jungle today. They made quite a racket swinging across branches and yapping to each other. The howler monkeys are the weirdest. They sound just like ghosts and can be really loud if they are close. There were also loads of birds, which all had totally different calls. It’s amazing to be able to observe the wildlife happening around us everyday.

Katie on a cold day

Katie on a cold day

Day 16
Chris and I got trained to play with Katie in her cage today. We basically take in some big toys and throw them around her cage and she chases them. It was amazing to see her running and jumping so freely without a rope. We had to be careful to always have a toy in our hands to throw to her or else she will see us as toys and come for us. But it worked great and she loved it, playing non-stop for 45 mins.

Day 18
My birthday!

I was woken this morning with birthday wishes from my lovely dorm mate, Suzy, who offered that I wear her tiara for the day (she bought it for the ball but never got to wear it because she was stuck out in the jungle until midnight with a cat who didn’t want to come home). She also gave me some beautiful fresh grapes – a real treat in these parts. I received a happy birthday from everyone in `announcios´, which was followed by the Bolivian tradition of having eggs and flour smashed on my head.

After a shower and shampoo, I headed off to do my morning tasks. Lucas the monkey jumped on my shoulders to try and steal the fruit I was grabbing for the other animals. I think he just wanted to say happy birthday as well.

Chris and I walked lovely Katie in the morning. Chris hid a present for me near her cage that I found as we were packing up. It was a nicely wrapped pack of museli bars, which was a very poignant gift since I complain of being hungry every day as we head back to camp. He is a real sweet heart!

In the afternoon I got to do something really special for my birthday… construction! I carried big heavy bags of sand through a long, half cut jungle trail, tipping over bamboo stumps and vines along the way. Probably the hardest I have ever worked in my life, let alone on my birthday.

I had a quiet night in camp to save myself for my and another guy’s combined birthday dinner in Guarayas tomorrow night. But Suzy cooked 2 birthday cakes for me, which were both delicious and devoured instantly. We then played one of the most intense uno games of my life, a genuine case of nazi uno! Overall, a very pleasant birthday.

Me wearing my tiara and chewing coca leaves to get through contruction on my birthday

Me wearing my tiara and chewing coca leaves to get through contruction on my birthday

Either us devouring Suzie's cakes on my birthday or a house for people with special needs. Hard to tell.

Either us devouring Suzie's cakes on my birthday or a house for people with special needs. Hard to tell.

Day 19
My birthday celebrations continued today. Etta, the Bolivian park director’s wife, cooked another cake for me and brought it out with a candle at breakfast. That night a group of us went to dinner in Guarayas and had a deliscious triple Milanesa - a steak with ham and chicken on top, covered by a parmagiana type sauce (much yummier than it sounds!). The night was a lot of fun.

Day 24
I walked a new cat today. Her name is Wayra and she’s a female puma. We have to head out at 7am in the morning because she walks much better at that time of day. She is a funny old thing, being quite relaxed in her cage, but very nervous and cranky on her trails. She growls and hisses a lot and needs someone to walk infront of her to feel safe. But once she reaches her lagoon, her favourite rest spot, she completely relaxes and enjoys a bit of a pat and a lick.

From my understanding, Wayra was plucked out of the jungle by hunters who then sold her to the circus. She must have been too wild for the circus though because they brought her to the park. We don’t know exactly how she was treated there, but by her current state, I would predict it wasn’t great. She has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous cats in the park, or at least this is her history, but over the past few years she has had some great long term volunteers work with her, which I think has allowed her to become much more settled. She still needs to be walked on two ropes though incase she starts to act up. My insitial imporession is that she is really just a big softy who gets scared of the jungle. I guess I will find out if this is true or not over the coming weeks. She’s not quite like Leo or Katie to work with, but she is a cutie and in need of a lot of love and care.

Wayra - what a stunner!

Wayra - what a stunner!

Day 25
One of the cats escaped from the park yesterday. She’s a puma called Wara and is one of three sisters that all live together in the park. Somehow she escaped when the volunteers were putting her carabina on. Suzie and some others slept in the jungle last night but she didn’t return.

Tonight we went to Santa Maria to watch a David Lynch film called Wild at Heart. His movies are always very surreal but watching it in a pub with people playing pool right infront of us, and loud latino music blasting from the speakers, and a whole lot of locals standing outside peeking in and chatting amoungst themselves, made the film even more absurd. Great to relive some 80’s fashion though.

Day 26
It was a windy and cool day today, so we didn’t walk Wayra. We did walk Katie though, and like the last time the weather was bad, she started jumping and biting another volunteer, when she was trying to put her carabina on. I gave the volunteer a few mintues to handle it but then my fight/flight instinct kicked in and I went inside the cage to help. She had the volunteer’s t-shirt by the teeth. I tried pulling the rope to get her off, but then she turned on me. I can proudly say that, for the first time, I put my fist in her jaw and it worked like a charm. She stopped biting straight away. That won’t be the last time I use that. Once we got out of her cage and onto her trails she returned to her darling self.

In the afternoon we walked Leo and what an adventure we had. The wind had dropped down by then, but the temperature was still cool and Leo was more active than usual. A branch of a tree had fallen across his trail which must have brought new scents with it. Leo followed the scents to the base of another tree and then paused and looked up. “He’s going to climb it!”, Chris and I mutually thought. We braced ourselves and he went up… and up… and up, until finally stopping on the third level, on a thin branch. The three of us suddently realised that getting down may be a bit trickier than we realised, especially since he was attached to the rope. As Leo was trying to find a way down, he managed to wrap the rope around another branch 3 times. It was at this point that Chris and I both panicked. If he jumped off at that point and didn’t have enough rope, he could be strangled. But if I let go of the rope on my side and he jumped down, then he could run off and become the second escaped puma in the park. We had to think fast. Luckily I had a safety rope in my backpack so I pulled that out and clicked it onto the carabina at my end, creating a much longer rope that allowed Leo enough length to get down. After he was down all three of us went into rest mode to recover for a while. Everyday truly is an adventure with Leo!

Back at camp there still had been no sight of Wara, the missing puma.

Posted by Tracy Chap 18:32 Archived in Bolivia

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