April 30-May 15, 2007
...Actually, more like letting the puma walk me.
For the next leg of my South American journey, I went to Villa Tunari to do some volunteer work at the Inti Wara Yassi park. It's an animal shelter started in 1996 by Nena Baltazar Lugones, and today it has grown into a large park and rehabilitation center with a goal of taking in animals native to the Bolivian rain forest and eventually releasing them back into the wild. Some of the animals come from circuses, and others are former pets, many of which had been abused by their previous owners. The park is mainly supported by volunteers from all over the world.
When I first showed up at the park at around lunchtime, I was greeted by many smiles and told that someone would be able to show me around soon. I looked at the people a little closer and noticed that the common theme was that most had bandages and/or scratches covering their arms and sometimes faces. The scratches came from monkeys, pumas, ocelots, and nasty little animals called tyras, but most people were covered with bites from mosquitoes and sand flies. Someone informed me that we couldn't use insect repellent because it poisoned the animals, who often liked to lick (and obviously bite) humans. I began wondering what I was signing up for.
Nena seemed genuinely grateful that I was there and told me that if I could commit to a month, I could work with a puma. Big cats seemed right up my alley and much more desirable than monkeys, so I agreed and was quickly assigned to walk a puma named Simba. He's around five years old and was owned by a family in La Paz until he got too big for them to handle. Reading the general puma information I noticed that every puma in the park has escaped at least once, and Simba is no exception. A few years ago he attacked one of the volunteers when his partner was away and easily escaped when he was tied to a waist-high tree. A farmer found him a week later in the town wand wasn't very happy of course. It took three weeks to get Simba back to normal.
The rest of Simba's file was less scary. He's one of the more affectionate pumas at the park and will love you if you love him. Unfortunately with a puma like Simba who has been around humans his whole life, he'll never be able to live in the wild, so the intention of the park is to give him the best life possible. He's not an aggressive wild animal, but he's not tame either, so any attempts to control him will be met with maulings.
Pumas always work with two people, and I was paired with a Scotsman named Martin who had already been working with Simba for a few weeks. On my first day, we walked a long trail for about twenty minutes straight uphill to his cage. I was already covered with sweat before I even met Simba. When we got to his cage, he eagerly awaited us with his back pressed against the wire mesh so we could pet him a bit. Next, he went to the top level of his cage and made love to his blanket, as per his daily routine. When he was done, we briefly put him on his runner, a long rope between two trees, so we could clean his cage. Finally, we were ready to walk. Of course Martin took Simba's rope at first, but my heart was already pounding as I was walking through the jungle with a wild puma. It's crazy that somebody with absolutely no experience with wild animals can just walk into a place and start walking a puma with no training at all. Only in Bolivia.
We walked with Simba up and down a series of trails all day. I have been told that Simba has the toughest trails of all the pumas. I didn't dispute this at the end of the day when I was absolutely exhausted. And on the first day, we just did his "short" trail.
Every day since then has been more or less the same routine. We walk with Simba most of the day and feed him his daily ration of about 1.5 KG of raw beef and chicken at the end of the day. Sometimes we walk almost constantly, and sometimes Simba wants to rest for several hours in the middle of the day. Luckily, his main resting place is in a convenient location with hammocks set up so we can get some rest too. Ultimately it's up to Simba where we go and for how long we walk and rest. He's the boss. There have been a few annoying distractions to disrupt the routine, though.
On my second day, everything was going fine until I heard the sound of a small engine purring nearby. Suddenly a guy from the town fired up his chainsaw full boar and began cutting down a tree. Simba freaked out and made a beeline for the safety of his cage. We barely got him back without being dragged across the ground. The mean men continued working throughout the day and Simba never recovered his composure enough to be able to walk on his trails.
A few days later, something similar happened when some guys started hacking away in the bush nearby with machetes. When we started heading for the cage, we saw that many of Simba's paths had been cut apart with brush lying all over the place. It all seemed pointless, and I wondered why we didn't just kick these guys off our land. The explanation was bizarre: We were the ones who were invading their land. So all this time the animal shelter has just rented the land, and whenever some guys feel like cutting down trees and wreaking general havoc with the animals, they can do so freely. This obviously made my job more difficult, but they've generally stayed away from Simba's trails since that day.
One day we took Simba down to the "beach," or the muddy river with a small amount of sand and a ton of sand flies. I wasn't too happy walking through the knee-deep water, but Simba loved it. He swam for hours and almost had to be dragged back. I had to deal with prune feet for several days afterwards.
For the most part, Simba is very gentle, but he has attacked me a few times. Once he saw me standing below him waiting for him to move and he had a go at me. He gracefully flew through the air and knocked me straight backwards to the ground. He was being more playful than vicious, though. He didn't even use his claws.
Another time, we had him tied to a tree and he crouched down like he was going to attack me. He ran at me, but he didn't have enough rope to get to me. Then he settled down and started walking down the path. I thought he was back to normal, but as soon as I unhooked him from the tree, he charged right at me. I wrestled with him for a minute and managed to get his paws off of me, but then he cheated and sank his sharp fangs into my hand. Then he got on his back and started kicking with all four paws, his mouth still firmly clamping down. Eventually I managed to overpower him, but I sustained some minor scratching damage in the process. It wouldn't have been so bad, but Simba timed his attack perfectly so he wasn't tied to anything when he flew at me. He's a smart cat.
Most of the time, however, Simba just wants to walk, lick our arms, and sniff around a lot. His mood changes quickly, so sometimes I feel like I'm taking care of a two-year-old who happens to have the power to kill me if he feels like it.
Martin left a couple days ago and a guy named Nick from Liverpool took over. It will already be my turn to hand over the reigns soon, assuming I don't get mauled to death before then, of course.
Almost every night, it's somebody's birthday or last day at the park, so there's usually a party at my hostel. The Israelis, who represent about half the volunteers, are typically the instigators. It's nice to have a social atmosphere, but it's impossible to get a good night's sleep here. But not much else happens in this sleepy little town, except one night.
About a week ago was the Miss Villa Tunari beauty pageant. The contest was promised to start at 7:00, but everyone knew better. I entered the basketball stadium that held the contest at 9:00 to learn that it was still nowhere near beginning. There were just a few people sitting around, but there was a major problem. The "Mega DJ" was playing a mixture of cumbia and reggaeton, already two of the worst forms of music ever invented, and in this case he happened to be playing the music louder than your typical jet engine. And on top of that, he constantly talked over every song and never played more than thirty seconds of any given track, so there was no way possible to enjoy it. My ears were in an intense pain after ten minutes and I had to leave. I don't understand how anyone possibly could have stayed in that building longer. It was pure torture.
I came back when the contest finally started about 11:00. There were originally only two contestants because all the rest of them got too embarrassed and backed out. They eventually coaxed a third girl to join, making the contest at least somewhat relevant. The pageant consisted of the three girls walking around the crowd in bikinis and dresses. There was no talent competition or even any words spoken from the girls. The vote was by applause and I was happy to get out of there as soon as it was done.
The rest of my days follow pretty much the same routine. Puma walking is a seven-day-a-week job, so I get a ton of exercise, require lots of sleep and food, and don't have much time for writing a blog, which is why this entry covers so much time. It's flying by very quickly, as I am already about halfway done. I never have stayed somewhere this long on my trip, so it's a good change of pace, but a tough challenge not to let my continuous surroundings bore me too much. So far so good.
The photo albums for this entry are here.