Taking a puma for a promenade

Culture Travel

In 2012, UVic Biology/Geography student Travis Muir went to Bolivia for five weeks to volunteer at an ecological reserve and rehabilitation centre that houses jaguars, pumas, ocelots and a variety of birds and monkeys. Muir is documenting his experience for the Martlet in three installments.

After a 20- or 25-minute walk away from my dorm and down a road in Bolivia’s Ambue Ari Park, there’s an entrance to a jungle path. Along the path, I am first greeted by a bog, which takes about five minutes to walk through.

Ambue Ari is both an animal rehabilitation centre and a sanctuary for the animals that are unable to be released. The park encompasses 800 hectares and also functions as a protected area for wild animals. The park is operated by Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), a non-governmental organization dedicated to environmental education and the care of sick, mistreated and abandoned wildlife. I have come to Bolivia to volunteer with CIWY.

After I leave the bog, I am faced with another 15-minute walk through Bolivian rain forest laden with palms, patuju and many other exotic plant species. Once past a specific log, my two partners, Kellie Ralph and Olivia Allen, begin calling out, “Hola, chico,” and, “Hola, Carlos.” We are answered by a chirp from Carlos. We then mimic his cry.

Carlos is a medium-sized cat known as a puma. He and his brother Juan were confiscated in 2008 from a family who kept them as pets in the city of Santa Cruz. The brothers were roughly four months old when they were seized and brought to the park.

Juan died during his first year at the park. Several days of violent seizures led volunteers to two possible causes: ingestion of a poisonous toad or epilepsy.

Gill Maxwell, the park administrator and volunteer co-ordinator, has raised Carlos since he was young. She has “Carlitos” tattooed on the inside of her bottom lip. Maxwell has done an amazing job in developing a very well-behaved cat, who not only allows but loves affection in the form of hugs and kisses.

I am surprised at Carlos’s size when I first meet him. I expected him to be larger; he is the size of a large dog, approximately 120–150 pounds. I am both jealous and understanding of the relationship Ralph and Allen have with this beautiful puma as he brushes past their legs, purrs and looks up at them, waiting for the girls to receive his licks while they reciprocate love to him.

I am still smiling, not only from trekking through a jungle where it’s common to witness a variety of monkeys (capuchin, howler and squirrel) crash through the trees above in search of food, but because I am finally working and improving the life of an animal, hands-on — and a predatory cat at that.

After a few days of walking behind the girls, who take turns walking Carlos through looping trails on a leash made of rope, it is my turn to hold the rope while he wanders. I call out the voice commands: “no mas” (no more) when he has gone the length of his rope off the path; “sigue tu cuerda” (follow your rope) when he has tangled himself around a tree or obstacle and needs to retrace his steps; and “muy bien chico” (very good boy) when he correctly follows my instructions or gives up on the occasional lie-down protest when not allowed down certain trails. Carlos surprises me. In many ways, he is more responsive and easier to walk than Beau, my family’s Great Pyrenees dog back home.

I am able to observe, up close, behaviour ranging from the highly determined, perfectly in-tune stalking (body low to the ground, each step slow and soundless) to the less elegant (and very comical) sight of Carlos stumbling around vines and trees.

Not only do I form an unforgettable bond with this fascinating creature, but I also gain the ability to better read a puma’s body language by working with Carlos. This knowledge becomes very important once I begin working with two larger pumas, Roy and Tupac.

Check out the next issue of the Martlet for more on Muir’s menagerie in Bolivia.