Walking a Puma on a South American Volunteer Vacation
A travel writer’s gripping tale of working with a ferocious feline.
In Bolivia, in a patch of forest near the small town of Villa Tunari, lives a puma. His russet fur shows that he is a jungle puma (mountain pumas wear gray coats), but he wasn’t born there. At the age of around six weeks he was confiscated by wildlife authorities from a marketplace. The wildlife authorities then delivered him to a group called Inti Wara Yassi—the name means “sun, stars, moon” in three separate indigenous languages—who take in such animals, care for them as best they can, and release them when possible. This particular puma has noble features, is strongly muscled, and deserves the mighty name of some Inca king. But instead he is simply called Roy. And I was tied to him for a month.
I got to know Roy while I was volunteering at Parque Machia, a small reserve where hundreds of animals live. Parque Machia has monkeys, bears, ocelots, coatis, macaws, eagles, and pumas, but tourists mainly get to the monkeys, which are very relaxed with humans. To reduce their stress, the majority of the animals see no one but their handlers, and while Bolivians founded and manage Parque Machia, most of the staff is made up of short-term volunteers from every corner of the globe.
My first evening at Parque Machia, I joined the other new volunteers to listen to an Australian named Bondy give us a rundown on the park and to get assigned to a species of animal.
Bondy spoke of monkeys, macaws, less familiar creatures like tayra and coatis, and finally, the cats. “You have to be fit to work with Roy,” said Bondy. “He covers a lot of ground each session, most of it at a run, over rough terrain that can snap an ankle or smash knees. He nails the guys with him all the time so they never get any rest. And when I say ‘nail’ I mean that he grabs the back of your legs with his paws then bites you on the knee. So you have to be fit—fit and a little bit crazy.”
That, I thought, sounds wildly irresponsible, dangerous, and maybe a bit stupid. “That,” I said with hand raised, showing flagrant disregard for the weakened knees and sore back I’d developed since I arrived in Africa at nineteen, “sounds like me.”
When at last I took the cord position with Roy, I tried not to show my nervousness while sweat that had nothing to do with heat poured from my torso and brow. Roy jumped me three times that first morning. Being tied to him naturally made me an easier target. No matter how many times I’d seen it happen to Mick and Adrian, there was nothing that could prepare me for the moment the puma stopped running, turned and faced me with pupils contracted, and launched lightening fast at my leg.
Pumas can bite much harder, and inflict much more pain, than Roy does, so I shouldn’t have really been that disturbed. But a very primal part of me protested that what I was doing was silly and illogical and that the rope should just be cut. Some ancestral lizard inside me uncurled and squeaked to undo the rope, climb a tree, and stay away from anything large with fur and fangs. Let the puma run free! Or whatever it was he wanted to do in exchange for not biting me.
But Roy could not be set free because, like many of the animals at Parque Machia, and the other parks run by Inti Wara Yassi, he was too young when he arrived to ever be able to survive in the wild. His mother had most likely been killed for her skin at a time when Roy and his brother were far too young to fend for themselves. The strain of capture, confiscation, and relocation had proved too much for Roy’s brother, and he died soon after arriving. Roy, though, had thrived and was renowned among the organization’s volunteers as the most demanding puma in the four parks managed by Inti. Demanding or not, he needed daily runs to maintain his health and to give him a better life than he would have had if he was locked up in a cage day after day.
“You have to keep him on the rope at all costs,” Mick had explained to me. “He got off once; nobody will ever say how. Roy’s a racist, hates Bolivians, and when he escaped the first person he saw was a local guy. He took his spleen out with a single swipe. If something like that ever happens again, the place will be shut down and all these animals will just get sold off to zoos by the local council.”
Right, I thought determined to quash the impulse to release Roy, keep him on the rope at all costs.
Despite knowing that Roy had never had a trainer he hadn’t jumped, I thought I might become one of the people he jumped less often—for two reasons. I’d had a cat in Australia named Tyson. Tyson had been my fianceé’s, and he died soon after my relationship ended. Losing him was almost as big an emotional blow as the breakup; I loved him dearly and had studied his habits and personality with affectionate interest. I was sure my understanding of a house cat would be partly transferrable to a puma. Also, since I’d spent plenty of time with lions, leopards, and cheetahs—and wild ones, at that—I felt sure I wouldn’t be scared of Roy. Roy would pick up on my lack of fear, and we’d become great friends, surprising the many previous volunteers who’d spent time with him and allowing me to share some of the awe that surrounded conversations about Roy. I missed Tyson and wanted that sort of relationship again. We’d be friends, Roy and me, just like Tyse and I had been, I was sure.
Excerpted from How to Walk a Puma: And Other Things I Learned While Stumbling Through South America, by Peter Allison. Lyons Press, 224 pages, $16.95.