04.02.09

Enter the Jungle

Posted in Bolivia at 1:07 am by Jackson Lee

My limbic system, the part of the brain poker players sell their grandmother to have removed, was still in control. The adrenaline had yet to ware off. Hypothalamus arguing knowing with amygdala, hippocammpus nodding agreeably, that something needed to be done or everyone was doomed. Roy, unaffected, calmly cleaned himself waiting to be let out of his cage. Ignoring the Sienfield episode in my head, I watched Doug and Josh set up camp for the day.

Matan preparing to link Roy to his runner

Before his cage can be opened, Roy must be connected to a 30 meter long steel cable which runs the length of his habitat. The cable – referred to as a ‘runner’ – allows puma’s the freedom to explore the immediate area around their cage’s without interference while also allowing maintenance on the cage. If not walking his trials, Roy spends his time connected to the runner – free, but as we all seem to know, locked into a space meant to protect him but in reality serves to keep society safe – quoting Oprah, “Mum’s sleep easier knowing escaped puma’s ain’t chewing on little Johnny thigh bone”.

Roy with his Runner in the distance

Knowing the morning procedure like the back of his paw, Roy stayed close to the cage bars, waiting for Josh to attach the runner to his collar carabina. Dressed in empowering black gumboots, khaki shorts any zoo warden would hug proudly after their weekly wash and a expensive black dress shirt, which somehow didn’t seem out of place; Josh obviously enjoyed being in the jungle. With a lopsided grin borrowed from an action hero, Josh was the kind of 18 year old you’d couldn’t imagine having to catch up on much in life. Like able and charming, mature in a way that provokes personal reflection, Josh made an excellent teacher / trainer. Raised, as his well-to-do British accent betrayed, in a privileged upbring, Josh was at the park as part of a British gap-year program called “Quest”.

Mixing adventure tourism with nature based volunteering, Quest takes groups of young British high school graduates through parts of the world mothers love to tell their neighbors about. Before arriving at Parque Machía, Josh’s 12 strong Quest group had spent 10 days in the north-western Bolivian jungle near Rurrenbarque (north west Bolivia) carrying building material 6 hours a day to help build new animal enclosure’s. Over the ten day period, the mixed gender group were without electricity or hot water while at the mercy of every bug mother nature has the good nature to make humans dinner. Quest provides a powerful environment for young adults to learn about themselves (notably their personal limitations) and about modern day realities like poverty, animal suffering and the rewards of providing for others.

With Roy now out of his cage and re-exploring his domain, thoughts about the nature of predators came to mind. Both Josh and Doug had been at the park less than 10 days. Between us, we had less experience with animals than Bindi Irwin had while still in her mother Terri’s womb. Can big cats become completely social domesticate after a life of ‘semi-captivity’? Every teenager has experienced the biological storm which accompanies a glimpse of their year seven math teachers bra-strap as she leans over to hand out the differentiation (to the third degree) exam results – does Roy sometimes find himself similarly overwhelmed glimpsing a volunteers thigh?

All cats are obligate carnivores, which means they are physiologically incapable of efficiently digesting vegetable matter – some cats eat vegetation (such as grass) to aid digestion or as an emetic (to induce vomiting). Of interest to people who often have digestive problems, Carnivores have comparatively short digestive systems – as they are not required to break down tough cellulose found in plants – and thus less prone to clearing out elevators full of their best friends. Thanks to Doctor Iams and lots of his science pals, synthetic forms of nutrients are used to replace meat to feed many of the furballs around the world.

Roys Carnivor Teeth

Puma’s can and do kill humans. The number of recorded cases has increased dramatically in North America with the increased encroachment of humans into puma habitats and the general increase in puma numbers with the cessation of their hunting. In total, however, only 20 deaths (from 88 attacks) have been recorded in the United states since 1890. In comparison lighting, which dishes out a rock-concert electrical discharge of approximately 100 million volts, killed almost 5000 Americans in the past 50 years.

Putting these thoughts aside, I noticed that Doug had sealed himself into the cage and was busy disinfecting the area where uneaten food scrapes had been left from last nights chicken dinner. The humid jungle air quickly festers any meat wastes, causing potentially health problems for Roy. Having checked his sleeping straw for ants, washed the water bowl and removed Roy’s droppings, Doug climbed back around the cage.

“Mate, if you fall behind today we can’t stop for you. Its just not possible to stop Roy when he’s moving. Unless, of course, he wants to stop”, Doug informed me candidly, I couldn’t help but think the crocodile hunter would have loved delivering that line.

“If you are not too far from camp, then make your way back, Josh offered in his usual nonconfrontation manner, “Otherwise do you best to get back. Stick to the trials”, he emphasis ed as if remembering a nasty horror story, “And if you do get lost, we will come find you when we can”.

Roy chilling

Covered by the mid morning heat and surrounded by the sounds of bugs, I looked up the hill, past the camps clearing. Within screaming distance, the trials became engulfed in dense vegetations and darkness, faithfully provided by the tree’s above, hid details of the distant terrain. The last few months of traveling in South America had been spent sitting around, eating digestive challenging cuisine, drinking cerveza’s (beer) and being as lazy as a travel is entitled to be. I had heard a lot of talk in the past day from park volunteers about the difficulty of walking Roy – of the steepness and length of his trials – of his aggressiveness nature and status as king of the park – of the many volunteers who couldn’t handle everything and quit – and I’d heard the tone of respect used when talking about volunteers from the past who’d thrived in these circumstances.

“Listo (ready) guys?”, Doug announced as he pulled the walking-rope out of the camps chest. Josh and I both nodded. Turns out that walking a puma is much simpler than it sounds. There’s no crack of whips, injection of sedatives or witch doctor magic. As thick as a weightlifting bar at its heavy end, a ‘rope’ is the well thought through tool used to guide puma’s on walks. One end of the 7 meter rope is tied around a volunteers waist while the other end hooks into a carabina on the puma’s collar – all that is needed next is for the puma to start moving. Jaguars, on the other hand, require two ropes as they are much stronger than puma. Each volunteer has a rope which gives more control over the potentially excited jaguar. Turns out that jaguars tend to have very predictably habits and it is very seldom that anyone is jumped seriously.

Attaching the rope to roys collar carabina

Roy getting ready to walk

With nervous excitement I watched as Doug attached the rope to Roy’s collar. Before I could register the details, Roy was leading the way swiftly up the hill. Doug scrambling after him and Josh, and then me, racing to catch up. My gumboots moved underneath, sliding with the contours of the rain soaked terrain. Within moments we were sprinting up a mudding hill, then stopping suddenly for Roy to mark a spot with his urine, another hill and then a knee jarring decent. In shorter time than a mountain dew commercial, my shirt was soaked in sweat and my breathing matched that of a hyperventilating academy award winner.

Hill decent on Roys short trial

Before I had time to doubt my ability to keep up my body realized that all hell had broken loose. My breathing found a regular rhythm and soon my legs felt less like three year olds were using them as swings. With Roy relentless leading the way, we moved into another long hill climb followed by a winding, stream filled, gully. Working hard to keep up, electrified by the surrounding environment and the serialism of situation, the trials started to blur.

It continued like this for about an hour with Doug and Josh talking about the different parts of the trial where special attention was needed. Hold the rope in this way to avoid being dragged down the hill at ‘Simon’s Drop’ – let Roy decide the left or right turn at so and so point – avoid grabbing spiky tree’s. At the half way stage Doug switched the ropes with Josh. Roy, so I was told, was happy – partly because three male volunteers gives him a sense of extra self importance.

An hour after sunset, Roy was back in his cage. There had been no jump attempts and the day had gone smoothly although apparently a little slower than usual. Roy hadn’t eaten normally for the last few days which, I was told, had impacted his energy levels. As exhausted as hydrogen after the big bang, I waved goodbye to a satisfied looking puma wondering to myself why he had shown me so little attention throughout the day – other than a few glances as we passed close at switch-backs he had hardly looked in my direction.

Social area at park

I trugged back to the parks cafe with a small amount of confidence building. Arriving at the cafe to the usual huddle of exhausted volunteers, there were no loud congradulations but only a slight acknowledgement that I’d made it through day one. They all knew the real test was surviving the first three days. A time Roy uses to define, with the passion of Freddy Krueger in a bar brawl, his alpha dominance with new volunteers.