Eye of the Puma

Posted in Bolivia at 5:48 pm by Jackson Lee

The morning light, softened by the night’s tropical rain, hid secrets the monkey king had refused to share with humans since we had walked upright and mixed Banana’s with other things. Greens and browns, embarrassingly, had attempted an all night tango which had ended badly – leaving it to an army of happy ants to clean away. Somewhere in this messy collage a fat lady was singing – the storm clouds were victorious and it was time to start growing again. My second day’s welcome to the jungle was glorious.

River near Parque Machia after heavy rain

News arrived that Doug would not be joining us. Unlike the nine previous Roy volunteers, none of whom lasted more than 10 days, Doug had not succumb to exhaustion or intimidation; instead he was lame with a dose of trench foot. His feet looked nasty enough for a medical documentary or a bit part in a Peter Jackson splatter movie. Opting to walk the trials in old running shoes, the wet season had turned his feet into a soft mush which had attracted a supermarket full of bacteria. With his feet covered in blue medicinal iodine and his disappointed face sporting a disheveled beard, Doug looked uncannily like a Gallipoli veteran. Unfortunately he did not to return to work with us before leaving to continue his travels with his girlfriend.

Anxiety is an open license for nervous thoughts to play a leading role in our lives. Yesterday I realised that it would soon be my turn on the rope and with today’s news on Doug, I knew the moment was one step closer. Having spent time in the territory army, Josh had a certain amount of heroism in his blood. Noticing, via various hints, my anxiety as we made our way to the cage, Josh offered to take the rope for the morning session to give me more time to become familiar with the trials.

It requires a considerable amount of mental energy to work the rope. As draining as arguing (about anything) with teenagers, it is most important to avoid stepping on Roy’s tail (big no no) or to step on the rope – which can result in Roy’s head being violently yanked backwards (especially on a fast downhill). The reward for either of these is a can of industrial strength, feline powered, restricted viewership, whoopass.

After preparing the camp for the morning we set out and were quickly into a rhythm. Acting as second, I had a good view of what Josh’s was doing – switching rope hands as we jumped over large rocks – letting out a few meters as Roy moved slightly ahead – never turning his back to Roy – keeping the rope short as we passed a difficult section and so on. I began to feel more comfortable with the jungle trials, with reading the body language of the puma and with the handling skills needed. Without Doug’s knowledge of the trials, we got lost a couple of times but had little other drama’s during the morning. Roy, in what can only be explained as a classic application of the silent treatment, ignored me.

Noon, with diamond crushing temperatures torturing much of the jungle, is siesta time for fur covered puma’s. Due to the risk that they might become entangled with the runner and chock, one volunteers must stay with the cat at all times. The other volunteer heads down to the parks cafe to collect lunch (vegan as per park policy), chill out and socialise with other volunteers. As Josh had advised before leaving, I set up a ring of mosquito coils to send their angry fumes around our large, military green, hammock. Climbing inside, I glazed down to the sleepy shape of Roy below, who was coiled into a happy ball; before I could count my tenth bikini clad sheep, I fell into an exhausted sleep.

Dense Jungle

The jungle around the park belies logic – it can be simultaneously unbelievable hot and refreshing cool – I woke feeling cold. Staring through the tall canopy, the rain clouds had taken their own siesta and blue sky’s were making a dash for aerial dominance, why the cold sensation? The hungry vegetation of a healthy, primary fauna jungle, sucks away every ounce of energy it can latch onto. Heat, the dominant element this close to the equator, falls victim to the jungles gluttonous habits and cannot penetrate down to the lower reaches. Josh’s opinion on the matter was in addition to the air on the jungle floor being cooler than elsewhere our bodies naturally cooled after a long morning of intensive exercise. Its a usually feeling to be huddled in a polar fleece, eating lunch and admiring a flock of bright tropical birds weave their way gracefully through the trees.

Setting out for the afternoon, it wasn’t long before Josh was untangling the rope around his waist. Reaching a calm section, he decided it was my turn to take the rope. Taking position directly behind the moving puma, I grabbed the heavy rope and managed to tie it around my waist without to much drama. Maintaining steady footing, keeping a watchful eye on Roy while working the rope into a manageable coil took hurtful amounts of concentration. Thankfully, this section was flat and my only moment of concern came as we went under a pile of fallen trees – I slipped but regained my footing before the rope had reached its end. We maintained a steady pace through this part of the trials and twenty minutes later, having burnt out a good many brain fuses, I was relieved to hand the rope back to Josh. Roy had still not shown me any attention – this, in a science experiment kind of way, was starting to worry and interest Josh.

On the Rope with Roy

The trials became more demanding. Afternoons are the time when the bone sore body starts telling the mind, with constant nagging tone, that stopping is a wonderful concept needing more attention. The tiredness is physically like pushing yourself to finish the final hundred meters of the amazon-rivers marathon – over and over again. Unlike Jerry Bruckenhiemer productions, the string section was not hammering away, reviving up the tensions, immediately before Roy took the opportunity to assert his alpha dominance.

Puma’s, sitting high on the food chain, are driven to define their hierarchical relationship with other animals. Being solitary in the wild they patrol and defend their territory aggressively. Having lived at parque Machía since kittenhood, with constant and close human contact, Roy has developed a less aggressive, but equally animalistic, method to stating, ‘I’m the boss around here!’.

The Proud Hunter

With gumboots sloshing in ankle deep water rain started to fall again. In response, the jungle humm soften briefly, but quickly returned to remind us that everything here was alive, constantly vying to survive and flourish. The humidity increased noticeably as we left the stream, fueling the richness of the jungle flavours. Before the start gun could fire or camera’s roll, Roy, with unexpected force, suddenly burst into a full sprint and raced away down the path. Josh, reacting remarkably quickly as the rope reached maximum, threw every limb into the chase and disappeared after him.

“Roy aqui (Roy here)”, I heard Josh shout, warning others in the area of possible danger.

The Flash

What the hell was going on? Other than the famous shit and run, where Roy takes a shit and then sprint’s away for 50 to 100 meters (trying to keep up can be comic), no one had mentioned this situation. My surprised brain finally acted and I set off after them. Head down and arms driving, I did my best impression of Usain Bolt straight out of the blocks. Around a bend twenty meters ahead, Josh found a moment to pull back on the rope in an attempted to control the racing puma. Responding instantly, Roy came to a complete stop, and with a medal winning about-turn he raced straight back past the startled Josh. Microseconds later, in the time it takes bad pick up lines to take effect, Roy leaped into the air. Reaching chest height, paws tucked in, he braced for impact.

“Watch out!”, Josh screamed, but I only heard the ‘wa’ part before Roy burst through a well placed bush and into view. We were both moving at full speed; my caveman instinct instantly realised there was no avoiding a collision. Instead of crying out something worthy like ‘What the fuck!” or “Holy sweet mother of crap”, all I got out was a primitive, goodbye sweet world, ‘Arrrggghhhh’.

As Roy sailed through the air it occurred to me that Puma’s, fortuitously, are not the worlds largest cat but come in a respectable forth – after tiger’s (Siberian tiger’s can reach 380 kilograms in captivity), lion’s and jaguar’s. Paradoxically, Puma’s are considered part of the small feline family and in general have the same weight range as humans. The females being smaller (40 to 70 kg) while the males larger (45 to 100 kilograms). Roy, coming from close to the equator and therefore smaller than more polar orientated Puma’s – weighs a respectable 55 kg.

Puma’s, equally important considering my predicament, have the largest hind legs in proportion to body in the cat family. They are capable of jumping 6-12 meters from a standing position – if humans could do the same, it would make for some interesting late rugby tackles and Neil Armstrongs first step on the moon would have been a cracker. The human long jump world record by comparison, rather uninspiring, is 2.45 meters. In conclusion, puma’s aren’t huge but they packed serious power.

Sharpening His Claws - the Power of Roy

While my brain registered the flash of blond fur, menacing predator eyes and large paws hurtling towards my chest, other natural instincts took over. Perhaps developed during my days getting blindsided by large Polynesian rugby league players, my instant reaction was to drop my shoulder before impact. We collided.

Everything became a storm of explosive energy. With bar brawl dramatism, we bounced of each other and rolled several meters over plants with limbs flying in all directions. Feeling Roy at my side, I scrambled backwards and felt paws (with retracted clawed) bounce off my lower back and legs. Josh, by this time, had arrived at the chaos and was forcibly pulling on the rope. Everything was happening so fast; as I continued to scramble backwards more paws flashed across my vision but failed to grapple onto any part of me. Suddenly the assault stopped. Choked by Josh’s desperate pulling on the rope, Roy conceded and turned away, the wild animal mannerism quickly vanishing.

With the immediate danger gone, I realised that by some miracle I wasn’t seriously injured. This had been a display of dominance and Roy had not used either his claws or teeth. If he had meant me real harm, I would be in several bite size pieces by now instead of only sporting a few scratches and bruises. The initial shock was wearing off but I was still hyperventilating and still unable to climb of the ground. Sitting near Josh, Roy panted excitably looking pleased with himself.

Minutes later, with us both calming, we were back walking the trials. Continuing as if nothing had happened, Josh took the opportunity to reassure me that Puma’s like this kind of stuff and know how to avoid hurting people (other than an occasional claw mark). My mind, however, couldn’t stop replaying the sight of a puma flying through the air. Walking away from these kind of situations, like escaping a robbery or being verbally assaulted by the Pittsburg police force, reminds us of the importance of travel – of leaving behind comfort zones and facing impossible challengers – of escaping old versions of reality and finding healthier ones – of stirring emotions that capture the beauty of life.

An hour later, without further incident, we were back at camp. Roy was soon in his cage chewing on, as with every night of the year, two kilograms of raw chicken. During the past couple of days, my mind had been playing games about the possible dangerous of working with a puma, but now, having gone through this ritual and realising I could coup with the physical requirements of the trials, I was feeling more confident with being at the park.

One The Rope Close up

Having recounted, with over emphasised hand jesters and artistically placed dramatic pauses, the story of the encounter to anyone remotely interested, I was told a story about Roy that didn’t end so happily. Eighteen months ago an Irish volunteer on his first day at the park, for unknown reasons, was put onto the rope. Within minutes Roy jumped(from close range) onto the Irishman’s legs and pulled him to the ground. In park dialogue, we call this a ‘jump’; they are common and seldom cause injury. Each puma has its own style; Roy starts by rapping his paws (with claws retracted) tightly around the volunteers legs – next he places his jaws, in a vice-like grip (which seldom breaks skin), onto the knee or upper legs. The usual escape procedure is to wait for the other volunteer to pull hard on the rope and force Roy’s head back – the prone volunteer then pulls the puma’s paw’s apart (which, with the help of lots of adrenaline, isn’t impossibly difficult). On this occasion, however, in a Darwinian provoking brain explosion, the Irishman decided to punch Roy hard in the face. Unsurprisingly he ended up with a bunch of stitches, a wrecked state of mind and was asked to leave the park.

Over the month at the park, there were plenty of stories of puma jumps and drama in the jungle, but it turns out that monkeys are the cause of a lot more serious injuries than puma’s. Before leaving, I developed a real fear of some of the monkey species at the park and heard some hair raising stories.