Published: August 4th 2008July 29th 2008
As you are only allowed to take photos after your first week in the park this is a borrowed pic of Millie, the ocelot.
Communidad Inti Wara Yassi is a wildlife refuge in Bolivia that is home to an enormous array of previously injured, poached, domesticated, sick and circus animals including pumas, oscillots, tayras, tajons, monkeys of many sorts, birds, tortoises and one enormous Andean bear. It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers who work with one sort of animal or in one area of the park. The park gets no government funding and survives solely on donations and volunteer fees (around $7 a night for accommodation).
At peak times, volunteer numbers swell to around 70. They are office workers, travellers, management consultants, vets and random travellers from tens of nations. But they all have the commitment to stick around for gruelling 12-hour working days (with only one day off every fortnight) in the mosquito-riddled jungle where you are not allowed to wear any sort of chemical insect repellent (!). Covered in pee, dirt and poo and without a laundromat in the local area, we also run the daily risk of bodily harm. The park vets also double as stitcher-uppers for the regular injuries that are inevitable when you set loose green volunteers with limited training and put them in charge of wild animals. The day before I arrived a puma had turned on his carer in a pique of panic - resulting in 17 stitches (needless to say - not to the puma). Another volunteer needed her head stitching when she was attacked by the alpha male from the park’s capuchin monkey tribe (he has since been tranquiliser darted and put in the clinic until the tourist season is over).
To limit the risk there are extensive files on each animal for volunteers so we can educate ourselves on the best way to act appropriately with each of the different animals. Because of this, most of the injuries actually happen to unwitting members of the general public who are welcome to visit ‘Monkey Park’ where many of the monkeys hang out to be fed during the day time.
Every day blood spots this area when a visitor rubs a capuchin monkey (aka ‘the little bastards’) the wrong way. This usually happens when tourists refuse to give up their possessions to the monkeys (many of whom were professionally trained pickpockets in their previous careers before coming to the park and get very cranky when they don’t get what they want). What the monkeys want is also heavily influenced by what you want to keep. If they sense that something is important to you it becomes like treasure to them and they will do *anything* they can to get their hands on it. As a volunteer, you learn very early it is a fight you are never going to win and it is best to clear your pockets of all goods before entering this area or accept that you may have to part with them.
When I arrived in the park the volunteer coordinator rubbed her hands with glee that, as I was staying for at least a month, she would have a new ‘cat person’ to join the ranks. The bigs cats (pumas and ocelots) along with a few other jobs are only available to those willing to commit at least this amount of time.
On the plus side, the working hours are the best in the park - 9 till 4.30. Those who work with the monkeys have to drag their sorry selves out of bed for a 7am start and often don’t return to the main park until 6.30 or 7 at night (much later if the monkeys are being beligerent and won’t return to their cages at bedtime).
I thought I had the easy job. Until I started. I was initially told the job of a cat person involves 7 hour long walks with your cat along jungle paths. While in essence this is accurate a few word substitutions give a more truthful impression. Change ‘walk’ for strenuous expedition - complete with treks across landslides, abseiling, cliff dropping and stream traversing, ‘jungle’ with ‘impossibly steep tree riddled humid mountainside, and ‘path’ for only vaguely determinable trail with only intermittent tape wrapped around trees to guide your direction and often only tree roots and ropes to drag yourself (and your cat which is attached to you by a lead) along by and you are moving closer to the truth.
Add to this the 5 other wild cats also travelling through the same terrain with equally unqualified carers. If you cross another cats trail at the wrong time a meeting of felines could prove catastrophic, if not fatal. Then mix in my completely substandard sense of direction and you have some idea of the recipe for disaster that was in the making. Thankfully, my cat, Millie, was a sickly girl on the day I worked with her (not for Millie, I’ll admit) - I think she would probably have preferred a Becks and a lie down than an all-day trek.
Nonetheless I was completely worn out after a quiet day with Millie and I realised I would go mad keeping up with her when she is well. I may have lasted a week or two but anything more than that would have completely worn me out. The stress on the cat of changing volunteers after such a short time is significant. Rather than pushing myself to this limit and leaving Millie in the lurch I decided it would be better for everyone if the park found another jungle jane before I had completely taken over from the previous volunteer. This decision wasn’t met too well by the coordinator of the cat staff. But then this is a girl who expected that the boy who got 17 stitches from his puma wound to be back on the trail with his cat the next day!?! She is seriously committed to the animals but seems to have lost touch with what is normal for non jungle-dwellers.
Anyway, she begrudgngly accepted my decision and I was offered a new position within Spider Park with a group of 29 Spider Monkeys. They are the most relaxed and affectionate of the monkeys in the park (and the most unlikely to cause bodily harm!). The days are much longer and it was a great experience working with Millie but I think I’ve made the right decision for everyone - especially Millie.