Q: Tell me about this job.
A: It was a volunteer job. I lived in a camp in central Bolivia that had no electricity, etc. We lived in dorms and slept on straw mattresses.
Q: What did you do there?
A: My official role was wake-up morning guy, which entailed waking up half an hour before everyone else, yelling at the top of my voice and then doing personalized wake-up calls to ensure everyone was working by 7am.
During the day I worked at a wildlife park with a jaguar named “Jaguaru” − we called him “Ru.”
Q: How did you get hooked up with something like this?
A: When I was traveling in South America I wanted to do some volunteer work and I’ve always kind of liked animals. I found this place on the net and thought I would give it a shot.
It is an official Bolivian organization, where you basically live and work.
Q: So what did a normal day entail?
A: A normal day was waking up at 7 am, feeding the house animals − monkeys, toucans, macaws, tapir, deer. Then cleaning for fifteen minutes until 8 am breakfast. And then you would go off to your cat for the day. I worked with Ru, a male jaguar whose parents had been killed when he was young. He was taken in by a family, but they couldn’t handle him and he came to the park when he was about 1-year-old.
Q: So a park employee told you what to do with the jaguar?
A: Predominantly you worked with one other volunteer and no park employee was ever there. It’s better for the cats if they stay with the same people as much as possible, so the vets do not really visit the cats unless they have to.
We would just do what Ru wanted to do. Things like sleeping, swimming, smelling, marking his trails, running. He was a 100kg jag and if he really wanted to do something there was not much we could do to stop him.
Q: How did you know it was safe to be near him?
A: Well that’s the thing that really scares you at first. You don’t. You learn from the previous volunteer who worked with him, read the book on him that previous volunteers had written about him, and then you just trust him. That’s the difficult part. But once you do, there is so much you can learn from these animals. You start to know what they’re thinking and how they will react in certain situations…
Q: How long did you do this?
A: I was there for nine weeks.
Q: I just can’t imagine that you start working with a jaguar, having no experience.
A: Yeah the first day was pretty daunting. They decided I would work with Ru and I heard he was bit of a difficult cat to work with so I was a little nervous. I spent the first day walking behind the other two volunteers just thinking, “This is absolutely surreal.”
Q: Did you feel safe around him?
A: They are affectionate cats when they want to be. He used to lick us all the time. But he also used to jump us and use his claws occasionally.
Q: Did he ever draw blood? Were you ever afraid? Was he just being playful or did he want to eat you?
A: Yeah he drew blood on me quite a few times. Twice I would say I was afraid, not for my life, but just for how much damage would be done − it’s normally only stitches.
The two times I was afraid was when he was startled, we think by another cat on his trail − a wild one. And as I was the more dominant volunteer he would assert his dominance against me.
A lot of the time he just wanted to play though. You know, like pounce you, get you on the ground and then you would get up and he would do it again.
Q: Did you speak to him in English?
A: You had to learn the Spanish words that could calm him. I can speak decent Spanish so it wasn’t that hard. Words or phrases like tranquilo (“calm”), no mas, chico (“no more, boy,”) aca (“here”), things like that.
Q: What did you feed him?
A: He would usually eat 2.5kg of either steak or chicken. He loved chicken heads.
Q: Were you sad when you left him? Do you think you’ll ever see him again?
A: The last day was really tough. You have a really special bond with them, like on the last day he let me rest on his stomach for a bit when he was sleeping, and he doesn’t really let that happen often. And, yeah, I would love to see him again. I would like to take my sisters or maybe one day my kids to the park.
Q: So you took him for walks − how did you “take him”? I mean, doesn’t he just run away?
A: He was on two leashes, so we did have some control over him.
Q: So you had one leash, the other volunteer had the other leash?
Q: Wasn’t he just incredibly fast? Did he ever try to run?
A: Yeah after doing a shit he would either run or jump. Or sometimes he would just run because he wanted to. The other male jag, Rupi, used to run all the time.
Q: And what do you do if you’re holding the leash and he starts to run?
A: You run as fast as you can.
I could talk for hours about the park. About Faustino the howler monkey that used to sleep in the dorms and had wandering hands, or fighting bushfires with machetes and shovels, but I think you have a fair bit to work with.
It really is a magical place and no day is ever the same.
Q: Now I have to ask: you weren’t molested by the monkey were you?
A: Ha-ha. Not me. He preferred girls, fortunately.