Antoine in Bolivia

Antoine M. is a junior studying world languages. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is spending the summer volunteering with Parque Ambue Ari, a wildlife center in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Leaving Ambue Ari

The past two months at Ambue Ari have gone by unbelievably fast. It seems like just yesterday that I arrived in the park, and listened in awe as people casually talked about walking their pumas or jaguars in the middle of the jungle. I can’t believe how quickly I took part in those conversations without realizing how crazy and amazing the work we were doing really was.

I had the opportunity to help Wayra move from a small cage into an enclosure that felt more like a small jungle surrounded by some fencing.

Me, with Wayra in her new cage.

Having lived her entire life in the same place, we had no idea how she would react in her new home. The move couldn’t possibly have gone better. She adapted almost immediately to this cage. She could run freely, climb trees, chase wild animals, and choose whether or not she wanted any contact with humans. As it turns out, she still wanted to spend time with us and nap at our sides.

This was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. Never before had I met such an open group of people, all with a common love of animals and volunteering. It is incredible how close I got to all the other volunteers and staff in such little time. I believe I can partially attribute that to the absence of electricity and phones, allowing everyone to interact and communicate face to face with one another. I will cherish the memories of the starry nights with fireflies, the time spent lying in the jungle watching wild macaws flying above, the long walks through the waist high swamp, the time spent with all the volunteers, and the days with Wayra and Carlos.

Wayra rolling on her back.

I leave the park with only one regret, that I can’t stay longer. I know I will come back.

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Wayra and Carlos

I’ve been in the park for four weeks now, and I’ve decided to extend my stay by another three weeks. The work we do here is simply unbelievable, and I do not want to leave.

I have been working with a female puma named Wayra in the mornings, and a male puma named Carlos in the afternoons. I will be working with these two pumas for the duration of my stay.

Wayra the Puma

Over time we develop a relationship built on trust, something that can take weeks with certain animals. Constant change of volunteers would be too stressful for them.

Carlos the Puma

Every morning I wake up at 6:30, prepare my breakfast and walk 20 minutes with another volunteer to Wayra’s cage. We take her out of her cage and attach her to a system of ropes (we call them runners) tied around several trees. This setup allows her to walk around the jungle freely and not be locked up in her cage for the rest of her life. On these runners, Wayra can run around and interact with us if she wants to. We would prefer to see her run around without these ropes and without a collar, but this is a great compromise in order to give her some freedom. Every once in a while she lies down next to us and falls asleep. It is a truly unforgettable experience to be in the middle of the jungle with a sleeping puma at your side.

In the afternoons I walk 45 minutes on a road and then through a swamp to reach Carlos. As we approach the cage we can hear him calling out to us, and we respond with our best attempt at a puma call. We then attach him to a rope, similar to a long leash, and take him for long walks in the jungle. It is hard to explain how amazing it is to walk alongside such a dangerous but beautiful animal in his natural habitat.

It is obviously frightening to work with pumas, but the relationship we build with them lets us know we can trust them. This relationship is based on mutual respect.

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Stuck in Santa Cruz

The morning I arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia I was told that a strike had just started and that there was no way for me to leave the city. Several truck drivers were protesting against the poor conditions of the roads and had therefore blocked off the main ways out of the city.

Earlier this year similar protests had taken place and the government had promised to rebuild these roads. The promises were not kept, and the people were forced to act again.

Blue macaw couple spotted in Santa Cruz.

I was therefore stuck in this city for an indefinite amount of days. The strike could last a few hours, days, or even weeks. Rather than sit and wait at my hostel, I decided to visit different parks and animal sanctuaries around the city. Most of the animals lived in poor conditions, being locked up in cages to entertain humans. Everyday I would go to the bus station hoping that the blockades would be finished, and everyday I was disappointed.

After being stuck for five days in Santa Cruz, the government finally came to an agreement with the protesters and the roads were now open. I was excited to finally be able to go the park, but was also slightly nervous as I didn’t really know what to expect. This was the third time I was volunteering in a nature reserve in South America, and both previous projects had been very different. The simplicity of life in the jungle and the work with the animals fascinated me. A long bus ride and then an hour taxi drive brought me to the entrance of Ambue Ari, my home for the next four weeks.

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