Masturbating monkeys and carnivorous cats at Inti Wara Yassí
Three weeks we stayed and it would have been longer if not for a necessary visa exit (you’d think they’d want you to linger and spend in this wonderful country). For three weeks we were part of a surreal nine year-old animal sanctuary set-up, perched on the shoulder of a fast river with a deadly bridge, rainforest and misty mountain views. Quite the romance – except for the reality of work with an occasional hangover, with at least one big party a week and no days off until your sweet 16th. That’s if you choose to stay longer than the mandatory 15-day commitment.
To be precise, it is a 15-day commitment if you are working with the birds, monkeys, snakes or ‘small animals’. Not to belittle them, the small animals are also known as the fox, pigs, ferrets, badgers, night monkeys, turtles, hoochie-coochies (you think that’s cute? Hear the story of the recent monkey naming-auction in Madidi National Park?), sloths and anything else that has just arrived for rehabilitation. But it is a minimum three or four week commitment if you are with the cats (pumas, jaguar and ocelots), on account of their more intense need to bond with the individual.
Big cat capers
And intense it could be. I was with the most mature of ocelot cats and rather than wax-lyrical about her wonderful, noisy little self, I think I will cut to the most obvious question regarding confined but predatory cats in general. (“Are they dangerous?”) Let’s begin by saying that this not-for-profit organisation, Inti Wara Yassi in Villa Tunari, is about as Grassroots Bolivia as things get (not to pretend to really know the extent of this country’s ‘rootsiness’). Grassroots Bolivia – with a big carnivorous cat on a leash and no tranquiliser gun in case of ‘accidents’. While I was there, Sonko (a male puma getting more late-adolescent testosterone by the day) was out with his two carers when he pulled to the end of his leash, breaking his well-worn collar. Glen and Jamie, brave souls, promptly ran after the liberated kitty, only to be ambushed and pounced and pumped full of natural adrenalin. But while Jamie had Sonko hanging off one thigh, Glen managed to tie the leash back around his neck, so that one large puma did not manage to escape that day. Not that it hasn’t happened before - ask about Shaishoo or Gato if you ever make the trip down to Villa Tunari.
It was this same cat that jumped smiley Keith on his first (and inevitably last) two days of training with him. Don’t get me wrong, Sonko is not normally known as the jumpiest of cats. But there was something about smiley Keith that just said “toy” to his feline inner self. Probably his height. I won’t say Keith was short but he wasn’t tall either; the perfect height for Sonko to plant his jaws around the top of his head while standing on hind legs. Day Two was a re-enactment of Day One for Keith, except that one of Sonko’s canines was pushing gently deeper into one of his eye sockets, waiting for it to pop. These cats know their game. Knee-caps are prime.
Not meaning to bad-mouth the cats, who with their different personalities are so rewarding to work with. I could go on about Roy’s little get-to-know-you ritual and his 20km daily rainforest hikes; the sad story behind Sama’s isolation; the great blossoming of Quirqui and Boudecia; and so on. The history of each animal is kept in files for volunteers to read and update. But instead I think friendly Keith beckons our read into a smooth transition to monkey life. (Sorry Keith).
Just one day after he had changed charges from Sonko to a female puma, Keith paid a visit after work to the Mad Monkey Mirador. Said mirador is where the ‘disturbed’ monkeys live – the ones not for public display. There are several monkey areas within the park, each with its own social hierarchy and complex boundary systems. All have random displays of sexuality too, but the so-called Mad Mirador Masturbators are rumoured to be the most preoccupied with it. Never having visited monkeys before, Keith was relying on the advice of his mate Chris, who worked with them every day. “Don’t struggle man. If you push them away too aggressively, they can take it as a challenge to hierarchy. Just relax and he’ll climb off you when he’s ready.” What Chris could not see from his immediate angle was that the monkey had taken a shine to Keith and was trying to shove its inflated member into Keith’s mouth while Keith was momentarily dumbstruck for a solution (Chris being no help and all). Things did start getting better for poor Keith after that though.
The monkeys certainly do have their fun although the reality is that a lot of them have been rescued from terrible conditions and some still bear the scars of trauma. Yet others are trained, first-rate Houdinis and pick-pockets. I had heard stories of cameras quietly stolen and monkey shots added to memory cards (though you’re lucky if you get it back to see them); of passport pages slowly and deliberately ripped out in treetops (the more you squirm, the more important it becomes to them) and I knew, as we all did, that all pockets should be emptied and daypacks locked before entering any monkey zone. Yet during our stay a new benchmark was set, when one local tourist chose not to heed this warning. That’s one tourist with about Bs 24 thousand in his wallet. (Go figure. Guess it’s the Chapare region.) He could only look on as the monkeys had a field day throwing his notes around; chewing, ripping and occasionally dropping some of them. He reclaimed a third of it and unwittingly inspired a lot of extra help in the monkey park before work the next day.
Ever naughty monkeys. Nonetheless the park is their sanctuary, as it is for all the animals, some of which are endangered species. Apparently the spider monkeys make up a small but significant percentage of their world population – all 20-something of them. The place is quite a mushrooming responsibility for its four Bolivian founders, fronted by Nena who lives in the house across the street (which is overflowing with various small animals). The number of cats alone has tripled in the last two years to 16. To complicate matters, sustained political roadblocks, as with earlier this year, often deter tourism and therefore volunteers, who not only provide their time and effort but a crucial U$80 donation which includes their accommodation fee. Volunteer numbers are otherwise low at different periods of the year, such as New Year. Then there are the local townsfolk with their small-town politics to consider - the park’s lease is now only renewed on a yearly basis.
The future for Inti Wara Yassi
Fortunately, with the help of recent funding from an English volunteer organisation called Quest, land has been acquired north of Santa Cruz for expansion. Referred to in revered, hushed tones, ‘The New Lands’ are only just beginning to put down infrastructure. How could anyone forget a night when two girls (one Norwegian and one Bolivian), three pumitas (that’s teenage pumas), one two-toed baby sloth and one three-toed sloth hitched their way to The New Lands at dusk? Those roots were getting grassier by the day. Imagine the park after October, when its current English/Spanish-speaking volunteer-managers return to their country after almost a year. The blessed Bolivian Founders who manage above them do not speak English, and if I may say so, seemed more concerned with the immediacy of the animals than with the need for human co-ordination. With luck, more long-term volunteers will come along shortly to fill the spot.
I heard recently that the park suddenly had too many people, as the English Quest volunteers had finally arrived en masse. And were given new mattresses, hmph! But they’re due to finish this month, which may then leave a dent in the number of helping hands again. Volunteer numbers can fluctuate between 20 and 70 at any one point but when they get below 35, certain animals simply can’t come out of their cages.
If you’re done fondling that ubiquitous cup of No-es-café and have a few weeks spare, you might want to check out the website (which is occasionally hijacked or out of date, but is apparently okay for now) or hop on a bus to Villa Tunari, on the road between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Walk east out of town just over the bridge and the park is on your left.
Postscript on the bridge: A fellow volunteer broke his leg while we were at the park – cutting through a fallen tree. To make matters worse, his Argentinean girlfriend had left him that same morning to return home. Said fellow, who goes by the name of Ian, is apparently mentioned in that heftiest of travel-filters, The Lonely Planet, as he is attempting to walk from one end of the Americas to the other. That’s Patagonia to Alaska. It took him three years just to reach Bolivia, where he promptly broke his leg while volunteering at the park. Ian’s opinion was that he hadn’t come across a bridge as dangerous as this in three years! So watch out for those trucks if you go.
Refugio de animales silvestres Inti Wara Yassi Parque Machia, Villa Tunari, Chapare Cochabamba
Tel. 591 - 4 - 413 65 72