23.04.2007 - 26.05.2007 35 °C
I´d been to Chile, Argentina and Brazil before I fell in love for the first time on my South Amercian journey (not counting my fling with Buenos Aires, of course!) And who would have thought it would be with a Bolivian. His name is Sama and we had a one month, passionate affair. Sama is very complex. He´s a little smaller than average which seems to have given him a good dose of small man syndrome. Despite his size, he is very handsome, proud and has an amazing prescence. He can be moody, indifferent and sometimes downright agressive. But he can also be playful, sweet and incredibly cute. Although rarely affectionate, you live for the moments when he is.
Sama is a 9 year old, 80kg jaguar and he was all mine for one whole month whilst I was volunteering at Parque Ambue Ari in the Bolivian Amazon basin. Like all the animals at Ambue Ari, Samas story is incredibly sad. Sama´s mother was shot when he was just one month old (poachers often kill the mother of cubs they are trying to steal) and sold to a family in La Paz. It was whilst the family were trying to sell Sama to a circus that he was rescued by police and handed over to Communidad Inti Wara Yassi. He was only 6 months old and the original plan had been to release him. Because of this, Sama had little contact with humans in his first few years, suffered underfeeding and was kept for months on end in a transfer cage of only 1mtr x 1.5 mtrs. Sama waited for 3 years in these conditions for governement officials to decide whether he would be released. It was decided that Sama would not be released due to a lack of suitable land to release him on and he had also developed arthritis. This explains a lot of his behavioural problems that he has today - like how he is possesive of his food, isn´t comfortable around lots of people, particuarly men, and paces back and forth in small places. Sama can not be walked like the other jaguars in the park or played with in his cage (although he has had both in the past from previous long term volunteers), his nature is too unpredictable and he has attacked 3 volunteers in the past. His life is constricted to living in an enclosure and if he lives to the average age of a jaguar, he has another 10 years or so to live in this ´prison´.
My first few days with Sama were a little unsettling. Whilst getting used to a new person, Sama can be aggressive, stalking and pouncing at you. I had to stand my ground, make him see that I wasn´t scared of him and although he is behind a cage, this is not an easy thing to do! Liora (his previous carer who was passing Sama over to me) told me to wipe my scent on a banana leaf and give it to Sama over my first few days. First he just smelt the leaf, with his nose and with his mouth (jaguars have smelling glands in the back of their mouths and open their jaws up wide to smell, it´s a little scary to see at first) It was a little discencerning to then watch him rip the leaf to shreds...pretty sure this is what he would have done to me if I had been inside his cage! Liora told me after a few days he would stop doing this and ignore the leaf. In fact, when he started ignoring me altogether it was to be taken as a compliment as it meant that he was used to me and had accepted me.
My first few days with Sama were a little traumatic for the poor fellow. He needed a new door in his cage. His enclosure consisted of two cages, one big and one small. Sama was currently being locked into his smaller cage at night because the current door was not in the best shape and we were worried he might be able to escape. To do this he had to be put on a runner whilst the guys came to install it. To put him on a runner, Liora used an egg, whilst he is eating it she put his lead on - he is so engrossed in his egg you could practically perform surgery on him! All the noise and the men upset Sama terribly and he hissed and jumped on his runner and I was able to see the full force of his aggressivness. It was pretty scary and it upset me to see him so upset. The next few days he had to be kept in his small cage whilst waiting for the concrete to dry. He paced up and down and looked so eager to be out in his bigger cage that I was suprised that when I finally let him in, he just calmly sauntered out and plonked himself down in the middle! I had been expecting leaps of joy! He spent the rest of day spraying and marking his territory, especially where the boys had been. I spent the day running out of it´s way!
Over the coming weeks, Sama and I developed a routine. In the mornings I would usually find him lying on top of his bed box in the sun. I would sit by him and play him music from my i-pod, Snow Patrol are his favourite! Luckily for me Sama seems to like to take his mornings easy, just like me. He likes to sit in the sun, clean himself and roll around a bit, being very cute!
After lunch, I would head back to Sama and collect treats for him along the way - long grass. Sama would always be waiting for me in the corner of the cage, ok, so probably more for than the grass than me, but I liked to think a little of it was for me! Feeding him the grass was probably the favourite part of my day with Sama. It was just him and me time and towards the end I was giving it to him in the mornings also, he seems to really enjoy it and so did I!
If at all playful, it was usually in the afternoons. We liked to race each other at the end of his cage, both of us trying to trick the other one. That was my favourite game to play with him. Sama becomes very bored very easily though, probably from being locked up all the time, so the games usually didn´t last too long before he would go off to find a shady spot to lay in for a while. He would usually sit somewhere near me and I would read him my book or practice my spanish on him or sing to him.
Being in the jungle alone all day with a moody jaguar can be a little scary at first. Although it only took a couple of days to get used to Sama, it took more time to get used to being in the jungle all by myself. Lizards can be suprisingly loud when they want to! I only had the occasional visit from the snake that lived in Samas cage and the monkeys that came through to keep me company. But I really came to like that time by myself and to appreciate the jungle, it´s a really beautiful environment.
My feelings for Sama were growing every day but I think I first realised I was in love with him was when I realised he was in love with me too! It was when Roberto, a volunteer who had been at the park previously, came to spend the morning with me and Sama that it first became apparent. Sama was not happy that Roberto was there at all. Whenever Roberto came anywhere near me, Sama would pounce and snarl at him. Sama was possessive of me, he though of me as his. You have no idea how good this made me feel. After weeks of thinking he didn´t give a toss whether I was there or not, it was now apparent that he had developed feelings for me too. Over the next couple of weeks together, our relationship grew and I even became comfortable enough to let Sama lick me though the cage and to give him a bit of a pet under his chin. It nearly broke my heart when it came time to train up the new volunteer, Maire, to take my place. I have to admit I was secretly delighted when at first he acted the same way with Marie as he had with Roberto. It took a few days to get used to having someone else there with me but it was nice to have the company and it meant that Marie and I could start up some projects that I couldn´t do on my own, like building Sama platforms and giving him a new plank for his pool. It didn´t take long for him to get used to Maire though and I found myself getting a little jealous! It was time to go. So after nearly five wonderful weeks together it was time for Sama and I to say our goodbyes. Even though I felt that I was leaving him in good hands with Marie, I was incredibly sad to be leaving him.
I remember seeing a girl on my first day at the parque coming back from saying goodbye to her cat in tears and thinking it was a little silly of her. How wrong I was. It broke my heart to leave Sama, he really is a very special cat. Some people at the park claim they couldn´t work with a caged cat, that they need the physical contact. They are so wrong, working with a caged cat can be very rewarding on more of an emotional level. Sama doesn´t give his affection to just anyone, so when you finally receive it, it´s the most wonderful feeling in the world.
Feeding Sama grass
Sama waiting for me in the afternoons