In Gato’s Cage, midday
It certainly feels like the end of the world in Gato's cage today. The rain has been pouring down all morning without fail and continues its torrential downpour now. I am on my own because Sam’s borabora bites were giving her some trouble and she needed to rest. So I am sitting on my own in Gato’s cage; it is raining outside and I am cold. He is not the companion I had imagined for myself at the end of the world but at least he is polite and quiet (now he is sleeping on his little wooden ledge).
Today I will write a long entry because there is a lot of time between now and four o’ clock, and all I have to amuse myself is this sodden journal and stubby pencil. Where shall I begin? Well perhaps by describing Gato’s cage.
Gato’s cage is a good piece of engineering by this park’s standards. It is a large, rectangular structure with a slanted roof made from corrugated tin. It is probably 10 x 30 m. Two thirds of the cage is for Gato and one third is for me and the various bits and pieces needed for his maintenance: scrubbing brushes, iodine, bleach, water etc. We are divided by a rather pathetic swing door attached by a carbineer and some wire. This means that all day I can watch Gato stalking around, grooming and sleeping; sniffing the new plants and tree fronds we placed deceptively in his cage, and he can watch me.
Gato is a very beautiful puma. He has a thick, soft and clean sandy-brown coat and clear green eyes. His eyes and nose look like they have been outlined in charcoal. Though Gato looks a little like an overgrown tabby cat, he has the heavy and deliberate slinking movements of a tiger. He is rather slow and his belly hangs a little, but I think that is because he is old, ill and belligerent. Francesca said that he should be a lot bigger than he is, judging by his paws, but his growth was stunted while in captivity as he was fed on a diet of bread by his pesky jailers in the circus. So he is not an overly large animal, though he is still large enough to kill a man. When he yawns you can see his large yellow incisors curved like scimitars, and occasionally when he stretches or nuzzles a tree branch or root, he will flick out and sharpen his retractable claws from their invisible hiding place, conscious of his power.
But Gato’s nature is very kind (that is, for a wild animal). Sometimes when we are walking I think he pauses for me to catch up with him. He certainly listens and obeys us, if sometimes begrudgingly, and hates falling behind if someone has taken the lead before him. Gato does cry rather a lot and occasionally his eyes are very sad but then I just pet him and spoil him – ‘mi pollo, mi catito’ – and that normally cheers him up a little. When his ears are down he looks funny, like a flying saucer and he always stops to think (as if weighing up the risks in his mind), before he challenges us. I am not afraid of him now as I used to be, but still feel nervous alone with him in his side of the cage. (He is crying very loudly now because he can’t go out, ‘Miaow-ow, ow, miaow-ow’).
You find Gato’s cage by following up the narrow jungle track from the fox’s cage which is crisscrossed with overgrown ferns and shrubs with waxy green leaves. You can get there either by following the tourist trail for about forty minutes and then turning off after the mirador or by taking the way of the ‘road’. The road suffers from frequent landslides in the rainy season, when crumbling sandstone begins to dribble and ooze down the rock face. Scrambling over it after it has been partially dried by the sun is another of the morning’s ordeals, though it is more of a nuisance for the local coca farmers and their workers who need the road to get to their plantations.
Every morning the walk up to Gato’s cage takes between twenty to forty minutes. Holding a small red bucket full of Gato’s food (usually a kilo of raw chicken or beef), I hike my way up the slippery sandstone gully to his cage on a basic path that crosses a stream, makes ample use of muddy steps and helpful vines. With the heat, rain and jungle itself pressing closely in – this alone is quite a tiring exercise. After some perfunctory cleaning tasks in his cage like sterilizing his foods and water bowls, we clip our lead onto his collar and allow him to lead us where he wants to go. Well, at least, that is in theory what happens. At the moment because he is poorly and we are inexperienced we are only allowed to take him to ‘Lusha’s Playground’, the destination of one of his shortest walking trails. Though this is by no means one of his most difficult routes, it still takes you along a sufficiently remote and overgrown track to make you feel well and truly ensconced in the heart of the jungle. There are snakes, monkeys, bullet ants and dangerous spiders about (also rumours of a stray puma) -Tanner spotted his markings a few days ago. There are also waterfalls, mudslides and vines of many varieties. I have seen (or regularly take hold of), mangrove tress, the ‘walking tree’, large eucalyptus and an anonymous tree with a very sharp and thorny green bark.
We leave the cage at about a quarter past nine and return home before four-thirty which is Gato’s meal time. It is a long day out in foul weather or fine, walking and sleeping on the forest floor and in general behaving a little like a cat. There has been a lot of talk in the park about the negative impact of ‘humanizing’ the animals. With the monkeys for instance, even after the captive capuchins are returned to the jungle they still come back to the monkey ‘quarantine’ to be fed. Also because they are so used to contact with humans they are no longer afraid of them and know how to harass them. This is not so good for either the tourists or workers in the park. But with Gato, the opposite is true. The point is that he receives the most ‘natural’ and organic experience possible so the volunteer is required to fade out of view, becoming invisible. Rather than Gato becoming more human-like we become more feline. We sleep when he sleeps, we walks when he walks and so on, morphing into strange cat avatars, neither totally leaders, neither totally lead.
After such a long day we walk back damp, smelly, ridden with insect bites and normally in the rain. After I buy something sweet from the volunteer café at the park entrance I go straight back to Copocabana where I wring out my socks, empty my wellies of water, pop on the gas for coffee and hang my work clothes on the line we put up in the half-built house. Harry soon arrives home from ‘small animals’ and we cook and spend the rest of the evening together. That is our routine. I will try and sleep a little now.’
‘In ‘Copacabana’, 19.52
Chimba is barking in the distance, perhaps at an intruder, perhaps in his own mad way – at himself. I noticed the river today. You can’t help but notice it. It curls like a salamander along the edge of the park and then rushes underneath the Espiritu Santo bridge, swirling and gushing with thick muddy water. It is a wild, uncaring tributary during monsoon. I saw some locals swimming in it the other day: they were floating along at great speed in rubber rings, making light of the mighty currents. A deadly game that has already claimed many lives.
The tastes and sounds of the jungle do not disappear down here even if we are by Villa Tunari and the main road. These scents have permeated my hair, my skin, my clothes. Every pore is like a puddle full of the jungle and my puma Gato. Sometimes the keepers here fear that they are humanizing the animals, but I think the opposite is true. I think that we are being animalised, stolen back; artery and tear drop by drop of sweat. What does life in the jungle mean? A traveller we met in Santa Cruz wanted to spend two weeks camping in the jungle, he lasted two days. He said that in Brazil they call it the ‘green hell’. To survive in the jungle as a human being is not difficult, but you have to let go of comfort. You have to be prepared for your feet to swish about in wellies half full of water like fish, you have to be prepared to sit on the jungle floor and let streams of ants walk all over you. You have to forget that you are different from it, you have to embrace re-integration, grab every sodden branch. It requires a type of strength and isn’t for the squeamish. I guess that’s why the long termers seem so hardened and tough. Or at least that’s what they project. I’m not sure how much more is under the surface now that I have spoken to them. They are a strange bunch – the people who devote their lives to looking after wild animals. Many of them are never paid, they do it out of love. It is the environment itself which gives they love to fight against; and their danger and strangeness echoes that of the animals.’
Park Machia, 1 o’ clock
‘I have just finished a salad sandwich for my lunch and I am sitting in a cage with a puma. Mosquitoes are buzzing roung my face and legs and I am sitting on an upturned plastic carton that looks like a giant yogurt pot.
The beautiful feline Gato is looking at me now from his wooden lookout, though he has just done a circuit of the ramps. He is restless and keeps on wandering around his cage. Occasionally he sits and cries. He is doing so loudly now – boring his strong yellowed teeth with each mewling yammer. The sound is quite human and agonised but it is also wild. If I didn’t know better I would be frightened.
Every time I look up a new insect is dancing around my legs which I have protected with a thick plastic
tarpaulin. Sometimes the mosquitoes are small and brown, at others they are large and petrol-blue. Occasionally black scarab-like beetles hover in the air around me or orange insects with long, dangling legs buzz by my boots. Lines of small red ants march along the raised cement foundation of the cage, carrying strips of mint green leaves above their heads like trophies.
Gato is very calm now – he is lying on his side with his head up. I am surrounded by a rainforest which is buzzing and whirring. For the next few hours I suppose it will just be me and the puma. His crying sounds somewhere between a hiss, sneeze and a growl (‘wha-ow’, ‘raow’).
The reason we are in this position at all is because Gato wasn’t behaving himself earlier. After we had cleaned his cage, sterilized the floor, Becca had unclipped his caribena from the slider and were ready to walk him – he started marking his territory by pressing his paws into the soft, black earth and arching his back. Becca believed that as I was unfamiliar, Gato was preparing to pounce on me. Run. He lunged after me. Once I was safely out of range she unlocked one of his doors so he could re-enter the cage. Instead he butted his head against the door so Becca couldn’t open it and then, in her words, began to corner her. Alarmed because he looked as though he had entered hunting mode, she ran away from him. He chased, pounced and then bit her leg. In the end it was only a scratch but it really shook her up and she cried a little. He had never behaved like this before according to her. Afterwards we managed to coax him back into the cage and remove his lead. Now he is much more relaxed.
Since then Becca has left to catch a flight to Colombia and that’s how I happen to find myself alone in a cage with a sneezy, crying, maladroit puma. I am meant to feed him at 16.30. That means three more hours of waiting.’
Sitting by ‘Gato’s Valley’
I am not on my own now though I might as well be. The silence is deafening. It almost feels more silent when there is a large group of you. Francesca is lying on the muddy jungle slope with an old white t-shirt resting on her head. She is looking imperiously down at the valley floor. There are sounds that suggest that Balu the bear might be on his way. Sam is resting with her head on her knees. Gato is awake and looking over at us.
In general everything seems better than it did yesterday, I finally had a look at Harry’s scar and it wasn’t as bad as I had originally thought. My relationship with the cat also seems better today. I am not afraid of him, Francesca’s presence has been very reassuring in that regard. I hope this will continue tomorrow and that I am not scared in the morning, since getting him onto his leash is one of the hardest parts of the working day. Sam is also with me today, and two is much better than one.
There was another big storm last night. It rained heavily until morning. The storms in the jungle in rainy season are very dramatic. All night the sky flashes and cracks with thunder and lightning. The thunder is not a distant rumble but a sharp loud whip-crack followed by an earth shattering rattle and fading into a drum beat. The lightening is momentary but so bright that is lights up the whole of the sky and earth.
The mound of Harry’s body shone like quartz each time the light filled our mesh-screened window. The single dirty sheet which covered him, suddenly seemed like a shroud. The humidity makes contact of any kind intolerable, and so we lay awake together in bed like two strangers, as the crescendo of light and sound outside faded, and eventually, died.’