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I walked a puma through the jungle – voluntarily

Anthony A. Davis, right, trekked about 460 kilometres with Sonka the puma.

Photo courtesy Anthony A. Davis

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

My knees plead with me. I'm following a wiry young American along a trail through thick Bolivian jungle, stumbling over roots and vines, and my jack-hammering knees are screaming at me: "What the hell were you thinking?"

Here I was, on Day 1 of a 30-day volunteer stint with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi at a wild-animal refuge near Villa Tunari on the fringes of the Amazon Basin. Inti is famous for the controversial fact that its volunteers walk – not without risk – many of its big felines, including jaguars, pumas and ocelots (dwarf leopards). The jungle jaunts keep the cats healthy and provide them with vital mental stimulation.

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I'd be walking a 35-kilogram puma along the longest, toughest terrain used by Inti's nearly 40 big cats. And, according to Inti's volunteer co-ordinator, I might well be the oldest guy to do it.

I knew that a full day walking Sonko (Quechua for "heart") entailed trekking about 16 kilometres a day. But I hadn't realized how tortuous the trail would be as it ran through stony, ankle-twisting streams and a convoluted roller coaster of steep, often muddy inclines and declines. "Can I really friggin' do this?" I asked myself.

Inti Wara Yassi operates three jungle refuges in Bolivia, providing sanctuary to a plethora of monkeys, birds, coatis, kinkajous and other animals rescued from the illegal pet trade, circuses and wildlife abusers. For example, one capuchin monkey was rescued from a bar where for years drunken patrons could pay a boliviano (about 15 cents) to punch him in the face.

An Inti staffer spent three days teaching me the delicate art of puma walking – jeté gracefully over vines sown like booby traps across the trail. I was twice his 26 years and wondered why there were no escalators in the jungle.

We finally came to a rise where Sonko mewled greetings to us. Now 10, he came to Inti in 2004 as a seven-month-old cub. Poachers had killed his mother and a family had kept him as a pet until he became unmanageable.

I saw him pacing his cage, majestic and inquisitively eyeballing this half-naked, mud-caked newcomer. "Let's go say hello," said my trainer, instructing me to poke my hand through a hole in the cage. With a Harley-Davidson purr, the big cat sauntered over, opened his mouth in a big fangy yawn, then nuzzled and licked my hand.

Over the following month, in rain, biting bugs and soggy heat, I endured trekking about 460 kilometres with Sonko. He would, on one alarming occasion, jump me and my Israeli partner Ofir, clamping his jaw around the side of my neck in a puma's lightning-fast death grip. (I was told later that this was probably play.) Sonko had lightly raked my shoulder with barely extended claws, drawing four thin streams of blood.

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But that was the only wound he inflicted. It was the trail that brutally chomped away at me, battering my knees to jelly, driving me to three painkillers a day. And yet I knew that without the endurance – and perhaps crazy daring – of volunteers, Sonko would be stuck for life in a cage, and that gave me heart I never knew I had.

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