Travel Confessions: Animal volunteer Eliza Baker in Bolivia
Ever wanted to work with big cats or even medium-sized cats? Animal lover Eliza Baker decided to turn her love for wild cats into a reality, volunteering to care for pumas, jaguars and ocelots at Parque Ambue Ari wildlife centre in Bolivia while travelling around South America. Here, Student Flights customer Eliza gives us her claws 'n' all account of being an animal volunteer overseas.
What inspired to volunteer overseas, and why Bolivia?
I have always loved animals, especially cats! And so when my brother came back from a trip around South America, the first thing he told me about was this particular park where you live, work and play with pumas, jaguars and ocelots. I was determined to go! I planned my entire trip around this one place and this one fantastic experience. I was there for six weeks and had such a great time - six weeks was not long enough!
Where did you live and work?
The park that I worked at, Parque Ambue Ari, is situated 10 minutes away from a tiny town called Santa Maria and 45 minutes away from a larger truckstop town named Guarayos.
Was this your first time overseas?
No, I have been overseas to the USA and New Zealand with my family in the past, however, this was my first time travelling anywhere on my own.
Was it difficult getting the paperwork and visas arranged?
Getting a visa for Bolivia is very easy - you pretty much get 30 days (if you're an Australian) at the airport and then you can renew your visa for another 30 days twice (so you can get 90 days all up). Otherwise you pay a small fine for overstaying your visa when you leave the country, which is what I did. The fine came to about 250 Bolivian Bolivianos , which is equivalent to $AU40.
What new skills did you learn in your job?
Given I want to work with cats/wild animals for the rest of my life, having that real experience of bonding with an ocelot and a jaguar, seeing how they move, learning how to read their body language and seeing how much each animal varies from one another was amazing! It was a very valuable experience that I will definitely appreciate for many years to come.
For example; I worked with this one jaguar for a week, her name was Katie she was very sweet and lovable and was particularly fond of me. When we'd take her out of her enclosure, she'd come straight for me, (non-aggressively) jump up at me, wrap her arms around my back and playfully bite my arm (very gently). That whole experience taught me how to handle a fully grown jaguar trying to pull me to the ground, and how to act nonchalant - even bored - to make her less interested in playing. Definitely something you need to know when you want to work with big cats for the rest of your life!
What's your favourite memory from your time in Bolivia?
My favourite memory would definitely be with the jaguar I looked after for the full six weeks I was there. His name is Sama and he and I became very close in the time I was there. He was known as the most aggressive cat in the park - he had a bit of a bad track record. In the first week I worked with him, I could see that very clearly. He didn't want me there at all!
But after that first week, things began to change. He wouldn't stare at me with these huge, angry eyes anymore. He'd walk to me and smell my hand; we'd go for walks around his enclosure together, just enjoying each other's company. The biggest thing that changed was when I'd run around his cage he used to chase me, he used to want to get me. But then it changed to him running with me, us racing even! He'd be right beside me; I'd look down at him while running as fast as I could, and it was so exhilarating to be sprinting side by side a fully grown male jaguar!
What was the biggest challenge you faced during your trip?
Not speaking Spanish. I learnt a very basic amount, basically so I could get on the right bus. But there were some lovely Bolivian people that lived and worked at the park who didn't speak very good English, but they were some of the loveliest people I've ever met. Even though I couldn't properly communicate with them, we still had had a great time.
What's the best advice you can offer to someone wanting to travel to Bolivia to volunteer?
Don't be afraid to talk to people! Bolivians are some of the friendliest people I've ever met. I got extremely lost at the bus terminal as I couldn't speak Spanish. I had no idea what the signs were saying and I was freaking out that I would miss my bus. So I went to a man and showed him on a piece of paper which bus company I needed to get to, and he took me by the arm and led me all the way to the bus and even organised my ticket for me. He was so lovely, and all without being able to communicate properly. They are such genuine people.