Tigre the Ocelot

Tigre and me
Credit: Chelsea Hamilton

Tigre and I resting after a long days walk in the jungle

Alone in the Jungle With a Wild Cat

She hunts with precision and poise.  The snake slithers between her teeth before she chomps down on its head after a prolonged and painful pursuit.  She is not afraid of anything.  Not the monkeys that hang above us in the treetops, nor the ones that come down for a closer look, not the porcupine that lives under a big log on the other side of the park, not the bullet ants that sting her paw while she digs, not the bats that fly out from cliff caves, not the intense lightning and thunder of the Amazon basin.  She is a creature of the jungle and she is perfectly comfortable here.

Now she sleeps peacefully, curled up on a mossy log over a trickling brook.  Bees, butterflies and dragonflies circle overhead as they dance through the rays of sunlight that pierce the vines and leaves of the thick rainforest canopy above.  Patches and lines of shade crawl over her body but the sun is beating down in just this spot on the log, for her.  It is a rare opportunity during the rainy season for her to take a sunny nap.

I sit bundled in my raincoat, trying to keep the bugs from eating me alive. My senses are fully awake.  The air smells incredible, fresh sweet of ripening fruit, blooming flowers and wet fertile soil. The humidity adds a layer of fragrance and I take a few deep breaths to fully savor it, hoping to be able to recount the flavor when I am gone - in slowly through my nose, out through my mouth.  As she naps, I pass the time quietly breaking twigs between my fingers thinking back on the past month with Tigre the ocelot, regretting that I have to leave tomorrow.

It seems like only yesterday that I first hiked up to Tigre’s cage, though we have grown so much in these four weeks it also feels like years have passed. I was tense with anxiety on the first day after the countless warnings and stories I have heard that she has been known to “jump” her handlers on occasion and almost always gets her new handlers lost in the jungle, sometimes overnight.  After all… she is a wild jungle cat.

When I first saw her I couldn’t believe how stunning she was!  Her body, lean and agile, her orange and black fur handsomely ornamented with spots and stripes and her eyes enormous and green like giant gleaming emeralds.  I did all the things that you’re supposed to do to get her to accept you.  I blinked my eyes when making eye contact, blew into her face when she approached, talked gently to her and always moved slowly.  It felt very good to me; she looked me in the eye and blinked back at me.  It was a small but important initiation to our relationship. 

I was absolutely terrified on my first day alone with her after only three days of training. I did almost everything wrong starting with trying to hook her rope onto her collar.  Tigre responded by jumping me, but luckily I was half prepared for it and was able to defend myself.  I calmed both of us down by pausing for a minute, and finally got the leash on her during the second attempt.

She tried to jump me four more times that day, but each time she crouched down looking up at me wide-eyed with fully dilated pupils and fidgeting back legs, I readied myself for the pounce.  Shifting my grip on her rope to a just foot above her collar, the moment she jumped I would swing my arm to the side to redirect her attack and come out unharmed.  It was her way of telling me that she wasn’t happy with something I was doing but while she probably wouldn’t have done anything more than a little scratch or bruise, it scared me half to death.  That night I lay in bed wondering if this really was something I wanted to do, if it was really worth the stress and if I was really capable of continuing. But after that first day, she never tried to jump me again, and I have pushed through my personal limitations to rediscover things about myself that I never knew where there.

It is amazing how far Tigre and I have come in our relationship.  She has come to accept me and shows her affection regularly.  I am going to truly miss her and I can feel my heart aching knowing that this is our last day together.  It troubles me to think that in her life at the park Tigre knows her handlers for only one month and then they leave.  It must be very lonely for her. 

It was around the two-week mark that I became completely comfortable with her.  She was leading me along a hill where a landslide had recently occurred.  I knew it was steep but I figured I would give it a go if she wanted to, after all this is supposed to be her time and I am just there to keep her safe, not impede her. I let her lead the way up as I struggled to climb the steep terrain.  Suddenly I felt the dirt below my feet give way and the roots in my hands crumble and I tumbled down the hill.  I let go of Tigre’s rope, not wanting to drag her down with me.  As I fell I called out to Tigre, hoping that she wouldn’t run away.  At the bottom of the hill I quickly checked to see if I was hurt, and luckily I was perfectly fine save for a few tears in my clothes that caught on a large thorn branch on the way down. I quickly scrambled back up the hill hoping I’d be able to catch Tigre, only to find her sitting a little ways away from the crest, looking at me as if to ask if I was ok. As I got up, grabbed her rope and dusted myself off, she calmly watched, as if happy to give me a moment to catch my breath.  When I was ready I let her know, saying, “Está bien, gracias Tigre, listo”.  She blinked and I imagined smiled at me warmly, turned and continued on into the jungle.  We both knew that she could have gone if she had wanted to, and she has been known to do just that with her past handlers.  She never even made an attempt. 

I’m brought back to reality as Tigre slowly awakens from her sunny nap on the log, stretching her front paws and yawning.  Her huge eyes are looking at me with bliss and serenity.  This is what she lives for.  She meows and stretches some more before getting up and coming to sit closer to me.  She sits on my rubber boots, rubs her face on my leg and looks up at me.  She catches a fly in her paws, and then slowly gets up and starts walking along the creek bed again.  As she wakes up more and her energy picks up she forgets that I am here and stealthily stalks any unlucky lizards and snakes that cross our path. 

My mind wanders again as we walk, reflecting.  This experience has opened my eyes and my heart forever.  I will never forget my time with Tigre the ocelot.  She is an amazingly intelligent, gentle and patient creature with a hilarious sense of humor and a never tiring curiosity about everything.  What a special experience it has been to really get to know HER, and not just see her as a wild animal, but as an individual.

As we approach the cage at the end of the day I say goodbye to Tigre.  I cry and scratch her neck.  She knows that I have to leave and lays down with her head on her paws.  She meows and cries as she looks up at me with her big green eyes, flicking her tail and turning her ears back.  “I am so sorry to leave you Tigre.  You have changed my life and you mean the absolute world to me.  I am no longer afraid of spiders and webs in my face, snakes or lizards, being lost in the jungle, or even those mysterious holes in the ground where ‘something’ creepy lives.  I love you forever, my Tigre-toni.  Ciao mi amor!”  I sing to her as I leave down the path and I wonder if she will jump her new walker tomorrow like she did me on my first day.  I carry my memories close to my heart, which has grown so large from this experience.  I feel so lucky to have been part of Cominudad Inti Wara Yassi, volunteering at Parque Machía in Bolivia and making a difference in Tigre’s life as well as the monkeys, coatis, birds and Balu the bear.

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