There is no doubt the island’s recent turn as host to a cougar inspired a full spectrum of feelings within the community, from fear and anger to excitement and admiration — the wayward apex predator had its share of both supporters and detractors. But after recently spending a month in Bolivia helping to care for rescued pumas, two longtime islanders now have perspective and understanding of the big cats unlike any others.
“This was the hardest thing we have ever done,” said Sheri Turner, about the experience she shared with her husband Lee. “But there are no words for the bonds we made with ‘our’ pumas.”
From Sept. 12 to Oct. 17, the couple worked as volunteers at Parque Jacj Cuisi — a wildlife sanctuary and rescue in a remote Bolivian jungle north of La Paz — at the invitation of their son Cody, who has been working there for nearly a year.
The Turners have called Vashon home for 28 years. Cody Turner was born and raised on the island, graduated from Vashon High School in 2009 and went on to a degree in oceanography from the University of Washington. After his graduation from UW, he spent a year backpacking throughout South America, participating in a number of work-away programs while he was at it. One such program sent him to Parque Jacj Cuisi (PJC) for a month, and as his mother tells it, he always vowed to go back one day.
“It is his passion and commitment to the pumas that drive him,” she said.
Jacj Cuisi — which means “land of dreams” in two local indigenous languages — is one of three sanctuaries operated by CIWY (Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi), a Bolivian organization focused on preserving and protecting the country’s wildlife, specifically, animals that have been illegally traded and trafficked. Its first refuge was established in 1996. Twenty-two years later it has three, and big cats are the specialization at PJC.
PJC is best suited for rescued pumas as it is the largest and most remote of the three sanctuaries. In the wild, the cats are solitary, territorial animals whose territory range is said to be up to hundreds of square miles that typically do not overlap with the territory of other cats, especially the males. (A female’s territory will sometimes overlap with that of other females, and occasionally males.) And with the goal of providing the animals as natural an existence as possible, it fits the bill.
“The cat enclosures are about 1 kilometer away from where the human volunteers live,” Sheri Turner explained. “As well as about the same distance away from each other, and there are three pumas there at the moment.”
The cats that CIWY cares for in its sanctuaries, including Jacj Cuisi, have been rescued from black market traffickers, circuses, “witch doctors” and private homes, or brought to the organization by people who had been trying to keep the animals as pets. Many have longterm health issues resulting from being mistreated, inappropriately fed or malnourished, and some have suffered physical trauma. Since most were taken as babies, they never learned the skills and behaviors needed to survive in the wild on their own, so they cannot be released — one of the four cats originally placed at PJC escaped its enclosure, only to be found dead by sanctuary volunteers a week later.
In an effort to provide the best natural life possible for these animals, the staff at Jacj Cuisi take them for regular walks, both for exercise and simply the experience of exploring and foraging in their natural habitat, while still in the protective care of volunteers. Yes, they take pumas for walks. Sometimes it is determined that an individual cat should not have direct contact with volunteers, or that it would be safer for them to be kept out of situations where they might encounter other animals. Of the three pumas currently in residence there, two are walked and one is not.
This has been accomplished through the use of a rope system, where two people — always two — are clipped in to two very long ropes attached to the cat’s collar. The length of the ropes can be let out as needed to give the cats freedom and space. To walk the cats, staff or volunteers must spend two weeks training, which begins, Sheri Turner said, with studying the cats’ personality profiles.
“The first thing that happened when we got there was we were each given a binder about the cat that was assigned to us,” she said. “They included everything about them, their personalities, backgrounds, behaviors, things to watch for … like ‘if the cat does this with its eyes, that means it’s about to pounce,’ things like that. Since we were going to spend a month caring for our cat, getting to know them was absolutely vital.”
Hanging out with big cat basics, such as never allowing the cat to get above your shoulder level (or you’ll risk it deciding to ambush you) and unless it’s asleep, always watch its face and eyes (to anticipate behavior), were just a small fraction of the constant reminders that the Turners were doing something extraordinary.
“After the first week, I had to go to the cat’s enclosure alone,” Sheri Turner said. “And on that long walk, the extreme heat and humidity of the jungle soaking my body, I saw the back end of a python and heard a wild boar, and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ But it was incredible at the same time.”
Cody Turner spent several years working for the Washington Conservation Corps on trail systems around the state after returning from his South American backpacking adventures. Finally getting a visa that would allow him to return to work at Jacj Cuisi, he made his way back in January of this year to be the cat and construction coordinator at the sanctuary until Febraury 2019. With only a few months left in his time there, he invited his parents for what would become the experience of their lifetime.
“He didn’t believe we’d really go,” Sheri Turner said with a laugh.
For their walks, each puma has its own day and trail system to travel, to make sure the animals don’t become aggressive with each other over territory. Also, sanctuary rules demand that the cats’ days outside are entirely theirs — they decide where to go, how fast and how long they are out on their trails.
“If the puma decides it’s going to lie down and sleep in the jungle for three hours, this is what is going to happen,” Sheri Turner noted. “The only time we were allowed to intervene in their activities was if it was getting dark and we needed to get the cat back to its enclosure for the night. Sometimes, especially if it was raining, they’d just find a place to sit under the trees.”
The puma that was determined to be too aggressive toward humans also gets its exercise using the equivalent of a super-sized dog run specially constructed for it over what Sheri Turner described as a “massive area.”
Sheri Turner described other cat-care activities at the sanctuary, which included making special packages of food for the pumas and hanging them in trees or hiding them, to make it interesting for the cats, as it would be in the wild.
Her puma for the month was a male named Sonko. Sonko was raised by a family in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, as their pet until he became full grown, and too difficult to handle. They took him to CIWY in 2004, when he was thought to be about 6 months old. He has been in the organization’s care ever since.
The other walkable cat is a female named Luna, who was rescued with her sister by authorities at a market where the two cubs were being illegally traded. Their captors had killed the cubs’ mother because they thought she had killed some sheep, and they were trying to make some money from selling the cubs. The babies’ health was poor by the time they were rescued, and Luna’s sister did not survive.
“We are very proud to have been able to volunteer and share our time with the incredible individuals working with these animals,” Sheri Turner said. “At first we thought we wouldn’t be able to go back, it was so hard on our bodies. But we miss the cats. If we have the opportunity, we’ll definitely do it again.”
For more information or to donate to the CIWY sanctuaries, see intiwarayassi.org.
Note: The pumas at Jacj Cuisi are wild animals, not pets. Early interaction has made some of them willing to interact with humans non-aggressively, under the right circumstances, and safety is always paramount.