I loved this memoir about Coleman’s time working in a wildlife sanctuary in Bolivia. It was completely different from anything I’ve read before, and I enjoy reading about people who do things that I’ll never have the courage to do.
In her early twenties, Coleman quit her job in England and backpacked around Bolivia. Wanting to do something different, she signs up for a 30 day stint at an animal “parque” in the jungle. I was struck by her horror on her first day, from the lack of accommodations, the outhouse, the poisonous insects, and the monkeys and other animals running around freely. When she’s assigned to “walk” a puma named Wayra, she thinks she won’t last 24 hours. But she does, and at some point the jungle becomes her home, and the animals become her family.
Coleman’s writing is vivid and beautiful, though it could be a bit repetitive at times. You could see as her initial horror and fear of Wayra gradually turns to love and trust. The animals they care for in the parque have been mistreated, so they are angry and dangerous. I loved how Coleman describes their personalities, each of them becoming individuals rather than just abused creatures. At the same time she portrays their wildness and animal natures. Many of these animals didn’t learn essential skills because they were captured and abused by humans. They will never be able to live in the wild on their own, or be able to interact naturally with others of their kind. They seem torn between longing to be free and needing to be cared for, and the parque tries to meet these needs, with serious resource limitations (and some questionable management practices).
“I love you,” I say quietly, my voice breaking. Her neck arches into the sun, catching a sweep of gold. We both watch an eagle soar across a patch of sky. I can’t believe its taken this long to say it out loud. She turns to me and flicks her tail mildly, agreeing. I knew you loved me, ages ago. She puts her cheek on both her paws and gazes at me. There’s a marvelling look in her eyes. A questioning look. Far away, the eagle disappears, lost within the clouds.The Puma Years by Laura Coleman
Life in the parque is incredibly hard and often dangerous. The physical challenges Coleman describes are disturbing but told in a humorous way (an example is the parasite that has to be squeezed out of her leg). Coleman also writes a lot about the impacts of climate change and deforestation, so if you’re looking to read more books on environmental topics, this was a fascinating one.
As the title indicates, this is a story about Coleman’s own growth as much as a story about animals. She’s not sure where she belongs or what she should be doing with her life. The people she volunteers with come and go – their “real lives” are outside the parque, and Coleman struggles to figure out the right time to go. She’s fortunate to have parents back at home who worry about her and who wait patiently for her return.
It’s no surprise that Coleman’s 30-day stint turns into something more (the title makes that clear). But I wasn’t expecting the beauty and emotion of this book. And I could see how a life that sounds pretty horrifying could also be pretty impossible to leave.
I read this for my book club, and I’ll note that I was an outlier. The others were bothered by the physical hardships Coleman described and felt it was whiny. I thought it was inspiring that people would live in those conditions, working for nothing to help the animals. I was also interested in the idea that amidst severe hardships, the author felt there was no place she’d rather be. It wasn’t selflessness, she was genuinely happiest there and felt most at home.
Others in my book club felt there were too many characters to keep track of (I’m often bothered by that in books but wasn’t here) and there wasn’t enough explanation about why the animals were cared for in certain ways. I agree more background about how to care for these animals would have been helpful, but it didn’t bother me. As a cat-owner and former shelter volunteer, the care of the animals made sense to me, and I felt Coleman sufficiently described what the parque could and couldn’t do given their limited resources.
One more note: we adopted two kittens last month, and one of them spent a lot of time on my lap as I read this book about much bigger and tougher cats. If you can read this book with a kitten on your lap, I highly recommend it.
This book counts towards several of my challenges: Reading Nonfiction (“Wild Animals” category), the Gaia Nature Reading challenge, and Reading Around the World (Bolivia).