Living With Jaguars: Getting Up Close With Animals at Bolivia's Ambue Ari Reserve

Photo: Walking with Jaguars

They walk the jaguars, talk with the pumas and play with the monkeys. Deep in the jungles of Bolivia, Ambue Ari is an animal reserve like no other.


It has become a hot destination for backpackers touring South America. The reserve draws an international mix of Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Australians. Adventurous travelers volunteer as caregivers and companions for some of the most exotic and savage beasts on Earth.

These are animals most of us see only in a zoo and only from a distance. But here, those who dare to can hold, pat and play with wild animals they are caring for. It's not quite a petting zoo: Volunteers here work hard in tough, isolated jungle conditions with no luxuries. But adventurers are drawn to the price -- $9 a day for room and board -- and the training requirements: there are none.

All of which makes Caroline Dougherty of Greenwich, Conn., a perfect candidate. At age 18, she has just graduated from high school and is traveling through South America on her own. For the last two weeks, Dougherty has been here at Ambue Ari, feeding and walking an ocelot -- an animal that looks like a small jaguar -- that they call "Lazy Cat."

As Lazy Cat purred loudly at her feet, Dougherty said she had no jungle experience, no training with animals, "but I've always loved animals my whole life."

Spending her days caring for a magnificent jungle cat is a dream for Dougherty -- even if the work is hard and the days are very hot and very humid.

"They get better care than us sometimes," Dougherty joked. "Every morning when we are chopping up fruit for the birds, I want to grab some papaya and some fresh oranges and eat it. But my ration is two pieces of bread, so that's all I get for breakfast."

Volunteers have to commit to work at least two weeks on the reserve, which made Colleen Smith a seasoned veteran. After six weeks at Ambue Ari, she was in charge of the 65 volunteers.

19-year-old Jordan Egger, a volunteer on the reserve, with Rupi, the 230-pound jaguar.
Photo credit: ABC News/Jeffrey Kofman.

Originally from St. Louis, Smith, 25, who recently graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder, said it's the exotic animals and the communal atmosphere that bring adventurers to volunteer.

"Obviously, the opportunity to work with animals is a huge draw," she said. "It's pretty unique in the world that you can show up and say you don't have much experience with animals or anything like that and be given the opportunity to work with cats and birds and monkeys."

The hazard and risks of working with animals in a wild jungle is causing more than a little anxiety for Smith's family back in St. Louis.

"I think they think I'm a little crazy and are ready for me to come home," she said. "I have to say that they weren't too happy that I was traveling in the first place," she said. "And when I told them I was staying here, they were less happy."

But Smith's parents can take comfort in the fact that at least she's not taking care of Rupi -- one of five jaguars on the reserve. Rupi gets daily walks in the jungle wearing a collar attached to a rope with three volunteers in tow.

One of Rupi's walkers is Jordan Egger, a slim 19-year-old. He's been at the reserve a month. As he walked down narrow, muddy jungle paths the jaguar -- and all that follow -- had to navigate fallen trees and swampy water that can be several feet deep.

Suddenly, Rupi started running.

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