Helping at a wildlife sanctuary can add a new dimension to a holiday.
Nick Thorpe befriends some big cats in deepest Bolivia. Nena the warden sits, absently foraging for fleas on a recumbent spider monkey, as the shadows lengthen across the clearing. Six hours ago she sent two Swiss volunteers off into the jungle with Gato the puma, and they haven't been seen since. "Anybody want to go and look for them?" she asks anxiously, hoisting the monkey on to her shoulders where he hugs her head like a beehive hair-do. "It will be dark soon."
Until tonight, walking the puma has been the luckiest draw among awestruck volunteers at the animal sanctuary, a shoestring operation in the tropical heart of Bolivia that aims to rehabilitate victims of the illegal trade in wild animals.
Suddenly, however, the darkening jungle is full of sinister possibilities. After all, this particular carnivore has plenty of reasons to nurse a grudge. When first rescued from a travelling circus, his back legs were so badly deformed he could barely stand, due to a diet of bread and milk and regular beatings by trainers trying to force him to jump through a ring of fire.
Nearly two years later, thanks to intensive daily exercise, he has only a slight limp, and it's increasingly hard to tell who's walking whom. Perhaps tonight he's made the ultimate statement of independence and turned his saviours into his first live prey. Luckily, just as we are mustering torches for the search, there is a rustle of foliage and Gato emerges, debonair and handsome, muscles rippling beneath his sleek coat. We all move aside as if for a royal procession.
"He was trying to explore beyond his territory," pants Lukas, trotting behind at the end of the lead, with Adrian following like a harassed butler. "Then he got fed up with us pulling him back and wouldn't move at all."
As he drags them up the hill towards his pen, Gato's expression suggests he now has more important things on his mind than his incompetent human retinue. He certainly wouldn't stoop to eating them.
Working with abused animals always brings an unpredictable mixture of tribulation and reward. A small capuchin monkey makes the point succinctly by fiddling pleasurably with my earlobe, then promptly urinating down my neck. Hector is typical of the 100 animals here. Balding, needy and neurotic, he resembled a simian Woody Allen when he was rescued from the luggage hold of a bus bound for Argentina. For deeply ingrained reasons he still harbours a terror of 12-year-old boys with crew-cut hair.
Meanwhile Manola, another capuchin, can be found obsessively washing vegetables in the stream before eating them, and Tintin, who made the national press after escaping from a La Paz apartment and running rampage through a television studio, is still too violent to be let off his chain.
It's Tarzan meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but for the 15 of us currently indulging the inmates, the therapy is definitely two-way. "We care for them, clean up their crud, and they thank you by giving you a lot of love in return," grins Nena sentimentally, scooping up a derelict-looking parrot with a shotgun-blasted wing and replacing it on its branch.
Down on the river shore, Sama the jaguar is busy shredding his indulgent keeper's trousers. "He likes to chew on clothes, don't you, gorgeous?" says Christel, a now frayed-looking Dutch backpacker who came here on a day trip two months ago, fell in love with the jaguar and never left. Sama, who has never quite forgiven the human race after his mother was killed by hunters, promptly knocks her over and, growling like a Harley-Davidson, rips an indecent chunk out of her T-shirt. Soon he will be ready for release.
"That's what I love about these animals," grins Christel as we coax Sama back to his den and retreat to the sound of territorial roaring. "They're never going to let you mistake them for pets again.
There are hundreds of short-term opportunities in sanctuaries or reserves around the globe. Some are largely informal and will cost only what you pay in food and lodging. Others, often organised through western eco-tour agencies, charge hefty placement fees. All expect you to organise your own flight and transport, to work hard, and to do so at your own risk. If dealing with dangerous animals, check with your travel insurer that your policy covers this - it generally does without any extra cost. If not, find out whether the sanctuary itself will cover you.
The Inti Wara Yassi animal sanctuary desperately needs volunteers and financial help, as it takes in victims of Bolivia's trade in exotic pets. Tourists and day visitors help by donating a small fee for any photographs taken.
On a minimum two-week stay, volunteers interact with different species, prepare food, clean cages and guide tourists around the reserve.
No placement charge, but accommodation in local hotels costs £5-£ 50 a night. Volunteers usually organise a kitty and cook cheap meals communally.
A five-hour bus trip from the city of Cochabamba to Villa Tunari.
Nena Baltazar or Juan Carlos Antezana at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi, Casilia No 9519, La Paz, Bolivia.
[Editor's note: Please see the 'Become a Volunteer' and 'FAQ' sections of this website for correct information.]
Friends of Inti Wara Yassi (FIWY) is our sister organization in the UK. They have been a major source of support since their founding in 2008. Find out more about FIWY here.
Quest Overseas organizes gap year trips for British and international students. Since 2001, Quest has worked with CIWY to bring much needed volunteers and funds. If you are interested in the programs they have with us, find out more here.