Gato, the Rescued Circus Puma Who Inspired Ruth Connolly’s Novel, Refuge
In 2002, I met a rescued circus puma who stole my heart and inspired my novel, Refuge. The puma’s name was Gato, and this is his story as told by Nena Baltazar, Co-founder and President of Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi.
Thank you to Melanies Gil for translating Gato’s story from the audio files provided by Nena. I have edited the translation and changed some phrasing to smooth the transition from audio to the written word.
Gato’s Story – A Chained Puma
Let me tell you the story of Gato, the first puma we rescued and brought to our wildlife refuge, Inti Wara Yassi. In those years (almost 24 years ago,) a circus came to Villa Tunari. There were two capuchin monkeys and one macaw in the circus. All of my colleagues wanted to rescue these mistreated animals. But at that time, because there was only one police officer in Villa Tunari, we failed to confiscate the animals.
We did not give up. Eventually, the circus moved to Cochabamba in Quillacollo. When my colleagues arrived at the new location of the circus, they found a puma that was chained up and could not move. They tried to help him stand, but their efforts were in vain. The puma had been living at the circus for a long time. His trainer had repeatedly hit his hind legs to make him jump through hoops of fire. The puma’s hind legs had been fractured by the beatings, had not healed properly and were now crooked. He was living on a terrible diet of bread and water.
That day, I was working at the wildlife refuge and suddenly, I saw a colleague with a puma in his arms.
“Wao!” I was really scared.
I told them I couldn’t take it. I had just started the refuge to help monkeys. I had no idea how to work with pumas. My colleagues told me I would be able to help, but I was so scared because I had never been this close to a puma.
The Puma was too Weak to Stand
My colleagues left him lying on a mattress on the ground in a spare room at the house. I felt so sad when I saw him lying there, unable to get up and stand. I was deeply moved. I went to buy ground beef, then tried to feed him. At first, he didn’t want to eat, but I kept trying. I stayed with him all night. From that moment, I loved the puma and I called him Gato. I had lost my fear and was able to be close to him. We slept side by side that night on the mattress, and ever since then my team and I worked to help Gato.
Gato Inspired People to Help Him
We took turns during the evenings to sleep with him. We used to massage his legs and little by little he regained strength. Those were days and nights of great worry for us as we worked to help him recover. A new volunteer named Susie came to the refuge for two weeks to help us. When she saw Gato and heard his story, she was so sad, fell in love, and stayed nine months to work with Gato so he could have a better life.
The Healing Power of Walks in the Rainforest
When Gato regained the strength to stand, we put a collar on him and walked him on a lead. After two months, Gato could walk on his own for ten minutes. One day we managed to carry him to the river to sunbathe. He walked into the river of his own accord. We discovered that he loved to swim, and from that day on, swimming played an important part in his recovery. Gato continued to improve over time. He enjoyed the walks so much. They made him happy and physically stronger. Soon, we could take him for longer walks on the trails through the rainforest. Walking was a great physical therapy that helped him recover.
One Puma Trafficked = Generations of Cubs Never Born
Because Gato had been snatched from his mother as a young cub, he could never be set free. For a puma, the first months are crucial because breast milk is irreplaceable and also the mother teaches her cub how to hunt. Because Gato’s diet at the circus was so poor, he would always have musculoskeletal problems. The bones of his hind legs were malformed because they were beaten and broken by his trainer.
A Second Chance
Gato was never able to regain his freedom, but he had the best life possible. Despite the problems he had with his legs, he loved to walk. He also had lots of adventures. I remember when we took our walks, there were places that were difficult to go. He would look at me as if he was saying – let’s go on an adventure. And I couldn’t say no. We even got lost one day.
That was my Gato. His story is the one that has most impacted my life because he was rescued from a place where he had been so hurt and mistreated. He was in his last moments of life when we found him. He would have died if we had not rescued him. But he also did his part to recover and survive. He lived many happy years here. He met many wonderful people who helped him every day, taking him on long walks through the rainforest.
A Song for Gato
In the end, when he was an old puma, he loved to sleep up high on his platform. I would sing him a song and he would listen to me. Sometimes, he would look at me and I think he was saying – enough Nena, I’m sleepy now. When he was in his last years, we built a new enclosure for him closer to our house so we could check on him all the time.
The last days of Gato were very difficult. Because of the mistreatment, he had suffered at the circus, he developed serious health problems. During the winter, there were days when he could not walk.
Gato was getting older and weaker, but you could see that he still wanted to live. Those times were very hard because I knew the time of his departure was getting closer. The veterinarians had already evaluated Gato based on a pain scale. Gato seemed to be doing okay until one day he would not leave the enclosure for his usual walks. We knew then that he was dying. During the evenings, we took turns sleeping with him.
The Hard Decision
One morning, the volunteer who had slept with him that night called me at 6:30 a.m. and said Gato was not in good shape. I ran up to call the vets. We had already decided that when things got worse, we would make the hard decision. The vets came with all the medication ready to put him to sleep. I went into his room and caressed him. I sang his favourite song. He sighed and he died in my arms. I felt as if he was waiting for me to be next to him to die.
Now he is in heaven, free forever, walking and running. He must be with Sama, our rescued jaguar, who passed away after a long happy life at the refuge. Together, they are running in the sky. Thanks to Gato, we started the ‘Feline Management System’. We learned a lot from Gato about the behaviour of big cats. We learned to be extremely patient with them and to improve our walking protocols. Gato was a special and unique animal that touched the hearts of many people. Thanks to our work with Gato, we have been able to help many other big cats we rescued.
Gato was someone very special in my life. Thanks to you, Ruth, for writing Gato’s story. I’m here right now at the refuge with the Capuchin monkeys, and I am very happy that you are writing the story of Gato to educate, raise awareness, and gain more volunteers to come help us. I will sing Gato’s song to you one day.