The Puma Years: A Memoir is my favorite book I’ve read this year. It’s the true story of a young woman who, feeling like something was missing from her nice, safe life with a soul-crushing white-collar job, went on a trip to Bolivia and visited a ramshackle wildlife sanctuary. There, she was assigned to care for Wayra, a puma with a troubled past due to being a victim of the illegal wildlife trade which killed her mother and placed her in an abusive home as a kitten.
Over time, Laura—the author—bonds with Wayra, but the path is not an easy one. Wayra distrusts people, and rightfully so, and she is kept in an enclosure where she is very unhappy. One of Laura’s jobs is to take Wayra on daily runs, as pumas like to roam, but the big cat is almost too much for her to handle safely.
You might wonder why they didn’t just let Wayra run free into the Bolivian jungle, but Wayra never had a mother to teach her to hunt and navigate the wilderness. In one especially heartrending episode, Wayra does escape. But she cannot deal with her freedom, so she constantly circles the camp and becomes a danger. When Laura finds Wayra and tries to put her on a leash, Wayra lashes out, and the wounds require stitches.
But Laura does not blame the puma. She realizes she handled the situation in the worst way possible. Laura writes:
It’s me who has these ropes, ropes that held her when she was a tiny, mewling puffed-up ball of fur, that tightened around her neck. That whipped her when she was sad, that took her mother and everything she knew away.
Other dramatic passages tell of the outbreak of a forest fire that threatened the entire sanctuary and the lives of the many animals and people there. Laura and her friends risk their lives to dig a ditch, clear away the plants, and make a firewall. It appears many times that all might be lost for the big cats and their caretakers. But at last, the fire burns out, and when Laura visits Wayra in the aftermath, something magical happens.
Wayra, who had never swum in the nearby river—unlike a typical puma who has no fear of water—decides to go for a swim. Laura enters the river with her, and the two of them frolic in waters that I personally would be too scared to explore.
For most of the book, the relationship between Wayra and Laura seems like one step up and two steps back. I don’t remember ever crying so much over a book, but the journey is worth it. In the end, things do work out for Wayra. But Laura reminds us that deforestation and the illegal pet trade and the super-sketchy “zoos” of Bolivia require much more work to solve—a work Laura continued long after the events of The Puma Years.
If you have ever loved a cat, or wondered how those of us who do can form such strong bonds with our feline friends, then you need to add The Puma Years to your reading list. It will break your heart and sew it back together many times, and give you a glimpse into the nature of these magnificent animals.