AMBUE ARI, Bolivia - Visitors with training no more extensive than having seen a few nature programs on television can walk these beasts around the jungle on a leash. But now Ambue Ari has found itself at the center of a controversy among animal welfare officials and big cat experts for allowing visitors such intimate contact with predators that are both dangerous and endangered.
Animal welfare officials would like Ambue Ari to stop allowing jaguars out for walks. Jaguars, apex predators that can weigh about 110 kilograms, are capable of killing cattle and horses. Attacks on humans are rare but can easily be fatal.
"Relative to their weight, jaguars have the most powerful bite of all cats," said Rafael Hoogesteijn, a Venezuelan veterinarian who works in Brazil. He called the methods used at Ambue Ari "an invitation to disaster."
Ambue Ari's directors and many of its visiting volunteers say they are devoted to the animals in their care, some of which are rescued from captivity as abused household pets or illegally trafficked in outdoor markets. By having the big cats walked, Ambue Ari's directors contend, the animals are given greater freedom than big cats that rarely leave their cages.
"Our cats live with more dignity than those in any zoo," said Tania Baltazar, 37, the president of Inti Wara Yassi, the nonprofit group that manages Ambue Ari and two other refuges in Bolivia. She said no one at Ambue Ari, which sprawls over 805 hectares of forest, had been killed by the cats since the refuge was created in 2002.
Still, she acknowledged that some nonfatal injuries were an inevitable result of such close interaction with big cats.
The thrill of walking a big cat captivates some who make the trek here. Thayer Walker, a writer for Outside magazine who visited Ambue Ari in 2009, described the sensation as being influenced by "the narcotic effects of mainlining 1.5 million years of predatory instinct through a frayed leash cinched at my wrist."
The place attracts an eclectic mix. In the depths of January's rainy season, the visitors numbered 16 people, including a Canadian carpenter, a Swedish security guard, a British student taking a year off and an Australian environmental consultant.
Each pays $10 a day to live in a setting somewhere between spartan and squalid. Ambue Ari has no telephone, no television, no Internet, no air-conditioning, no flush toilets.
For those worried about risks involved with big cats, a veterinarian, Zandro Vargas, is on duty. He applies stitches to people, too.