Author Laura Coleman picked out 10 moments that changed her life. Here they are... 


I WAS 24 years old when I left a job in London and booked a flight ticket to Bolivia. I knew some people working up in the altiplano – Bolivia’s mountains – installing water filtration systems in villages, and I went to help. I planned to travel and be away for three months, then return and “start my life” – get a proper job, buy a house, find a husband and all that jazz. Bolivia, it seemed, had other ideas!


STUCK in Bolivia’s last major town before the Amazon, two months into that same trip, I’d been trying to hitch a ride on a local boat up the river into Brazil. After two weeks of waiting, I finally managed to get a spot with the captain of a dubious cargo boat, but that night, it rained. So much that in the morning, the road was flooded. I missed my boat, and I was heartbroken. But instead of ending up who knows where up the river, in desperation I picked up the first flyer I saw. It was for an animal sanctuary, six hours away in the jungle… I have been grateful for that rain, ever since.


WHEN I got off the bus, I was met by mosquitoes, swamp, unwashed people and tarantulas, not to mention the suicidal howler monkeys and underwear-thieving jungle pig.

There was no internet, hot water or electricity. I had no experience with animals, and yet here I was in a place that within the day, had assigned me to work with one of the big cats in the sanctuary. Wayra.

She’d been a pet on the black market, a street performer, before she’d been rescued. She couldn’t be released – she didn’t have the skills to look after herself – but her volunteers took her for jungle walks every day, outside of her enclosure.

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To me, in those first weeks, she seemed angry and wild. It took a long time before I realised that she wasn’t just terrifying, she was terrified. Terrified of the jungle, of her life, of me… It was then that I began to fall in love with her. She was the reason I ended up missing my flight back to England and staying, and she was the reason that I have been going back to Bolivia every year since.

We learnt to trust each other, slowly and tentatively, both breaking that trust again and again, but each time we were able – somehow – to come back stronger. She became my friend, my family, and over the last 14 years, we have changed each other’s lives irrevocably.

One Staurday in July of this year, however, I got the call I had been dreading. Wayra, was sick. They didn’t know if she would get better. An hour later, I got on the ferry from the Isle of Eigg, where I live, and drove 12 hours to London to catch a flight, praying that I would arrive in time.

I got there on Tuesday. The next day, we made the terrible decision that in the morning, we would peacefully send Wayra to sleep.

I spent Wayra’s final hours with her. We were next to her as she slept in the jungle, and she seemed at peace. She was silent, happy, and more affectionate than I’d seen her in years. I am sure that she knew. She was surrounded by love. She was 18 years old.

We buried her near her old lagoon, where she used to swim and watch the water, and she rests beneath a yellow blossom tree.

Wayra changed many people’s lives and she has left a hole in my heart.


LIVING in the jungle – in that jungle – is like being slammed by the end of the world, again, and again, and again. Annual forest fires tear through the sanctuary, getting worse every year, and the only thing that stops them are handfuls of desperate volunteers.

Animals are ripped out of their homes by poachers, logging trucks devastate the surrounding lands, carving out deserts of monocrops and cattle farms. Climate change gets worse, wild animals and humans lose their lands. These are avoidable harms, and they are shattering. And yet, there’s another side to it, too.

It only takes a few walks through neck-high swamp, surrounded by anacondas, caimans and botflies, to understand that the jungle is also death. An ongoing, non-stop dying. But in the jungle, there is always regrowth too. There is change. And that, for me, is hope. Because as long as the jungle survives, nobody knows what is going to grow up out of those ashes.


“VISIONARY fiction”, a term coined by Walidah Imarisha, refers to the kind of fiction that reimagines and reinvents the future, in ways that step outside the stock narratives of colonisation, white supremacy and consumerism.

I have always been obsessed by fantasy and sci-fi, both reading and writing, but until I heard Imarisha speak, I wasn’t sure why I loved it so much. She said that sci-fi writers could be activists. And activists were writers too, sci-fi writers, who created new futures through their very actions. This very notion of the power of imagining changed the way I write, read, and understand the world.

Walidah Imarisha, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Donna Haraway, adrienne maree brown… you all changed my life.

Thank you!


WHILST I was trying to process the experiences I had in Bolivia, I wrote and painted a lot. About Wayra, the jungle, the challenges, the heartbreak and the wonder. I had no idea if what I wrote would ever be published, but I couldn’t stop.

And this is what inspired me, in the end, to set up ONCA (Panthera onca is the scientific name for jaguar) – a charity that became the first gallery and performance space in the UK to be dedicated to environmental issues.

Now ONCA’s mission is to bridge social and environmental justice with creativity.

A few years ago, I was able to step away to watch it thrive without me, and I couldn’t be prouder of what it has become. And that stepping away has given me the opportunity to turn all that writing I did into a book.

A memoir that was published this year (along with my illustrations), called The Puma Years.


WHILST setting up ONCA, I missed Wayra. But during that time I met a dog, Nelo. He’d come from Portugal and he was about as traumatised as Wayra was. He reminded me of her, but he is also – perfectly – himself.

It hasn’t been easy – rescuing often isn’t. But Nelo and I have been together now for over eight years, and he – along with Wayra – is my best friend. He is 12 now and is starting to go blind and a little deaf. We take things easy, together.

He has taught me so much about what trauma means, and about how to be calm and peaceful, and loving, despite what is happening around you, and inside.


I AM so lucky to have found family in the most unlikely of places. Nelo, Wayra, the community in Bolivia. But the family that I was born into…my mum and dad, my sister, brothers, fantastic nephews, friends and all the wonderful rest… even when I claimed to have fallen in love with a puma and wanted to live covered in swamp and mozzies…they never doubted me. Never told me not to book that next plane ticket, never said I was crazy.

I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do the things I have done, if it hadn’t been for them.


IN the last years, I had been looking for a place to settle, for me and Nelo, that was closer to ONCA and my family in Brighton than a 24-hour plane trip away.

I started looking for somewhere that was as wild and beautiful as the jungle, and that had a community similar to what I’d found in Bolivia.

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I came to the Isle of Eigg on holiday, and I saw a little bungalow for sale on the edge of the bay. I knew it was home, and I was lucky enough to be able to buy it.

Nelo was instantly happy there, far away from the stresses and fears of the mainland, and so was I.

I feel incredible gratitude to the island, to have been welcomed so warmly into the community, and it makes me happy to live there every day.

However, as it turns out, it takes longer to get to Eigg in the end than it takes to get to Bolivia!


WALKING is important to me. The most precious moments of my life, the most precious relationships, have been founded on walking. I walked with Wayra, in the jungle, and that was how we became friends. I walk with Nelo every day.

I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela on my own after getting my heart broken. After my mum’s three hip operations, we walked the Pennine Way together, England’s bleakest and arguably most challenging trail. Walking makes me feel at home.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I caught Covid-19. I have Long Covid now, not as seriously as many people, but I probably have about half the energy that I used to have.

So, in this time of turmoil for everyone and everything, I’m learning to take things slowly, to be easy with myself, and to have care, something that I was never very good at practising.

I am learning to not walk, instead of to walk. And this is definitely a work in progress!

The Puma Years by Laura Coleman is published by by Little A and is available now. Proceeds from The Puma Years support Bolivian NGO Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi