Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Saturday, 23 July 2011 12:29 UK

The puma-wrestling Amazon wild man

Peter Allison with a hummingbird on a feeder
Peter Allison's work helped him to develop the ability to recognise animal calls

Britain is often described as a nation of animal-lovers, usually cats and dogs. Australians, however, can have wilder tastes. Jake Wallis Simons met one who feels much more at home in the jungle than he does in the big city.

More than 200 years ago, the distinguished man of letters Samuel Johnson famously said: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

Today, with mass transport and communication changing the face of the globe, that sentiment rings truer than ever.

Despite the greyness, stress and pollution of the capital, a flash of international colour can always be found just around the corner.

Peter Allison swinging on a vine
I'm automatically on the lookout for big cats, and listening to the birds for warnings of predators. But it's hard to hear them over the noise of the city
Peter Allison

Which brings me to Peter Allison, the Australian animal tracker, explorer, daredevil and writer, who I met in a cafe in a Bohemian nook of north London.

Peter had just returned from the remote jungles of Bolivia, where he had been spending his days tied by the waist to a traumatised puma called Roy (about whom more later).

He was in London for a brief stopover before embarking on his next adventure, this time in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The first thing I noticed was how out of place he looked in the city. After all, he seemed to be behaving like an animal.

"I can't help it," he said, his eyes flicking up whenever a pedestrian or vehicle passed by outside.

"I'm automatically on the lookout for big cats, and listening to the birds for warnings of predators. But it's hard to hear them over the noise of the city."

We ordered our coffee - Peter, for all his wildness, had a taste for lattes - and he told me how he thought of himself as a nomad.

In the city, he said, he felt disconnected, pressed upon. He needed to roam free. It was just his nature - like being left handed.

Heads, it's Africa

He began at the beginning. His passion for wild animals started when, as a child, he fell in love with the local parrots (he grew up in Sydney, where parrots are as commonplace as pigeons).

Every day, they would wake him up by tapping on his window with their beaks. He would smear himself in a sugary paste and stand in the garden so that they could lick it off.

On leaving school, he drifted from one job to another but nothing seemed right. So he decided to follow his heart.

Peter Allison approaches a herd of elephant
After working in Africa, Peter headed for the jungles of South America

As with all the best adventures, it began with the toss of a coin. If it came up heads, he would move to Africa, if it was tails, he would go to South America. It was heads.

So he travelled to Botswana and became a conservationist animal tracker, learning the universal language of lions, leopards, monkeys, and other creatures.

"People thought I was psychic," he said, "but animals make distinctive calls. There's a certain sound that means: 'Beware, bird of prey overhead'."

He demonstrated this by making an odd whistling noise, which sounded something like "s, s, ss, ss, s". Then - right there in the cafe - he imitated the bellowing of a post-coital baboon.

I have since been practising it myself and my best attempt was a sort of "ooooooah, ung, ung, ung, ung".

After several years, he began to wonder what his life would have been like if his coin had come up tails. Eventually he moved to the Bolivian jungle, where he found work at a conservation centre for mistreated wild animals.

This is where he met Roy the traumatised puma, whose mother had been killed by poachers.

'Ate a spleen'

As part of the puma's therapy, he would be allowed to roam freely through the jungle - just as he would in the wild - with Peter tied behind on a 10m rope, guiding him away from trouble. That, at least, was the theory.

One day, Roy caught a strange scent and took off through the jungle, dragging his minder behind. Unbeknown to him, Jane Goodall, the pre-eminent primatologist, was on an official visit to the conservation centre.

A group of local orphans were singing for her. Roy was heading straight for them, teeth bared hungrily.

Peter Allison with puma, Roy
Peter says he did not worry about being bitten by Roy

At the last minute, Peter managed to avert disaster by looping the puma's rope around a tree. It took him an hour to wrestle Roy back to his cage.

"Weren't you worried about being bitten?" I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. "Roy was a racist puma," he explained reasonably. "He only harmed Bolivians. Once he ate a local man's spleen."

In a few days' time, Peter will be off to the Amazon to seek out the Huaorani tribe, the ones who wear nothing but a piece of string around their genitals.

"They have a special relationship with wild jaguars," he told me. "That's the main attraction. I'll have to wear a genital string too, so that they accept me."

Then, unaware of the pun, he added: "That's the only snag."

I said goodbye to the wild man, and heartily wished him luck. He repeated how much he was looking forward to getting back into the wild and thanked me courteously for the latte.

Then, all of a sudden, he was gone - vanished into the urban jungle.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent

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A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.
Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).
Listen online or Download the podcast

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Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .



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