Nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Jim Sanderson of Small Cat Conservation Alliance was in Chile trying to study the guigna, the smallest cat in the Americas. He approached a local woman called Ms. Varas to ask if he could study the guignas that lived on her land. She said that he could, but only under the condition that Jim would remove or kill all of the guignas once he was finished with his study because they regularly ate her chickens. Jim agreed, and then did something that changed everything.
Jim caught a guigna and sedated it. He then handed the cat to Mrs. Varas and her daughter. “This was very important,” Jim remembers. “They looked into the cat’s eyes. Suddenly, night turned to day, the light went on, and everything changed for them. Instead of seeing ‘guignas’ they looked into the eyes of a single, individual guigna. The sense of touch is incredibly powerful. Once someone touches the cat, the game changes.”
The daughter said that it was the most beautiful cat she had ever seen as she held him close to her. Mrs. Varas, who had wanted all of the guignas gone, kissed the cat on the head. “Why is he so thin?” she asked. “He must eat more chickens!” After this experience with the guigna, Mrs. Varas went to local schools to give talks about the guignas, telling everyone not to harm them. The guignas, she said, belonged to her.
Jim returned to Chile last year and visited Mrs. Varas. She remembered Jim and her up-close encounter with the guigna well, and said that she never harmed a guigna after it. Her daughter became a biology student and did research at the same research station where Jim had once lived.