The Secret of Her Eyes

How did the character in this story jump from a veterinarian’s pocket into the pages of one of the most famous magazines in the world? Discover the whirlwind career of Margarita, star of M’Bopicuá Nature Park.

She was featured in prestigious international magazines, she starred in a national advertising campaign, her face graced the cover of a book, she appeared in several audiovisual productions that reached the entire continent, she received newspaper coverage, and she won over the readers of press portals.

She’s charismatic, beautiful. She has enviable ankles and an air of mystery that enchants anyone who sets eyes on her. Who is this famous model? How did she achieve so many things? And most of all, what does a high-profile media star have to do with a series of stories about M’Bopicuá Nature Park? Everything, because the star in question is Margarita, the nature park’s most famous margay, whose appearances in the media are not due to showbiz but to conservation.

Margarita has other talents besides her media magnetism, but she shares these with the other members of her species. The margay is a small feline the size of a domestic cat with a big pair of eyes adapted for nocturnal life (as cute as a video of a kitten on YouTube) and fur somewhere between yellowish and orange with large rosettes, reminiscent of a small leopard. That its ankles are enviable is certain: It can rotate its hind legs 180 degrees to climb up and down trees with agility, to which it has adapted better than any other cat. It also has a magnificent ringed tail it uses as a counterweight to help itself between branches.

In this way, Margarita is no different from any other margay in Uruguay. What makes her unique is her curious personal adventure, which took her from the pockets of a veterinarian in Velázquez, Rocha, to the pages of the most famous wildlife magazine.

Eyes Wide Shut

Margarita’s life began tragically, like one of those children’s movies from another era, with heart-wrenching features: She lost her mother when she was only a few days old and appeared after a flood in the mountains of Cerro Áspero in Rocha, with her eyes still closed and unable to fend for herself in the wild. Marcelo and Karina, a couple of veterinarians in Velázquez, convinced the man who had found her to give her to them so they could take care of her. Marcelo put her in one of the pockets of his jacket for her journey to the vet, just a tiny ball of fur protected like a baby kangaroo.

They thought at first that she was a wildcat, but after looking closely at her fur and doing a little more research about cats in Uruguay, they realized that what they had in their hands (or in their jacket pocket, to be more precise) was a margay. And not just any margay. From a very early age, Margarita showed a special temperament and a tremendous curiosity about humans.

“People who came to take photos approached her, and before they could focus, Margarita was already jumping on them,” Karina remembers.

For a long time, she was free to roam around, but she caused so much destruction that the veterinarians chose to build her a special enclosure. Margarita, named after a play on words with the name of her species, would escape and show up in other people’s houses, hooking her claws into people’s hair or climbing shelves, hanging ferns, and ceiling lights. One day, she was swinging so much on one of them that she caused a short-circuit and was so scared that she disappeared for a while.

If taking care of a margay wasn’t strange enough already, family life became even more complicated a couple of years later; another unexpected incident forced the veterinarians to not only rearrange Margarita’s space but also reconsider the presence of a wild animal in their home.

One day, some friends of the couple told them they had found another margay, this time a male, in a neighbor’s chicken coop. The cat had entered to wolf down a sumptuous dinner of the man’s chickens, but it couldn’t get out once it had finished the job. Karina and Marcelo saw that no one hurt the animal and with the help of a neighbor, managed to get it into a small cage and bring it home.

If this were a children’s movie with anthropomorphic animals, this would be the part where the two margays fall in love at first sight, with immediate displays of affection. But what actually happened were displays of dislike, growls, and defensive attitudes, even though the veterinarians had the good sense to keep them in separate spaces so that they could get used to each other’s presence.

Over time, the gradual approach took effect, because when they put them together in the bigger enclosure in which Margarita lived, they managed to get along. Very well, as confirmed sometime later.

Not everything was coming up roses, and feeding them was quite a game of strategy, but the margays were able to live together. For a while, at least. With both margays in the same enclosure, it became clear that this was no space for them and that it wasn’t right to keep wild animals in a home, even though doing so saved Margarita’s life. The human imprint on them made it impossible for them to be released into the wild, so the couple decided to send them together to somewhere with better living conditions than their house. By that time, Margarita was already three years old.

“We didn’t want to take them just anywhere, but somewhere they would be okay,” says Karina. In a series of visits not unlike two parents evaluating the apartments they could rent for their children, they toured several zoos and reserves until they found M’Bopicuá Nature Park. “We had hardly seen what it was and how the cats were kept before thinking this was the place for her,” recalls Marcelo. And as a bonus, for her partner.

“When we saw the condition it was in, we weren’t sad. We also knew that it was no longer okay to keep her confined at home all the time,” adds Karina.

“Here, if you want, we’ll let her come,” Karina then said to Juan Villalba, head of M’Bopicuá Nature Park. The arrival of Margarita and the male—who didn’t have a name that had lasted—also gave hope to another of the nature park’s ambitious projects: to reintroduce the margay, which is threatened in our country, into the wild. And Margarita, as you will see in another of the stories in this series, played a key role in turning that dream into a hope that is very close to being realized.

Juan, excited at the prospect of carrying out the reintroduction project, didn’t take long to make up his mind; after a few days, he drove to the veterinarians’ house and took the two margays to the nature park.

Like Two Drops of Water

At M’Bopicuá, Margarita became a star. Now comfortable in a large enclosure, with trees on which she could walk as she pleased, she became quite a character thanks to her curiosity, which made—and continues to make—her very photogenic.

Thus, there was no lack of opportunity for her to show off in front of the camera. She was featured in a few wildlife documentaries filmed in Uruguay, on the cover of a popular book about threatened species in the country, and even a national advertising campaign.

One day, a girl who worked at Marcelo and Karina’s veterinary office went to a nearby bakery and saw something on a case of water bottles that caught her eye. On the label was a cat with an intriguing look. She went back to the veterinary office and said to Karina, “If that cat on the water bottles isn’t Margarita, it’s identical to her.” “What bottles?” asked Karina. To see with her own eyes, she went to the bakery in question, bought a bottle of water, tore off the label, and removed all doubt: There on the table was her Margarita, only not in person but on the label of the bottle.

When she called Juan, the naturalist confirmed that the margay had been part of a native wildlife campaign for a brand of mineral water. Instead of a human model posing with a bottle, wild animals were chosen to be the face of the company (for more information, see our story Until the Margay Do You Part). Her fifteen bottles of fame had not gone unnoticed by her former keepers.

Karina and Marcelo missed the margay so much that they went to the nature park once a year to visit her and make sure she was doing well. They can’t be sure, but they believe that Margarita recognized them since she would jump on them as soon as they got to her enclosure.

Except for the larger and more wooded area, she was the same as they had left her. Everything changed a few years after her arrival. One morning, while Juan Villalba was leading a group of schoolchildren on their visit to the nature park and showing them the margays, one of the park employees asked to speak with him. Juan, puzzled, asked the teacher to keep going and told her he would catch up with them later. The employee had found something in the margay enclosure, something alive, and just like Margarita when she was found in Rocha, it still has its eyes closed. What happened with that little miracle, however, is another story.


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