Big Cats and Bigger Hearts at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
This should go without saying: tigers don’t make good pets. Nor do leopards, or lions, or bobcats. Basically any species of cat that is not a domesticated feline has no place in the care of someone who is not trained.
I get the desire. When they’re kittens they’re adorable. When they’re mature they’re beautiful. But it’s just not a good idea to try to put a leash, literally or figuratively, on an actual, real live predator. On a wild animal.
I know that - you know that - yet there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than there are in the wild, anywhere. These are not animals that are in zoos, by the way. They’re in somebody’s backyard, or barn, or caged next to a gas station to draw tourists. According to a February, 2015, Smithsonian Magazine article, it’s estimated that there are over 10,000 tigers that are privately owned, but there’s no way to really know since reporting is based on the honor system, and this is a shady market of illegal deals and less-than-honorable characters. In an interview in Business Insider Magazine, International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Carson Barylak said that there were well over 10,000 big cats in captivity, a vast majority of them tigers with the remainder a mix of lions, leopards, and other wild cats.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, to the literal rescue.
We visited this home for abused, abandoned, and neglected wild cats and bears on our way out of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Cecil the Macaw greeted us in the Refuge's gift shop entrance and we exited the other side of the building, entering a world of rescue, education, and sanctuary.
At first I felt bad for these wild animals that couldn't roam free. However, as we made our way down the path and read the signs sharing each animal's story, I quickly learned that this haven is their best option, and they’re given a life of relative comfort because one family decided to sacrifice some of their own.
The tale of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge begins in 1978 in Hughes Springs, a small town located in the northeast corner of Texas. Don and Hilda Jackson took in a lion cub named Bum when the cat’s caretaker, who’d received the feline in lieu of an auto payment from a ne'er do well shyster, called the couple in desperation. After what I’m sure was a conversation along the lines of “well, Hilda, we’ve been wondering what to do with that extra 15 pounds of raw meat every day. Shall we take him in?” “Sure Don; maybe then we’ll finally get our extra freezer back” the couple agreed to provide a home for Bum. Tanya, their eleven-year-old daughter, thought this was thrilling. (Honestly - what pre-teen in the pre-iPhone era wouldn’t? I would have LOVED it if my parents decided to rescue a lion. Until I had to clean up after him, a task which I would have immediately punted to my younger brother.)
Don and Hilda were known for being good with animals, and apparently the reputation was earned because Bum survived and five years later the couple rescued another lion named Sheila. For almost a decade things were quiet on the Texas front. And then, in 1991 a redheaded black market dealer named Katherine Gordon Twiss, on the “lamb” (ba dum Bum) from the law, dumped 42 big cats into the Jacksons’ laps.
Fortunately the Jacksons had friends in the Ozarks who just happened to have a 460-acre ranch, and who also just happened to be generous enough to loan them the use of that ranch for their new menagerie. This was a good thing, because Twiss wasn’t done. A year after her initial visit she dumped another 28 cats and 30 horses on the new refuge. Then the couple started getting calls from other people who decided they no longer wanted to deal with 400+lb animals eating their duvets and sitting on their children.
The Jacksons sold everything, bought the ranch, and moved to Eureka Springs. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge was born.
Over the years the non-profit TCWR has grown in stature and reputation, and in 2015 it received accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It’s one of the top big cat refuges in the country, and they’ve also rescued several bears. Tanya and her husband Scott Smith now run the place, and they’ve continued her parents’ legacy of being really good with animals.
The sanctuary is open to the public, 364 days a year. If you have a short amount of time to visit, like we did, you can take the Discovery Tour and see several of the rescued animals. There’s signage everywhere, so you can read about the triplet of tigers and a lion named Tsavo, all rescued from a facility in West Branson, MO, or about Elvis, the bobcat that really wasn’t suited for promotional work. You’ll learn about Spyke, a black leopard whose mom was pregnant when she arrived at Turpentine and who was named for his sponsor’s own little black cat.
Speaking of pregnancy - breeding is not allowed. Cats are spayed and neutered when they arrive, but if they’re pregnant, then the cubs are born and given a home. Breeding is a big part of the cats in captivity problem, and Turpentine is adamantly against it.
If you have more than the 45 minutes we had, take the Habitat Tour. This guided experience, included with your admission, will introduce you to the residents on a wider and deeper scale, led by one of their passionate and knowledgeable biologists, zoologists, or interns.
You can also spend the night. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge offers suites with views of the tigers, safari lodges, RV and tent spaces, a glamping safari tent, and a TREE HOUSE.
Visit their website to find more information on everything from what they feed them, to their teaching programs, to why Hilda Jackson is someone I wish I could have known. You can also get the story on their residents and how they all came to find their forever home at Turpentine Creek.
When you go, be sure to tell Cecil we said hello!
Next on the Two Lane Gems Tour: an eclectic art museum from the unlikeliest of benefactors.
My husband and I traveled almost 6,500 miles to find places that are unique, changed the course of history, made the world a better place, showcased survival, or were just plain cool. I’m sharing our journey in “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1,” and you can pre-order your copy today!