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Ark. cougars moved to Turpentine Creek

By DAVID HOLSTED, Times Staff davidh@commpub.com
07/12/2007

YELLVILLE – It was like “The Crocodile Hunter Ozark Style.” Though crocodiles have not shown up in the Buffalo or White rivers (yet), and no cries of “Crikey!” were heard, all the elements were there to remind one of the popular wildlife documentary television series that starred the late Steve Irwin.

There were the khaki shorts and shirts, a man with tousled blond hair, terms of endearment spoken to a wild creature that could easily inflict great bodily harm and the efforts to preserve said creature who was only doing what came naturally.

“Hey, pretty girl,” Tanya Smith cooed to Sasha, a five and a half-year-old female cougar.

Sasha’s long, yellow-tinted incisors were separated from Smith’s face by only a few inches and sturdy, chain-linked fence. Smith, though, showed no fear as she attempted to soothe the agitated lion. Sasha’s ear flattened and her eyes became slits as she hissed and bared her fangs at Smith. Smith turned her attention to Sasha’s companion, a male named Wishbone, who paced back and forth at the end of the cage the two shared.

“Hey, handsome,” Smith said to Wishbone, whose tawny coat shimmered in the morning sun. Wishbone stared back intently at Smith with pale green eyes.

Smith is the president of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs. Along with her husband, Scott, she was at the Brent and Jamie Marshall home a few miles south of Yellville on July 6. For the past five years, Sasha and Wishbone had been pets of the Marshalls, but an impending move made it impossible to take the lions along. Contacted by the Marshalls, Turpentine Creek, which touts itself as the largest big cat refuge in the world, agreed to rescue Sasha and Wishbone.

From Yellville, the cougars would be transported to their new home at the refuge, where they would become the 113th and 114th feline residents.

Care and caution had to be used in transporting Sasha and Wishbone to Turpentine Creek. A reminder of their wild nature came earlier that morning before the Smiths arrived. Brent Marshall, wanting to say good-bye to the cougars that he had raised from cubs, entered the enclosure that housed Sasha and Wishbone. Marshall said that he has raised similar cats for nine years without any incident. However, on that morning, Wishbone, who weighs in the neighborhood of 150 pounds, attacked Marshall, leaving deep lacerations in his neck. Marshall would be airlifted to Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home. Marshall’s wounds were not serious and he was able to come home by the weekend.

Despite being attacked by Wishbone, Marshall hated to see him and Sasha leave.

“I’m real sad. They were my babies,” Marshall said. As he held the long pole with the seditive-filled needle attached to the end, Scott Smith paid Wishbone and Sasha the respect that they deserved. Though he considered it tragic, Scott Smith didn’t blame Wishbone for his attack on Marshall. It was just his nature.

“People should not own big cats as pets,” Scott Smith said. “No wild animal should be a pet, especially mountain lions and bobcats. They’re all extremely dangerous animals.”

According to Tanya Smith, many people buy lions and tigers as fuzzy little cubs, not taking into account the problems encountered with a mature animal.

“They think ‘They’re just the cutest little things,’ but they grow up into big cats,” she said.

Sticking the pole through the fence, Scott Smith managed to jab the needle through Wishbone’s coat. Within 20 minutes, the sedative began to take effect. Wishbone was like a punch-drunk fighter, stumbling and staggering around the cage until finally he fell over and passed out on the dirt. A hissing and fang-bearing Sasha had no intentions of going so easily. It took several minutes of cajoling and maneuvering to get her into a position close enough for Scott Smith to jab her with the needle. The prick only seemed to enrage her more and she paced rapidly back and forth before she, too, was overcome by the sedative. Falling next to Wishbone, Sasha slept peacefully.

With the cougars passed out, the Smiths, along with three Arkansas Game and Fish officers sprang into action.

Scott Smith checked the cats’ breathing and gums and found them to be in good shape. The Marshalls had treated them well, something that he didn’t always find when rescuing a cat. They would probably be out for two and a half hours, Scott Smith said.

Wishbone was rolled over onto a blanket, and the four men lifted it up.

“Okay, buddy, let’s go for a ride,” someone said and the men carried the oblivious Wishbone to a waiting trailer.

As Scott Smith rolled Sasha over, a slight gurgle came from her mouth. Sasha was just barely under, he said.

“She’s growling,” Scott Smith said. “That’s good, though. The less (sedative) you have to give them, the better.

” Sasha was a smaller than average female, weighing about 50 pounds. It took only two of the men to carry her to the trailer.

“She’s growling,” said one of the Game and Fish officers as he carried Sasha, “or snoring.”

Joining Sasha and Wishbone in the trailer, occupying his own separate compartment was Bowden, an African serval. Bowden was a long-legged, spotted and striped cat with big pointed ears and, unlike Sasha and Wishbone, he was very much awake and active.

Scott Smith said that by the afternoon, the cougars would be in a quarantine cage at Turpentine Creek after having been checked out by a veterinarian. The refuge was making a huge commitment by taking in Sasha and Wishbone for the rest of their lives. Whereas cougars in the wild might live eight to ten years, Scott Smith said, cougars at Turpentine Creek might live as long as 20 years or more.

On their way back to Eureka Springs, the Smiths stopped at the Marion County Library in Yellville, where they gave a presentation to about 30 children and parents.

While Bowden paced back and forth, emitting wide-mouthed hisses at his audience, the Smiths told of the work done at Turpentine Creek.

At one point, Wishbone stirred, the effects of the sedative beginning to wear off. Shaking the cobwebs from his head, Wishbone stared sleepily at the young human faces that stared back at him in wonder.

Seeing nothing that really interested him, Wishbone put his head down and closed his eyes. It had been a long day and he was so-o-o sleepy.

For more information about Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, call 479-253-5841 or go to www.tigers.tc.

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