That’s when the lions and tigers awake from their mid-day snoozes and get ready to eat. About 5 p.m., handlers throw chunks of raw meat through small holes high in steel cages.Often before the meat even hits the ground, the big cats start their work on their dinner as patrons gather around, oohing and aahing at the sound of crunching bone.It’s a familiar routine for Tanya Smith, president and founder of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, Smith founded Turpentine Creek, a refuge south of Eureka Springs that is now home to more than 100 big cats, from leopards to tigers to lions to ligers — yes, that’s a cross between a lion and a tiger — and more.
Turpentine Creek does not buy or sell animals, and it’s not a breeding farm, either. The purpose of the facility is to give abandoned or neglected animals a home and a safe environment. That leaves Turpentine Creek with many previously undesirable creatures, such as a mountain lion with dwarfism, a blind lion and many animals that were meant to be pets but grew up to be the wild animals they are.
And for Turpentine Creek, they’re all just perfect.
“We all have a few little things wrong with us,” Smith said, and she might not just be talking about her critters.
Smith’s first experience with an animal rescue wasn’t one of her own. Her father found a neglected lion cub at a used car lot. He arranged to bring it home and give it space to grow and the care it needed.
That adoption led to a few more, and soon there was a small menagerie at the Smith house.
Tanya Smith founded Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in 1992 after learning that 42 big cats were in need of care. The east Texas native sold everything and moved to Northwest Arkansas, in part because its seasonal climate works well for the big cats she
…and then start taking steps, no matter how small, each and every day toward that goal.
Big Cat Rescue has enjoyed spectacular success in every aspect of the sanctuary world. From the most well trained and dedicated staff and volunteers to having several years worth of reserves set aside in case of a global market crash; this 20 year old sanctuary has been a working model for other animal rescue groups. Big Cat Rescue freely shares our resources and lessons learned by providing:
1. On site workshops and Internet webinars
2. Private consulting and group consultations for sanctuary founders, leaders, board members and volunteers
3. Shared intranet websites with all of the training tools used by Big Cat Rescue for volunteer management and administrative needs
4. Field trips to other facilities to share ideas and in some cases to help with disasters or renovations
BUT, what most people have been asking for has not been found in all of the above assets. What most people seem to be asking for is a step by step guide to get them from where they are to where they want to be.
The intent is to spend a lot more time detailing this, but here is a brief overview:
1. Figure out what your end goal is and write it down.
2. Ask yourself why and be honest. If you want to alleviate animal suffering there are much better ways to do that than starting a sanctuary. If I knew then, what I know now, I would not have started a sanctuary but would have skipped right to the actions that can save the most lives in the quickest time. Changing hearts and laws are the greatest impact you can make and you can’t do it if you are having to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide sanctuary for a handful of animals.
3. Assuming you already have a whole bunch of animals depending on you or you feel that running a sanctuary is what you were made for, then look at your end goal and write down steps that you would have to take to get there. I did this on my Honeymoon in 2005. My goal was to end the need for big cat sanctuaries by doing the things that would result in big cats NOT being abused and discarded in the first place. I figured it could be done in 25 years and started with the year 2030 and worked my way back to the present day, year by year, trying to realistically calculate the measures that would have to be implemented to get us there. You will have to adjust your plan every year, but you have to have a written plan if you are ever going to get to your goal.
4. If you are thinking that you want to start a sanctuary because you love working with animals, then you don’t want to run a sanctuary. Running a sanctuary is all about fundraising, political involvement, managing staff and volunteers, and being the one to make the heart wrenching decisions of deciding who can be rescued, who cannot, and how to deal with medical decisions in such a way that it is always the animal’s quality of life that is directing the decision and not your personal attachment, or that of someone in your group. I have never seen a successful sanctuary where all of those non animal issues were handled by staff while the founder got to play with animals all day.
5. Making money is always the big question that people are really asking when they ask how to start a sanctuary. No one really expects to be paid well in this industry, but anyone who has animals to feed is trying to figure out how to raise the funds necessary to do it.
a. Forget grants. Even if you turn out to be a GREAT grant writer, you are only going to raise a tiny percentage (less than 10%) via grants and even those are probably not because of your writing skills, but because the person in charge of the grant happens to love your mission.
b. Fundraisers and galas. All animal organizations do them, but they are a huge drain on your time and resources. Our biggest fundraiser of the year is The Fur Ball and it nets 80,000 to 110,000 per year, but that is out of the 1.5 million that is necessary to run Big Cat Rescue each year. It takes our staff 8 months or more to plan and all of our 100+ volunteers to pull it off. In 2010 and 2011 we decided not to even do it because we wanted to focus on ending the abuses that cause so many big cats to be bred, used, abused and discarded. 80k might sound pretty good, but it was only that much because of the name and following that we have built up that it brings in that much.
c. Rescues don’t generate lifetime care. Too many sanctuaries discover that the public loves to get involved in a rescue but the money raised is rarely enough to build the cage and get the animal to you. Then the animal can live another 20 years in the case of a wild cat, or 80 years in the case of some birds or primates. Don’t fall into the trap of rescuing animals to raise money or your whole house of cards will fold in no time flat.
d. Low hanging fruit. My husband, Howard Baskin, is a Harvard MBA and joined us in 2003 at Big Cat Rescue. The first low hanging fruit that he saw was tour revenue. Some sanctuary founders resist the idea of having guided tours but this is how you will educate the public and raise the money you need to feed the animals. Tour revenue pays all of our administrative costs and provides about 1/3 of the sanctuary’s income. The added benefit is that if you raise all of your administrative costs via earned income, such as tour revenue, your donors have the satisfaction of knowing that 100% of their other donations actually goes to the animals.
It is during the time you spend educating your tour guests about how your animals arrived, the plight they face in the wild and in captivity, and what they can do to help that you will build the relationships necessary to ensure the sanctuary’s success.
This is where all of the other assets on this site and in the google sites created using the Sanctuary Template come into play. You must have good policies in place on how you get animals. You can’t buy, breed, sell, trade, nor allow those who do to use you as a constant dumping ground if you want the public to help. The public wants to know that they are supporting a good place that isn’t adding to the problem. Usually the breeders and dealers are just trying to unload cubs that have outlived their 4 week shelf life so that they don’t have to feed them any more. In Big Cat Rescue’s Acquisition Policy we require that anyone who is looking to dump an exotic cat must contract with us to never possess or even pose with another exotic cat. Become accredited so that donor’s know you are behaving responsibly and are being monitored by an outside organization.
d. Keep costs low. Nothing ever goes to waste around here. We recycle everything. In the first eleven years of the sanctuary we never came close to breaking even. We usually were in the red from 100,000 to 365,000 which meant I had to donate that much each year from my small real estate business in order to keep the animals fed, the three staff paid and the rest of the bills paid. Going in debt has never been an option. I wouldn’t be able to sleep nights if I owed someone money. In the past when people asked me how to start a sanctuary I would usually tell them to go find a way to make a lot more money than they need so they can donate it to their passion of helping animals. No one wants to hear that. They want me to tell them how to make money working with animals so that’s what I will try to do here, but I really believe that my real estate business’ success gave us a head start that would be very hard to reproduce. I had built that business for 12 years, working 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year so it was strong enough to carry me through the first 11 years of the sanctuary work.
Salaries are the biggest expense for most sanctuaries. I’ve never taken one from the sanctuary but if you don’t have an outside business or job to support you; that’s probably going to be the first drain on resources. The first person I hired was someone to manage volunteers. One person can manage about 100 volunteers and our volunteers are required to put in minimum weekly hours in order to maintain varying levels of responsibility and privileges. See all of our training documents and processes for those details. Volunteers and interns are a LOT of work but the payoff is far more staff than your budget would allow and the fact that people who are doing this stuff for free are doing it because their hearts are in the right place.
The more volunteers you train AND retain, the more tours you can do, the more outreach programs you can do, the more PR and public awareness you can raise and ultimately that means the higher quality of care you can give the animals. For these people to be proud of your sanctuary, you have to be open, honest and acting with the utmost integrity. You have to let them know how important they are to your mission and they have to be on board with where you are ultimately going.
Big Cat Rescue evolved over the years as we learned that there are no legitimate breeding or reintroduction programs for captive held big cats. We learned that you can’t convince someone that an exotic cat isn’t a good pet if you are showing off photos of yourself petting one. We figured out that you can’t mind your own business, take care of your animals and not get involved when you find out about wild cats being bred as photo or petting props. As we learned these lessons in the early years of the sanctuary, there were a lot of volunteers and staff who did not agree. They were only here because they wanted to have a relationship with a wild animal and didn’t want to be a part of the solution. They feared that if we were successful in ending the abuses that cause wild cats to need rescue, then there would be no more opportunities for them to be up close and personal with wild cats. They would constantly try to undermine the mission of the sanctuary and we had to let them go. Some of them talk trash about us, but they can do a lot more harm inside your gates than outside. Cut them loose. You won’t miss them.
6. Let the world know. You and your volunteers need to promote and celebrate your work and thank those who make it possible. Write posts to all of your social channels, send out a monthly e-zine, we send a quarterly hard copy newsletter, send out press releases, build relationships with your local media. If it’s hot outside give the animals a cool treat and invite the press. When an animal goes to the vet, take photos and involve your supporters with real time updates from your cell phone. Make it easy for people to sponsor your animals, buy logo branded stuff that they will show others and expect to thank each and every donor over 25.00 with a note of thanks.
7. If you are doing the right things, for the right reasons and are engaging volunteers to spread your mission, the donors will come. They will hear about the good work you do in social networking, the media and from their own friends and families. To this day, the number one reason people mention when we ask how they heard about Big Cat Rescue is that they say they heard about us from a friend. If you ask our largest donors why they give they will tell you it is because they can see that they are making a difference.