Arkansas facility allows petting of tigers by staff, others?

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Hercules savors soaking in tub
By: Dwain Lair 02/28/2007

EUREKA SPRINGS — Today’s Ozark Face is one cool cat.

Hercules, an 11-year-old Bengal tiger, is the featured person in the Daily Times’ “Ozark Faces” series of area residents.

Hercules lives at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs. An 8-year resident of the Ozarks, he enjoys snacking on chicken, taking baths in a full-size bathtub and intimidating the newer members of the Turpentine Creek staff.

The Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, located south of Eureka Springs off of Highway 23, is a big cat refuge for more than 100 animals. Turpentine Creek does not receive any federal or state funding to operate; it depends on gate admission, animal sponsorships, donations and gift shop sales to keep the doors open.

Hercules came to Turpentine Creek in August 1998 after his previous owner in Texas could not provide suitable care for the large cat. The owner purchased Hercules as a one-year-old from a large cat breeder and kept the tiger in a small cage measuring 4 feet wide by 6 feet tall by 4 feet long.

The lack of mobility and poor diet led to the underdevelopment of his hips and back legs.

“We didn’t realize the extent of his problems until we unloaded him,” Turpentine Creek secretary Patricia Quinn said. “His head was of normal size for a 2 1/2-year-old tiger, but his body was half the size it should have been.”

Hercules was caked with grime and dirt upon arriving at Turpentine Creek. He was fearful of humans and shook with fear when someone raised their voice around him. After being unloaded, he tried to climb a short series of steps next to his cage and fell on his face after his back legs gave out.

“That’s when I started crying,” Quinn said.

After lots of tender loving care from the Turpentine Creek staff, Hercules has gained both strength and confidence. He has regained the ability to walk, albeit with a rolling gait.

As he regained his strength, staff members started spending less time inside the cage with Hercules.

“He is a large cat with all of his teeth and claws,” Quinn said. “He can move very fast when he wants to.”

Hercules does not like water hoses and has been known to charge staff members when they clean his cage. Most of the hands-on labor at the refuge comes from a group of college interns who serve a six-month rotation at Turpentine Creek.

The interns undergo a two-week training program before being allowed to cross the safety rail and get close to the cats. Still, the sight of a tiger unhappy with having his cage cleaned is an imposing sight.

“Every intern rotation is afraid of him,” Quinn said. “He definitely receives all of the respect that he is due.”

Despite his tough exterior, Hercules does show his soft side on occasion. When the staff tosses him some slices of chicken as a snack, he playfully snatches them out the air, jumping in the air or raising up on his back legs to grab the chicken slices.

Despite his trepidation with the water hose, Hercules is a bath junkie. The tiger enjoyed bath time so much that the staff places a full-size bath tub in his cage in the summer so he can enjoy being submerged in the water.

“The sight of a full-grown tiger lolling in a bath tub is something that must be seen to be believed,” Quinn said.

Hercules and Quinn have a special relationship. She is one of the few people that Hercules will allow to pet him.

“That’s a good boy; you’re so pretty,” Quinn coos as she approaches Hercules’ cage. Once inside the safety rail, she places her hand flat against the vertical bars of the cage and allows the large cat to smell her palm.

“I always let him smell me first,” she said. “I don’t touch him until he turns his back to me.” As if on command, Hercules slumps down against the cage for her to rub his shoulders and upper back.

“I was petting him one day,” Quinn said, “and the interns asked, ‘How did you do that?’ I told them, ‘I’ve been here nine years, and all I do is pet him. I do not have to wash him, tranquilize him or give him medicine.’

“For some reason, he still considers me a friend, and I thrill every time he allows me to pet him, brush him and tell him how wonderful he is. I don’t know if he understands the words, but the love I’m sure we both feel can’t be ignored.”

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