By C.W. GUSEWELLE
Published: Sunday, July 08, 2007
The late-afternoon light softens. Somewhere in the far distance a dog barks. Then out of the wrapping stillness comes an unexpected sound of caroling – the curious term used for the voices of African lions as they announce the beginning or the end of day.
But we are not in Africa. Instead, this is the magnificent Ozark landscape of Carroll County, Ark., just seven miles south of the picturesque resort town of Eureka Springs.
And we are lodging this night at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, home not just to 11 lions but also to 64 Bengal and Siberian tigers, 27 cougars, six bobcats, a black leopard and two less well-known African felines, a serval cat and a caracal – 111 big cats in all.
All the residents here were rescued, some from circumstances of unspeakable neglect or outright cruelty.
It ‘s estimated there are as many as 7,000 to 10,000 big cats in private ownership in this country. Many are bought as furry cubs, for novelty or vanity, by people who imagine they will make charming pets.
Eventually, though, they grow into large and inherently dangerous adults. For they are, after all, wild animals, predators by instinct.
Whether they then are euthanized, sold to one of those unspeakable Texas “hunting ” ranches to be shot for trophies, or doomed by frightened owners to spend years confined in cramped and filthy cages, the outcome is seldom pretty.
At Turpentine Creek, however, the resident cats are assured of nourishment,
veterinary care as needed, clean, well-maintained
quarters and affectionate attention from staff and interns attracted here by passion for the refuge ‘s mission.
Mist of the coming evening pools now in steep hollows between the ranks of ridges that march away in deepening shades of blue. As darkness falls, the lion voices are joined by those of the tigers, whose night song is not a roar but a kind of chuff-chuffing sound.
The caroling, we ‘re told, can be heard across a distance of as much as three miles. But if the neighbors were a bit uneasy at the Turpentine ‘s establishment in 1992, they no longer have reason for alarm. There ‘s never been an escape.
Several overnight quarters for visitors are available on the grounds of the refuge – a tree house that can sleep two adults and two children, and two motel-style units, all looking out on nearby tiger and lion habitats.
A new addition, called the Safari Lodge, is in the final stages of construction.
We ‘re in the motel unit called the Blue Room. Just outside our window, at a distance of perhaps two steps, is a lovely lady you wouldn ‘t want to invite in for a chat.
Loretta ‘s her name. She ‘s a 600-some-pound white tiger, who ‘s 17 years old this month.
They sold everything
Tanya Smith, founder of Turpentine Creek, grew up with lions. Her father, Don Jackson, had worked at the Dallas zoo as a schoolboy. In 1978, he traded five motorcycles and a trailer for “something he called safe ” – a lion named Bum.
Tanya was 10 and thought of the cat almost like a brother.
“I held Bum ‘s head in my lap on the day he died at age 21. “
Other animal rescues followed, one of them a lion, Sheila, which was being raised with a baby in a Fort Worth apartment.
The Jacksons had moved from Texas to the town of Hope, Ark., when there came a day that would dramatically change their lives. A woman showed up with 38 tigers and lions in three cattle trailers. Presented with that emergency, the family improvised secure temporary pens for the cats while they attempted to create a more lasting solution.
“We sold everything we had to start the refuge, ” Tanya remembers.
From a sympathetic landowner, an elderly lady friend, they were able to lease this 450-acre tract – a stunning area of forest, meadows and limestone bluffs. But to maintain the operation after the owner died, the land had to be purchased outright, so Smith and her family needed a loan.
The check from the bank came at the last minute – only two hours before Tanya had to appear in Springdale, Ark., the morning of the real estate closing.
From the beginning, the refuge was a family affair, with responsibilities shared by Tanya ‘s father; her mother, Hilda, now 67; and her brother, Robert, who died of a heart attack on the grounds at age 43. Tanya, now 39, is president and head of the operation. Her marriage in 1995 to Scott Smith added a strong and resourceful partner – “my life-saver, ” she calls him.
Two years after its founding as a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed refuge, Turpentine Creek had those original 38 cats, and Tanya remembers the desperate times when the reserve was new and little-known or publicized.
She says she would go down the road to try to persuade five motorists passing by to stop, pay admission and have a look.
“At $5 apiece, that was $25 a day for cat food, ” Tanya said.
That was then. Last year the refuge had 32,000 visitors and a budget of $900,000. Operating expenses are met by admittances, memberships and charitable contributions.
Chicken products donated by Arkansas-based Tyson Foods – a total of 343,000 pounds in 2006 – are the dietary staple. The refuge feeds 800 to 1,000 pounds a night in summer and half-again more than that in the winter months.
And there ‘s an occasional red-meat treat: a steer or a “down ” cow donated by a supportive farmer in the neighborhood.
Today the refuge has a full-time staff of 12, plus 10 interns recruited for seven-month tours of duty, and assistance from occasional volunteers. Most of the interns are college biology and zoology majors, and many of the 300 to date have trained as veterinarians or gone on to careers at zoos in this country and abroad.
Although compensation is modest – a $50 weekly living allowance, with housing provided – there are 80 to 100 applicants for the 10 openings in each new intern class.
Pat Quinn typifies the passion that drives the enterprise.
“From the time I was a little girl, ” she says, “I dreamed of hugging a tiger. ” An Internet search led her to the refuge ‘s Web site. And in June nine years ago, at age 53, she moved from Detroit to become Turpentine ‘s full-time secretary.
The tigers here are not huggable. Staffers, interns and volunteers never go in the enclosures with the residents. But they do bond with some of them.
One of the bobcats, Boo Boo, is Quinn ‘s special friend. And certain of the tigers, recognizing her by sight, press their faces against the wire enclosure to get their cheeks stroked and their chins scratched.
For the long term
The impulse to provide sanctuary is not only laudable. It also is indiscriminate. For evidently, once in the business of rescuing, the founders of Turpentine have had a hard time saying no.
Besides 111 cats, the residents now include Snuffy the badger; the coyote Cheyenne; five black bears, three deer, two each of goats, llamas, parrots and peahens, a sheep, a monkey and a potbellied pig.
And as the population has expanded, so has the vision.
The great push now is to create spacious habitats of as much as a half-acre, in which two to six compatible cats – usually all tigers or all lions – can share as nearly as possible a natural environment of grass, trees, rock outcroppings and a pool for splashing.
Twenty-three habitats have been completed, at a cost of about $10,000 each. The plan is to construct 22 more over the next five years.
All Turpentine ‘s residents are neutered. For, as Tanya notes, “Any cubs born here would mean that many fewer we could rescue. “
But with no creature in desperate need turned away, the growth in numbers means that, while more than 60 big cats have been released into habitats, the rest are housed for the present in cages – large and immaculately maintained, but cages nonetheless.
Emily McCormack, 30, came first to Turpentine as an intern. Today, eight years later, she is the refuge ‘s staff zoologist, volunteer coordinator and intern recruiter. How long does she plan to stay?
“I ‘m here for the long term, ” she says without hesitation. “At least until all the animals are in habitats … if not forever. “
Like house cats
With Scott Smith as guide, we toured some areas of the refuge still awaiting development. One is an upland field earmarked for black bear and cougar habitats, and that will be an expensive project.
Unlike lions and tigers, both of those species are deft climbers, meaning their areas will have to be roofed with wire netting.
Far below, down a steep trail, we arrived at a long, slanting meadow, bordered by forest, a likely site for future habitats.
And nearing completion, a bit to one side of the main refuge area, is the Safari Lodge, which will offer five well-appointed little cottages, each with its own porch, arranged around a communal gazebo. The first opened in May. Another will be open this month.
One can well imagine looking out from that ridgetop, across the magnificent hills and listening to lions singing as the light fails.
A highlight of the tour was the tree-shaded habitat where three tigers stalked, bounded and tussled in the grass, playing for all the world like house cats.
The weight of one of them, a Siberian named Tom, was estimated at 650 to 725 pounds. (Scales for the weighing of
tigers are not readily available.)
“When he stands on his hind legs and reaches up against the wire, ” Scott said, “he ‘s 11 feet tall – not counting his tail. ” Some house cat!
A domestic kitty
Another evening, our last, was coming on. A light mist had begun to fall. Turpentine ‘s residents had withdrawn into their concrete dens, and the caroling and chuffing were limited.
Only Cheyenne, the coyote, remained sitting atop her hollow log.
We retreated to our own den in the Blue Room. Outside our window, our neighbor Loretta, the comfort-loving white tiger, was nowhere to be seen. But we were not lonely long, for soon a different cat actually came inside with us. A pure black one with eyes like gold coins.
It wasn ‘t No. 35, Vada, the melanistic African leopard. This was the one named Chloe – the same domestic kitty that joined my family overnight in the tree house when we were here just after Christmas.
She ‘s on the small side for a Turpentine feline. Eight pounds at most. And she ‘s a permanent resident, with free run of the place. There ‘s not a fence around any cage or habitat she could not easily slip through.
But she prefers the Blue Room or the tree house. It ‘s clear she knows what lives inside those wires. And Chloe ‘s a smart cat. She has never made a mistake.