Big cat interns help out, grow

Work changes their perspective

Saturday, November 28, 2009

LITTLE ROCK — Much to the surprise of intern Ashley Bulla, three months of 50-hour weeks scooping tiger dung and handling raw meat taught her something: self-reliance.

The 23-year-old New Yorker who used to let mom and dad carry her luggage and do her laundry now gets by on her weekly earnings of $50 for groceries.

“I can go out and live by myself and be an independent person,” said Bulla, who scored one of a dozen six-month internships at the Turpentine Creek WildlifeRefuge just outside of Eureka Springs.

Many interns have similar revelations during their time at the refuge, seven miles south of Eureka Springs, said Emily McCormack, who is in charge of the interns and a staff zoologist.

“They tend to see things differently after being here,” McCormack said. “They find that materialism isn’t where it’s at.”

Interning at Turpentine Creek takes a lot, McCormack said. “But every piece of hard work creates an amazing thing in the end, and I think the interns leavehere taking that with them.”

Turpentine Creek, which opened in 1992, is a nonprofit rescue center for big cats and other large animals and is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. It also is a member of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

On a ranch covering 450 acres, the refuge currently has 118 big cats, including tigers, lions, cougars, ligers, leopards, servals, caracals and bobcats. Bears, sheep, goats and a potbellied pig live there too.

Most of the cats, many abused and sick when they arrive, come from private owners who no longer want an animal after it has grown up, owners who have died and left no one to care for the animal, drug raids in which the animals are confiscated and breeding operations going out of business. The refuge does not breed animals.

Started in 1997, the internship program sends flyers to 1,300 colleges. McCormack, once an intern herself, currently has 84 applications. She will cull them to 25 for phone interviews and then choose 12 for the coming six months. There are 10 to 12 openings twice a year.

“I was beyond ecstatic. I was screaming when I got the call that I was accepted,” said Bulla of Monroe, N.Y., who is halfway through her internship.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve learned here. From weedwhacking to much more important thingslike feeding the cats correctly and reading their behavior,” said Bulla, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Manhattan College in the Bronx.

“It’s really exciting to educate people; big cats don’t make good pets,” Bulla said. She’s considering a career as a biology teacher.

Bulla has grown up during her internship. “I’m not even the same person I was when I arrived in August.”

Bulla has applied for a second internship at the refuge.

“I wake up every morning and I don’t have to work, I get to go to work.”

Bulla and her fellow interns start at 8 a.m. to clean the cages, which takes hours, then they break for lunch, and work on building habitats and preparing the food, donated by Tyson and Wal-Mart. The refuge uses between 800 and 1,200 pounds of meat a day.

Working six days a week, the interns also give guided tours, having memorized the stories of each animal; help move the animals; prepare diets and monitor feeding; repair and build cages; give daily medication to the cats; and help in the gift shops. The day ends about 6:30 p.m.

“But we sometimes work later than that,” McCormack said, recalling a time the staff and interns worked late into the night by vehicle headlights to repair a habitat.

A new group arrived during the ice storm at the end of January, and Carroll County was hit hard, knocking out power at the refuge.

McCormack remembers calling the interns to alert them there was no running water or heat, but everyone showed up anyway to helpkeep the animals sheltered and fed.

“The fact that they all said they would be there was totally amazing to me,” she said, noting that a local hotel helped with accommodations.

Normally, the interns live in two furnished bunkhouses, including television, Internet access, and washers and dryers.

“It’s kind of like a reality show,” McCormack said. “Twelve people from all over come together in the same houses and have to learn to work together and get along.”

Jarrett Sweeley, 24, of Lockhaven, Pa., sees the close quarters as a family setting.

“It reminds me of home a bit because the people are so friendly and we’ve become really close,” said Sweeley, who is completing his second internship. “They look after us very well.”

Sweeley holds two Bachelor of Science degrees in marine science and biology from Coastal Carolina University and plans to become a zookeeper so he can continue working with big cats, he said.

“It’s a dream job. I just fell in love with the cats,” he said.

McCormack, originally from upstate New York, also dreamed of working with big cats when she started out 11 years ago as an intern.

“I had no idea there were this many exotic animals people tried to own as pets,” she said. “Bringing them here after seeing them abused and abandoned, watching them grow healthy again was amazing.”

McCormack has seen interns come and go. Most are recent college graduates from all over the United States and several countries, including England and Germany.

Watching careers progress after interns leave is particularly rewarding for McCormack. Zoos call for references, often telling her how pleased they are with other employees who interned at the refuge, she said.

One former intern is now working with the Peace Corps in Africa, another researching captive elephants in Australia. “Seeing where they end up is so great,” McCormack said.

Only one intern has ever backed out after being accepted.

“The big animals scared her, and I think it might have been a lack of maturity, too, not wanting to leave her mom and boyfriend,” McCormack said. “But it was a good thing to find out early because we are very strict about safety, and animals can sense that fear.”

There has never been an attack at the refuge, McCormack said, though one intern was injured working with a trailer and another rolled her ankle on the sidewalk outside one of the refuge’s gift shops in downtown Eureka Springs.

The goal is to move every cat from a cage to a habitat with plenty of room to roam and graze, play in their pools and with their toys.

“Sometimes I think that’s the best part of the job,” Mc-Cormack said. “Watching the cats go out of their enclosures and touch grass for the first time. I don’t think you can find a job like that anywhere.”

Northwest Arkansas, Pages 9 on 11/28/2009


Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at


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