Our History

Mission Statement

To provide lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused, and neglected big cats with an emphasis on tigers, lions, leopards, and cougars.

Why TCWR was Formed

It was 1978 in Hughes Springs, Texas when Don, Hilda, and Tanya Jackson rescued their first big cat. Don, who was known around town for his experience with animals was called earnestly by a friend dealing with a very big problem –a problem named, Bum.

Bum, a rapidly growing 8-month-old lion cub, was living chained to the man’s sweetgum tree. According to Don’s friend, Bum had been abandoned in the parking lot of a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas by someone who owed him money for a car. With the person gone, the car gone, and the money owed nowhere to be seen, he opted to bring the lion cub home instead. Unfortunately, he soon realized that he could not care for the animal, and was thoroughly relieved when the Jackson family offered to take the young lion in.

At the time Tanya Jackson Smith, the current president and founder of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, was only 11 years old. She describes the experience as being a crazy one, and full of excitement.

In 1982, the Jackson family would then rescue another lion named Sheila. Taking care of the two lions in their backyard was no simple task. Male lions can weigh up to 420 pounds and eat an estimated 10-25 lbs of meat a day. With growing lions, a backyard could only offer so much space for them to run and participate in enrichment activities safely. Fortunately, for the Jacksons, their luck would begin to change with a surprise visitor that would not only lead to the solution to their space issue but would also lead to a world of responsibility falling onto their shoulders.

In December of 1991, 9 years after taking in lion Sheila and 13 years after Bum, a notorious breeder and black market dealer showed up on the Jackson’s doorstep. Katherine Gordon Twiss, who had once been described as red-haired, spitfire of a woman, was on the run from law enforcement with 42 big cats crammed into three cattle trailers. Knowing she would not get far with such a heavy load, Twiss was desperate to find a place for the cats.

Overnight the Jacksons became responsible for rescuing and moving the 42 big cats, including Bum and Sheila, to a 460-acre ranch located just south of the picturesque mountain village, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The ranch was owned at that time by a friend of the Jacksons’ who had offered it to be used as a temporary refuge. Over the next year, the ranch would begin to evolve into what is now Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Twiss would end up moving all of her 70 cats and the 30 horses that she had picked up from around the country and brought them to the Refuge.

Having spent countless hours building up the enclosures for all of the animals, addressing health concerns, and finding enough meat and other food to feed 70 plus animals, word began to get out about the Jackson family’s endeavor –then the calls began.

People, like Bum’s former owner, were calling because they had bought or inherited big cats and could not care for them. It became evident that big cat ownership was a serious issue being faced across the United States. In response to these calls for help, Don, Hilda, and Tanya Jackson stepped up to the challenge and did what most would only dream of – sold everything, bought the ranch, moved over 300 miles, and humbly went to work for the animals.

After years of hard work, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge reached verified status with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) in 2015. This verified status indicates to the world that TCWR is a sanctuary that upholds the highest standards of animal care and safety.

Today, there are over a dozen reputable big cat sanctuaries around the country, and Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge easily stands out as a frontrunner. With a highly competitive intern program (est. 1996), the Refuge was able to more than double its rescue efforts and also establish a strong education base. Currently, the United States has thousands of residents keeping dangerous big cats in their backyards, basements, garages, and warehouses with little to no regulations keeping the animal, the owner, and the public safe. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge will not only fight to get these regulations in place but also help to continue to clean up the damage caused by the Exotic Pet Trade in this country and abroad.

Remembering Co-Founder Hilda Putnam Jackson

(January 4, 1939 – February 11, 2011)

“My mom was an amazing woman,” said Tanya Smith of her mother, Hilda Jackson. “After we moved to Eureka Springs she would tell me “keep your chin up, Tanya, just have faith.”  That attitude is one that got Hilda through a life that was not always easy.  She was born Hilda Putman in a small Northeast Texas town and was the fourth of eleven children, 10 of whom were birthed at home. She grew up on a 100-acre working farm with cash crops of cotton, cucumbers, and watermelons. The family also raised hogs and cows. Hard work was expected from all the children starting as soon as they could hold a sack to pick cotton.  Hilda went to a small one room school a mile and a half walk away, and once recalled carrying her sick younger brother all the way home from school.

After graduating from Hughes Springs Public School in 1957, Hilda moved to Dallas, Texas, to find work. There she married her first husband and had two boys, Robert Glen and Clifford Ray. Her husband was neglectful so Hilda divorced him and later married Donald Ray Jackson, on December 7, 1963.  The Jacksons eventually moved to Elk Grove Village, a suburb of Chicago where her daughter Tanya Alexenia Syrenia was born. Five years later they moved back to Hughes Springs, Texas, where they bought the Hughes Mansion that was in need of much repair and made that their home until 1980.

Hilda worked as a realtor-broker and builder in Hughes Springs, where she was responsible for the revitalization of the town by building a hotel, subdivisions, and apartments until the 1980’s when the local steel industry took a nosedive.  The Jacksons would then move to Hope, Arkansas, and from there bought a modular home plant and built hundreds of motels and homes all over the South.

In 1978, the Jacksons rescued their first African lion. The cub’s name was Bum and he lived 21 years with the excellent care he received from Hilda. A few years later, in 1983, Hilda received a call about a female lion living in an apartment with a six-month-old baby. The owners wanted to get rid of the lion because she was looking at the baby like food or a play toy. So Hilda graciously made room for lion Sheila.  In late 1991, a lady with 42 lions, tigers, and cougars approached the Jacksons to help her. She kept the animals in deplorable conditions in cattle trailers near Hope, Arkansas. With her own resources, Hilda saved those animals and made sure the animals got the veterinary care and food they needed.

Hilda was an animal and people lover like no other. If there was a stray anywhere in the vicinity she would take it in, feed it, and do everything she could to help the situation.  After retiring, Hilda and Don convinced Tanya to move to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The Jacksons had vacationed annually in the eclectic town and always wanted to make it their home. Hilda felt the desire to help more and sold everything they owned and moved to Eureka Springs. They worked out a deal to purchase 459 acres 7 miles south of town that they had been looking at for 10 years. It was not an easy move but Hilda’s faith and dedication inspired everyone that worked with her to help all God’s creatures.

Due to the passion of one woman and the love and support of her family, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge was created and founded in May 1992.  “At times I would be pacing the floor with worry on how we were going to get the food for the animals and for our family,” recalled Tanya,

“We had invested every dime and all our resources into this move. We had no idea when we started the Refuge that we would be faced with such resistance. The cost of this endeavor was so tremendous that it ate up our resources very quickly.  One of the things my mother taught us is that if we saved an animal the least we could do was make sure that animal would never be mistreated and would always have a clean place to live and fresh food and water daily. Rain, snow or shine. Sometimes in the early days at the refuge, I can remember my mom being out in the enclosures alone cleaning and feeding all the rescues. She loved raising the baby animals and she was the best at it. If an animal was sick, she would sleep by its side to make sure it got all that she could give to keep it alive…Mom couldn’t turn away any animal that needed rescuing – raccoons, opossums, deer, lions, tigers, cougars, bears, llamas, goats, ducks, sheep, pig, horses, baby bats, the list goes on and on.”

Today the Refuge is thriving and Hilda’s legacy continues through her daughter and son-in-law, Tanya and Scott, and the many dedicated staff, employees, and interns who continue her work.