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Spring Break, But With Tigers - Texas students arrive to build habitats at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Thursday, March 20, 2014

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Channeling their inner tiger are from left, back row: Maddie Drake, Santiago Aguirre, Brittny Nguyen, Samna Rasheed, Jennifer Pimentel and UNT staff member Laura Pasquini. In front are Ruben Molina and Catherine Deblois.
Last year, Santiago Aguirre spent his spring break building houses for Katrina victims in New Orleans. The neatest part:

"We got meeting the person who was going to live in the house," he said.

Last week, Aguirre, a sophomore at the University of North Texas, helped create homes for homeless refugees with the help of six other UNT students. And they got to see one of the occupants step into her new home for the first time -- all four paws.

The new occupant was named O.D., and she was one of 30 tigers that Turpentine Creek adopted last year when Riverglen Tiger Refuge was closed. The North Texas students painted O.D.'s den and picked up rocks from her new backyard, a 20-by 40 foot space where the tiger can stretch her legs. The students also installed all the wire fencing around a habitat being built for Grumpet. Each new habitat will provide 1,000 square feet of space, more than two and half times that required by regulations.

The students arrived on Sunday, March 9 for the week, staying at the Retreat at Sky Ridge. They worked at Turpentine Creek from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and a half-day on Thursday, but also had time to sight-see. They visited Eureka Springs and Thorncrown Chapel, went fishing on the White River and horse-back riding at Bear Mountain. They hoped to get in some canoeing or kayaking on Lake Leatherwood before driving back to Texas on Friday.

"It's like vacation and a working holiday," Aguirre said.

UNT offers alternative spring breaks to raise students' awareness of social issues and injustice through volunteer service. Last year, senior Brittny Nguyen, an education major from St. Paul, Minn., chose to work at a food bank in downtown Memphis in order to enlarge her knowledge of how people live. This year, she wanted to do something completely different, and be in the countryside, so chose Turpentine Creek as first choice. While none of the students plan careers in animal science, it was the love of animals that led them to choose Turpentine Creek, they said. But it wasn't the tigers that drew Ruben Molina.

"I love lions," he said. "Me and lions, we get each other. The first thing I did when I got here was run up to Thor."

Thor lives in an enclosure in the old compound, but Turpentine Creek president Tanya Smith, vice-president Scott Smith and their staff of professionals and interns have been focusing on getting all the animals into larger habitats on the refuge's acreage. Habitats for the tigers from Riverglen Tiger Sanctuary, most of whom are elderly, are being built on Rescue Ridge, a remote section of the refuge where they can quietly live out their lives.

UNT students on alternative spring break trips also rebuilt homes in Joplin, Mo., Moore, Okla., and New Orleans for tornado and hurricane victimes; worked with children at the Cherokee Nation's Head Start Program in Tahlequah, Okla.; created care packages for the homeless in San Antonio, picked up trash on Galveston beaches and worked at facilities serving neglected children and homeless teens in St. Louis.

The Turpentine Creek contingent were accompanied by Laura Pasquini, a university staff member who is working on a Ph.D. in learning technologies with an emphasis on social justice. The group included three high school students who attend UNT: Maddie Drake of Paris, Texas; Catherine Deblois of Melissa, Texas, and Ruben Molina, of Mission, Texas.

Drake said the opportunity to work at Turpentine Creek was very rewarding.

"We got to start a project and finish it, and then watch the tigers released into the habitat," she said. "We got to see the difference we made in a tiger's life."

Students pay a small fee to participate in alternative spring breaks, and those who go on one of the trips tend to sign up again, university coordinators said. The University of North Texas is located in Denton. (unt.edu). For more information about Turpentine Creek, click here.

One Happy Bear - New habitat a hit with Bam Bam

Thursday, November 7, 2013

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A crowd gathered Sunday to watch Bam Bam explore his new habitat for the first time.
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Bam Bam splashes water in his new pool, which was stocked with prey -- small watermelons.
Several hundred people gathered at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge Sunday morning to watch as Bam Bam, the resident grizzly bear, was let out into his new big backyard habitat for the first time. The verdict:

"Now that's a happy bear," said refuge president Tanya Smith as Bam Bam checked out his new swimming pool. "He's smiling."

The six-year-old grizzly has been lived in a double enclosure in the refuge's compound since he was adopted four years ago, with only a small stock tank to soak in. With the construction of his new habitat, he is able to walk on grass, climb up a tower with a slide and swim in a large in-ground pool with a waterfall. When first let out of the den, Bam Bam hung around outside for a few minutes, doing a double take when he saw all the people watching him.

Then he ambled up the slope and checked out the treats set out on a stump. With cameras clicking and a television crew filming, Bam Bam circled the rock walls of his new swimming pool before climbing up on top of the waterfall to get a pumpkin down. When he decided to get in the water, he worked his way around the edge, pawing at floating watermelons and splashing water.

"Everybody loves Bam Bam because he's such a showman," Smith said. "That's why we wanted to build this habitat right where you come in.

Smith said that when the refuge was established 22 years ago, it was her mother and her out there cleaning cages of the 35 resident tigers The refuge now has 124 big cats, including 28 rescued this year, making TCWR the largest tiger refuge in the country in number of animals, and one of the largest in terms of acres -- 459.

How they care for so many big cats: since 1997, Turpentine Creek staff have trained 350 interns to help care for the animals, Smith said. On Sunday's opening for Bam Bam's new habitat, Emily McCormack, refuge curator, thanked the interns and the staff, including maintenance coordinator Mike Bennett, who built Bam Bam's new house. She also thanked Randy Murray of Aquacrete in Bella Vista for designing the pool and everyone who contributed money for the project.

"No matter if it's a dollar that went towards this, it all counts," she said.

Arnold Fagin of Oklahoma City, a long-time supporter of the refuge, was given the honor of helping open the gate, letting Bam Bam into the yard for the first time. Fagin talked about how the refuge had changed since he and spouse Mari Fagin first visited it in October of 1994. Then, he recalled, the people they talked to in town weren't sure they wanted a big cat refuge close by, but now love it and the fact that has become the number-one attraction in Northwest Arkansas, Fagin said. The new habitat for Bam Bam is a stepping stone to fulfilling a dream of tearing down the original cage enclosures, now used as temporary quarters, and housing all the animals in large habitats with natural surfaces.

"When Tanya told us about this dream, this goal, we knew we had to help,"Fagin said.

To help meet the continuing need for funds, the refuge is asking people to sponsor a brick for the pathway to the bear house. For a $100 donation, the brick will be engraved with the donor's name and/or message. Bam Bam fans can also buy photographs, art work and refrigerator magnets with his picture on them.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is a U.S.D.A. licensed facility for large carnivores. Its main mission is to rescue neglected or unwanted big cats that were bred for pets and provide them with a home and life-long care. The refuge also seeks to educate the public about big cats and the problem of breeding them for pets by telling the stories of the residents.

TCWR is open to visitors daily except Christmas. The entry fee ($15/$10 for seniors/vets/children 3 to 12) helps cover food and expenses. Guided walking tours and trolley tours available. For more information, go to www.turpentinecreek.org.

Bear Habitat Opens at Turpentine Creek Refuge

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ar. -- Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge will hold a grand opening of for their new grizzly bear habitat tomorrow. The bear, Bam Bam, will be introduced to his new enlarged habitat with a grand opening ceremony at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Bam Bam will be moved from his current concrete and wire enclosure into his new half acre habitat. The new space features an in-ground swimming pool with a waterfall and will allow Bam Bam to feel the grass between his paws for the first time.

The renovation highlights TCWR’s goal of replacing all concrete enclosures with large natural habitats so that animals can run and play, explains TCWR president and founder Tanya Smith.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge was founded in 1992 and is a non-profit organization. The refuge sits on 450-acres and is 7 miles south of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Normal admission prices apply to this event, $15 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under, $10 for seniors and military members, and children under 3 get in free.

If you can't make it to Eureka Springs, TCWR announced on their Facebook page that they will attempt their first live stream habitat opening at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, visit their Facebook Page for more details. 

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A Backyard for Bam Bam Turpentine Creek's grizzly gets dream home

Thursday, October 31, 2013

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Bam Bam has to curl his body up to sit in the stock tank. Small for an almost full-grown grizzly, he spans eight feet when standing on his hind legs with his arms up.
Where does a 750-pound grizzly bear swim?

In the case of Bam Bam, the resident grizzly bear at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, in a stock tank barely big enough to fit him and his bath toy, a large ball. And then it's more of sit-and-soak than swim.

"He loves the water," said Claire McElroy, a TC intern. "He'll spend 80 percent of his time in it."

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Eric Studer shows off Bam Bam's new back yard, which has a swimming pool with a waterfall.
Bam Bam is a nearly full-grown grizzly bear who spent the first two years of his life as a domestic pet. When Turpentine Creek adopted him in November of 2009, he was living in a space barely big enough for him to turn around. Now six years old, he has lived in a double enclosure in the refuge's compound. But on Nov. 3, he will be introduced to his new backyard, which has a swimming pool, climbing tower and slide, and the public is invited.

"I can't wait to see him on his jungle gym," McElroy said.

Turpentine Creek is mainly an old-folks home for tigers that were bred for pets and outgrew their owners' ability to feed and house them. Bam Bam was adopted in Oklahoma along with two tigers, according to Eric Studer, a former board member who handles public relations. The refuge's only grizzly (there is also a black bear), Bam Bam is the star attraction because unlike tigers, who are nocturnal, he is awake during the day.

"He's very playful, and acclimated to people," Studer said.

Bam Bam's new habitat has been on the drawing board for more than a year, but was sidetracked when Turpentine Creek's Tanya and Scott Smith were called to take in more than 30 aging tigers from a private shelter whose owner could no longer care for them. Moving the tigers two at a time took months. Housing them required a major fundraising drive to buy materials to build a whole new section of tiger habitats on the refuge, six miles south of Eureka Springs. The refuge's original compound is now used for temporary housing until animals can be moved into large habitats with natural surfaces.

For Bam Bam's new home, Turpentine Creek created a dedicated fund, receiving gifts from $5 to gifts from major donors, Studer said. Staff, interns and volunteers pitched in to do much of the construction, setting poles and building the climbing tower and giant slide, made from fire hoses. The pool, which has a waterfall and is almost four feet deep in the center, was built by Aquacrete of Bella Vista.

"They knocked half the price off," Studer said. "It would have been in the $60,000 range."

The public is invited to the grand opening of Bam Bam's new backyard at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3, at the refuge, on Highway 23 south. Bam Bam will be moved into his new indoor den a few days before to get used to it, Studer said, then on the big day, will be let out to explore the yard.

"I hope he will go crazy and run all over," Studer said, "but you never know."

Grizzly bears in captivity have a life expectancy of 25 years, Studer said, and Bam Bam has had a pretty good life so far, being fed every day and getting his fill of his favorite food, grapes. But everyone at Turpentine Creek is excited to see his world expand.

For more information, click here.

Intrigue Theater stars work magic for Turpentine Creek's big cats

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

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Intrigue Theater stars Julianne and Sean-Paul present a donation to Tanya Smith, center, president of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Photo contributed by Eric Studer.
EUREKA SRINGS -- The March 13 benefit performance by Eureka Spring's Intrigue Theatre for Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge generated almost $1,000 in proceeds while providing a well-deserved night of entertainment for a sold-out house and more than 20 TCWR interns and staff, who recently completed a large-scale rescue of more than 30 big cats.

"Julianne and I were so impressed by the unbelievable effort of everyone at Turpentine Creek, we decided to put the 'unbelievable' to work for them. We knew their staff needed a break after safely relocating over 30 tigers and cougars in less than 4 months," said Sean-Paul, founder and star of Intrigue Theater. "After learning it takes about $10,000 a year to feed and care for a big cat, we also new we needed to do more than entertain the staff and interns."

"The show proceeds will go a long way in making a better lifelong home for our wildlife family," said Tanya Smith, co-founder and president of TCWR. "Our interns really needed a reward after a four-month-long rescue operation. They loved the show and can't wait to take visiting friends and family. Its wonderful so many local businesses realize our interns are great ambassadors for local businesses."

Proceeds help finance ongoing care for over 120 tigers, lions, leopards, cougars and other wildlife who make TCWR, one of America's largest big cat sanctuaries, their lifelong home. For refuge details, visit www.turpentinecreek.org or call 479-253-5841.