"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.