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Right In Your Own Backyard: A Wildlife Refuge

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Story by: Jim G. Miller  Photo: Courtesy of Turpentine Creek

On scenic highway 23 about seven miles outside of Eureka Springs, there rests one of the largest wildlife preserves for big cats in the country. That refuge is called Turpentine Creek, and it has been a refuge for tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, and other endangered wildlife since 1992. “It’s right in your own backyard,” says Scott Smith Vice- President of TCWR. Smith began as a volunteer who devoted his services as a carpenter and welder to the refuge back in 1994 and has never looked back since.
“We invite everyone who has not been here to come see these magnificent cats. The spring season is the best time to visit.” Turpentine Creek originated when Tanya Jackson Smith’s family acquired a lion named “Bum” while they lived in Northeast Texas in 1978. Smith, who currently serves as president, was only 11 at the time but remembers the second lion they got in 1982 that was named “Shelia.” The family was successful at taking care of these two lions in their backyard up until 1992 when they moved to Eureka Springs to establish the Refuge.
The Jackson’s soon acquired many more big cats for their refuge when a breeder and black market dealer on the run showed up with forty two cats stuffed in cattle trailers. The Jacksons put a great deal of work into preparing the 500-acre refuge where TCWR now rests. Over time people from all over the country began contacting the Jacksons, seeking to relieve themselves of the burden of their big cats. TCWR is UDSA regulated and now rescues cats that have been abandoned, abused or neglected by their licensed or unlicensed owners.
“The cats go through about 1500 pounds of raw meat everyday,” says Smith. Eighty-five percent of it is donated as poultry by Tyson Foods. The remainder is donated by individuals or purchased using donations. If you are interested in volunteering or donating your time or money to this one of a kind refuge located right here in Arkansas, visit their website at www.turpentinecreek.org or visit them and their amazing big cats while it is still cool outside.
Cost for admission is $20 for adults, $15 for teenagers, and $10 for Senior Citizens. Children three and younger get in free. During the summer months, the refuge is open from 9am to 6pm. The park is open everyday of the year except for Christmas. Feeding time is a major highlight not to be missed which is usually around 5 p.m. during the summer. TCWR also offers habitat tours and educational talks given by refuge zoologists and biologists.
TCWR houses 130 big cats and other endangered wildlife. All of the cats are spayed or neutered and are given the best care possible. The refuge also offers photography opportunities as well as lodging. Some people have even been married there. Definitely worth the drive, this is a must see destination for every Arkansan and an opportunity to help support a place of safety for these animals in need.


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.