Although only about 3,200 tigers still exist in the wild, between 5-7,000 exist in private homes, many in the United States. What happens when the unthinkable happens, and someone’s pet tiger escapes? A scared and dangerous 400 lb. cat isn’t anybody’s idea of a fun visitor at 2 a.m. or any other time.
On Monday, Tim Harrison, noted exotic animal expert and co-founder of Outreach for Animals, met with Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge staff to talk about that very subject. Also on hand were Carroll County Sheriff Bob Grudek, Eureka Springs Fire Chief Rhys Williams, and other first responders.
The meet-up was coordinated by TCWR President Tanya Smith and a team of young documentary film makers who are following Harrison and his work around the country. One of the film’s producers, David Enden, was an intern at Turpentine Creek a year ago. The other two-thirds of the team, award-winning filmmakers John Mingione and Chris Capelluto, are Enden’s childhood friends.
Harrison, who has dealt with everything from big cats to primates to reptiles, said the word “animal sanctuary” is often used very loosely, resulting in dire situations for all involved.
“Not every place is like Turpentine Creek,” he said. “This place is spot-on. You follow safety protocols and your staff obviously knows what they’re doing. Everything is clean and safe, and the animals are well cared for. It isn’t like that always, believe me.”
Harrison co-founded Outreach For Animals in 2001 with group of fellow police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. Outreach For Animals, a non-profit 501©(3) organization, has as its mission educating young people to respect wildlife and its natural habitat. But they educate other people as well.
“No matter how well trained you are as a police officer, fire fighter, or EMT, most people never have to deal with a live tiger jumping out of a burning building, for instance, because someone had it as a pet but forgot to mention it,” he said. “But I was there when it happened. We got it in the back of the sheriff’s car, which it tore to shreds, but that was the only place we had available.”
Harrison is the focus of “The Elephant in the Living Room,” praised by critics as “one of the best films of the year.” The documentary “takes viewers on a journey deep inside the controversial American subculture of raising the most dangerous animals in the world as common household pets.
One purpose of the meeting was so TCWR could share with local officials the depth of its own safety protocols and to help coordinate that plan with law enforcement and other first responders should it ever have to be implemented.
“It goes without saying that human life takes absolute priority in every case,” said TCWR Vice-President Scott Smith. “What we’re interested in here today is everyone being familiar with Turpentine Creek, being familiar with what we do and what to expect should they ever need to be called.”
All attendees shared copies of TCWR’s, safety plan, and at the suggestion of Sheriff Grudek, a meeting is planned between now and the end of the year to bring in more local responders to disseminate the information as broadly as possible. Also planned are a series of situation analysis drills to put the safety protocols into practice.