Go & Do
When: Daily tours start on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: 239 Turpentine Creek Lane in Eureka Springs
Cost: $15-$25; children younger than 3 are free
Information: (479) 253-5841 or turpentinecreek.org
Cheryl King talks about the big cats at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge like a proud grandmother bragging on her grandbabies. In her gentle Southern drawl, she coos at the tigers “I see you, baby girl” and “beautiful boy,” as the giant kitties roll in the grass and lounge in the sunlight on a warm March afternoon.
Nestled in the rolling hills outside of the Eureka Springs city limits, Turpentine Creek’s mission is to rescue and provide lifelong, compassionate care to neglected and abused victims of the exotic animal trade. The nonprofit rescue facility is home to approximately 100 exotic and native animals including Bengal and Siberian tigers, African lions and servals, bobcats, cougars, ligers, leopards, black bears and a grizzly bear. The animals are kept in large, reinforced habitats with a den and a swimming pool along with plenty of toys and room to play within the 459-acre refuge.
Ten of the new feline residents at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge were rescued from the notorious Tiger King Park in Oklahoma, including three “hitchhikers” who were born at Turpentine Creek and are now growing up at the sanctuary with their mom, a 6-year-old tiger named Priscilla. Their story is the subject of Drew Donnelly’s documentary, “Uncharted,” which recently screened at the Rogers Short Film Festival. See a trailer for the documentary at https://youtu.be/U1668oiEeoA.
“Mama is raising her cubs. We are so proud of this,” beams King, a marketing spokeswoman for the refuge. Only two weeks after Priscilla’s arrival, she gave birth to the three cubs. “These babies could not walk when they were born, their hind legs suffered from club foot,” King adds. After gaining the trust of the mother tigress, staff was able to treat the cubs and get them on their feet. Now Rosie, Jinx and DOJ (named for the Department of Justice) frolic, chase one another and sunbathe when the opportunity arises. It’s hard to tell that they are even cubs any longer because they’ve grown so large with the help of the veterinary staff.
“We have an on-site veterinarian,” with 10 interns, King explains. “It’s the least we’ve ever had, so we’re a little stretched right now with personnel. Normally we have about 15 interns.” She says interns are required to have degrees in the field and live on site for six months. During that time they provide care, enrichment, food, cleaning, medication and pain management for the animals. She said that the program keeps with their focus on education.
Having an on-site veterinarian was vital when staff discovered a growth on the tongue of one of the sanctuary’s favorite tigers, BB King. After sedating the big guy, they found he had a hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive cancer which can spread quickly and “normally appears in a major organ like a heart, a lung or spleen,” King says. Finding themselves “in uncharted territory … we did some research and there was a chemotherapy, intravenous treatment that had a high probability of success.” The 12-year-old tiger immediately started treatment. “He was such a good boy,” she beams. He underwent two surgeries to remove the growth and chemotherapy. “BB King is the first tiger that we know of that has ever received chemotherapy treatment and succeeded,” she concludes. “He is again cancer free, so we are grateful.” And yes, he’s named for the legendary bluesman.
Living just down the block from BB King are triplets, white tigers who developed metabolic bone disease after being taken from their mother too early and used for a “petting zoo” in Colorado, “but they can all run and walk and play it out,” King adds happily. After receiving medical care and proper nutrition at the refuge, the tigers all have a bit of a limp and a happy disposition. Rocklyn lounges in her empty swimming pool (Arkansas had sleet the week before this interview) and posed for photos while her brother, Black Fire, licked his paws and cleaned his face. Like any other domestic cat, sister Peyton didn’t stir from her nap.
Another new resident at the sanctuary is Jake, an African serval who was rescued from Rock Creek Farm in Norman, Okla., after the Oklahoma Board of Medical Examiners filed a complaint against the owner. He is one of four servals who live in habitats that are covered at the top. King explains that servals “can leap 12 feet — take a bird out of the air in flight. They have upwards of a 50% success rate when it comes to hunting whereas tigers are about 20%.” She says that they also “eat everything,” whether it’s food or not, so they have to be carefully monitored as to what toys they can play with. Servals are much smaller than tigers, only weighing 19 to 20 pounds and measuring about 23 inches in length, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. Since they are native to the Savannas in northern Africa they are accustomed to much warmer weather than Arkansas has to offer in March. On the day of our visit, Jake chose to stay in his heated den while his neighbor, Mauri, a lioness in the next-door habitat, lazily watched us. Since Jake is still warming up to Turpentine Creek, he has his own space away from the other servals.
Like most cats, the animals have to get accustomed to one another. Another new tenant named Sasha, a mountain lion who was living in an apartment in the Bronx, shares a large run with two other cougars, Marissa and Louisa, but the girls have to share time in their open area until the two older residents get used to the new cat.
“We’ve had a good deal of hissing going on. Somebody did take a swipe at somebody the other day — I don’t know if it was Marissa or Louisa who took a swipe — but got Sasha through the gate and caught her ear a little bit,” King shares. Other than the recent dust-up, the sanctuary reports that Sasha likes to pose for the staff photographer and chirp at guests.
So how do all the animals afford rent in Eureka Springs? King says that the refuge is supported by donations and proceeds from tours of the facility as well as proceeds from lodging that is available on-site. She jokes that “it’s the only lodge where you won’t be promised a good night’s rest,” because the lions carol throughout the night. Reportedly, Jake likes to get them going.
According to Big Cat Chronicles, a print magazine from Turpentine Creek, the nonprofit was able to use donations to make improvements to the Discovery Area Pavilion as well as pave the Tour Route Hills to lower noise and dust, which was part of the first phase of a new round of improvements at the sanctuary. In the second phase, the refuge hopes to raise $4 million to complete an education and visitor center that houses classroom space for seminars as well as an Education Center and gallery space for local artists.
“Education is very important to us. We want to make sure that we educate the next generation so that we can stop people thinking that they can own these animals as pets,” King imparts.
She also shares that the animals are fed through donations too, many from Walmart and Tyson. The larger animals eat up to 10 to 15 pounds of food a day, and some of the animals also have special diets. Tigers, she explains, will eat an entire turkey, while the bears are omnivores who eat a varied diet all year long. People may sign up to donate anywhere from $5 a month or through membership programs, fellowships or even one-time donations. Learn more at turpentinecreek.org.