These guys have about a hundred big cats in cages and a handfull of bears as well. That's basically what you see when you visit Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, lions, cougers, tigers, leopards, bears, and a few miscellaneous animals like goats and badgers.
These animals have all been rescued from unfortunate circumstances. Each cat's history appears on a placard by its cage, and the cumulative impression is that of group therapy at a rehab clinic. Many of the inmates have survived incalculable abuse at the hands of their owners, medical mutilations from amateur dental work and botched de-clawing procedures, starvation, and you name it. It's a hard-knock life, and these cats have been knocked hard.
There's not much in the way of laws prohibiting private ownership of big exotic cats, and you'd think there'd be no need of any. Normally I'm not one to blame the victim, but any numbskull that would buy a tiger cub and raise it to adulthood in his back yard probably ought to expect to lose an extremity. Trouble is, people who think it would be a good idea to raise a half-ton wild predator in hot tub don't have the mental stones to do it properly.
Sooner or later, though, even the smallest hatsize will associate the disappearance of the neighborhood spaniels to the presence of a tiger, and the neighbors will decide that the tiger's no fun any more. On top of that, the genius who bought the cub will have raised the cat in a pen that's way too small and fed it on Mountain Dew and Cheetos so that it's always in digestive distress. So if you take a big cat and you confine it in a pen that's cramped and unsanitary and you starve it and you leave it to the care of madmen and fools, you might expect it to become a little antisocial.
Surprisingly enough that's just what happens. And then the neighbors call the animal control officers, and then the animal control officers call the folks at Turpentine Creek in hopes that the animal will not have to be put down. That's kind of what animal refuges are all about, cleaning up after the bad judgement of some simpleminded jethro who thought it would be cool to own a cougar.
The plan at Turpentine Creek is to give these hopeless cases living conditions that are better than they had before. There's only so far you can go with that, of course. Rehabilitation of these animals is pretty much out of the question. Nobody is entertaining any fantasies about returning them to the wild. Most of these cats are physically and mentally a little twitchy when they first arrive.
So Trudy and Scott Smith, as president and vice president of this nonprofit organization, have acquired 350 acres of the Ozarks. (They're not the only folks with a stake in this place, it's just that they were on hand when I visited.) As time and funds permit, they are converting that land into safe, secure and comfortable retirement habitat for these big cats.
Pictured here on the left is the desired result. Compare this new, quarter-acre, forested, dirt-floor tiger enclosure to the cages above. So far two lions, six cougars and seven tigers have these cushy new habitats, and there's an adjacent ten acre roaming area that the cats share in turns. To date only a tiny fraction of the acreage has been converted, but the goal is to move all the animals into more natural surroundings.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Some of the animals get along better than the others. If you're going to put more than a couple of animals in a large enclosure, you want to make sure they'll be good roommates. (Fighting creates unwanted veterinary bills.) Prospective roommates are moved into adjacent cages for a time, then into the same cage before they get their new place in the country.
There's a price to be paid in other ways, too. This is Scott keeping the tranquilizer gun out of view of the cats while waiting for one of the male lions to present a vulnerable aspect. The cats hate that dart gun. They know what it is and they know what its apearance means. Even a simple checkup begins with the sting of a dart, sometimes two or three. When Scott brought the gun into view, the females in the next cage roared and charged the wire. That's something that'll make you alert in a hurry. One second, this eight-hundred pound lioness is at rest, lying down twenty feet away on the other side of the cage, not even looking at anything in particular. The next second, wham! She's on your shoulder. The sound of ten or twelve lions just yards away roaring in concert turns the blood into ice and the knees into rubber. I guess these people get used to it after awhile. I didn't ask. I found myself looking very critically at the welds on that wire, though.
The medical procedures being performed on the lions on the day of my visit were vasectomies. Here's one in progress. Ouch! Grown men grit their teeth, turn away and wipe a sympathetic tear from the cheek as the vet short circuits the once mighty nards of the King of Beasts. The vasectomy is a necessity at Turpentine Creek. Any cub born here is a financial burden that prevents another cat from being rescued.
In the early days when cash was short and experience was thin, they tried castration as a more economically efficient method of birth control. Effective though it was, once deprived of his lucky hormones, Leo lost his mane and spent the rest of his life looking like a burly female. Sorry about that. Won't happen again.
Nowadays they've got an extended organization including a sizeable group of interns and volunteers. If you want to volunteer your time (brushing tiger feces off a cement slab with a high-pressure hose being the very definition of fun) or donate a big pile of money or meat (how about all that venison that's been in your freezer for three years), you can reach them through their website. The refuge is located about ten miles south of Eureka Springs on the east side of highway 23. Phone 501-253-5841. Open to the public. You'll have to concede I got to see quite a lot for the price of admission.
RTJ -- 9/1/2001