Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge celebrates 30 years

Arkansas Tourism

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30, with the refuge hosting an in-person event that includes vendors, magic, music, food trucks, educational programs and more.

Eureka Springs Mayor Butch Berry will give a special presentation on Saturday at noon. Tanya and Scott Smith, president and vice president, respectively, will be on hand to greet visitors and share the story of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.

Turpentine Creek Tour Eureka Springs

The refuge is an exotic wildlife sanctuary federally licensed and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. This non-profit organization currently has more than 50 large natural habitat enclosures ranging in size from 5,000 to 20,000 sq. ft. in which more than 60 exotic and native cats, six black bears, one grizzly bear, and a variety of other animals reside.

It has an on-site veterinary facility – officially the Jackson Memorial Veterinary Hospital – named for Tanya’s parents, Don and Hilda Jackson, who started the refuge. The Jacksons, along with daughter Tanya, established Turpentine Creek Foundation, Inc. in 1992 with a mission to provide lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused and neglected big cats with an emphasis on tigers, lions, leopards and cougars.

The story really began a little more than a decade earlier when Don and Hilda were given an eight-month-old lion in exchange for five motorcycles and a trailer. The young lion, Bum, was showing signs of suffering from the inadequate diet he was being fed and the Jacksons began the lifetime task of rehabilitation and care. It wasn’t long before word of their success with Bum began to spread. In March of 1982, they took on the care of another lion, a five-month-old female named Sheila.

In late January of 1992, they learned of a woman, Catherine Gordon Twiss, with 42 lions and tigers in a variety of cattle and horse trailers in a farmer’s pasture nearby. She was desperate for help. The Jacksons knew of a property near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, they had planned on moving to that could be turned into a refuge for these animals.

After giving up everything to establish the refuge to provide a home for the big cats, relations with Twiss collapsed and she took her menagerie on the road. The Jacksons tried to stop her, but the law was on Twiss’ side and there was nothing the Jacksons could do to prevent her from taking the cats. It would be another four years before 11 of those cats found their way back to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge when Twiss was arrested in Boone County, Arkansas on 11 counts of animal cruelty.

Bum was the first big cat the Jacksons had experience with and when he weighed 80 pounds at 8 months, they thought he was about half-grown. They did not realize how big he would get. Bum lived until 1995, three years after the official opening of the refuge, and he weighed 850 pounds. By then, the Jacksons had experience with a lot of big cats and understood the common misperception owners of large cats discover when these small cubs grow to become fierce predators with an average weight of 400 to 500 pounds for a healthy, fully-grown tiger. They also had experience with varying laws in different states regarding ownership of exotic animals.

In 1997, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge established its prestigious internship program. Graduates with a background in zoology, biology, animal psychology, veterinary sciences and other animal related fields spend a six-month tenure at the refuge caring for the animals and leave with a solid background in everything from proper habitat maintenance to feeding, supplemental medicine and enrichment programs. To date, more than 400 interns have graduated from the program and are employed in zoos and other establishments throughout the U.S. and abroad, while others have pursued further education in veterinary medicine. Dr. Kellyn Sweeley, TCWR staff veterinarian, was herself a graduate of the program.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge has provided sanctuary to more than 450 animals through its 30 years. There are currently a little less than 100 animals housed in large natural habitats on the 459-acre property. The refuge does not buy, sell, trade, loan out, or breed animals. Its animals generally come from private owners who have relinquished responsibility or are otherwise unable to care for them or in cases of abuse, neglect or public safety, are seized by law enforcement authorization.

Turpentine Bobcat

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the refuge is entirely dependent on donations and recurring donors to keep the animals fed, provide medical care and housing. It is open to the public daily throughout the year, with the exception of Christmas Day, and offers an hourly open-air tram tour where guests learn about the individual animals, their stories and care from knowledgeable staff and interns. Lodging is also available in a variety of adult-only and family-friendly options. All proceeds from tours, lodging and gift shop sales support the care of the animals.

When asked about the early days and current challenges at the refuge, President Tanya says, “Things have changed. But then again, we still face the same challenges we did 30 years ago. We had hoped to see an end to big cat exploitation within our lifetime and we still believe that is possible. It’s just been amazing how big the need is. We had no idea when we started that there were so many animals out there in such extreme need. We started from humble beginnings and are so grateful for the outpouring of support from our local community.”

Sunday, May 1, is the refuge’s official anniversary date. There are several ticket options available and details can be found on their website for this weekend’s celebration: www.turpentinecreek.org/30thanniversaryevent.

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