Big rescue for big cats is No. 8 story of the year

Thursday, December 27, 2012
Scott Smith, vice president of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, stands in front of a row of 10 new enclosures, each 1,000 square feet, that will house 10 tigers from Riverglen Tiger Sanctuary. The first enclosure has a flag to signal its completion, although rocks have to removed and sod installed in the 20-by-40 foot unpaved part of the enclosure. Photo by Jennifer Jackson

In 1978, Don Jackson went to repossess a car he had sold to a man who lived near Hope, Ark. Arriving at the address, he found the car and the buyer gone, but in the backyard, tied to a couple of cinder blocks, was a tiger cub. Jackson, who as a teenager had worked at the Dallas/Fort Worth Zoo, tracked down the owner and traded the car for the cub.

Almost 35 years later, Don's daughter and son-in-law, Tanya and Scott Smith, received a call from the sheriff of Crawford County, asking for help finding homes for 34 big cats living in wooden enclosures on a mountaintop east of Fort Smith. The Smiths agreed to help, even though they already were providing room and board for 115 big cats, many of them senior citizens, at Turpentine Creek, the wildlife refuge that Tanya and her parents started in 1991.

The estimated cost of providing accommodations for 34 new lodgers: $238,000. So far, TC has received $90,000, more than half in two large donations, and the rest in donations ranging from $3 to $500.

"The daunting task of raising $238,000 was overwhelming when we started," Scott Smith said. "Now we're seeing the buildings going up, and it seems like something that can be accomplished."

In November, Turpentine Creek took in six of the tigers -- India, Chopper, Duke, Austin, Duckie and Princess -- the number of enclosures in the main compound vacated when large tiger habitats were built on the ridge slope. Down a road in back of the main ridge, in what was called Hippie Hollow, workers are framing in 10 more enclosures, each with a 1,000 square feet of space -- two and half times more than required by the U.S.D.A. -- that will provide quarters for 10 more tigers that will be brought from Riverglen in January. Each enclosure, which includes a 10 by 20 foot concrete pad and 20 by 40 foot grass-covered area, costs almost $5,000 to build, Smith said. Costs include running a water line 400 feet down to the area, which the staff has dubbed the Rescue Field, and enclosing it in a secondary barrier -- 3,200 feet of fencing, 8 feet high.

"It will zigzag around the 4.3 acres," Smith said.

All the tigers that have arrived so far are in good shape physically, but the wooden enclosures they were living in were not, Smith said -- there were nails and wires sticking out, he said. The woman who ran the refuge, Riverglen Tiger Sanctuary, had called TC and asked for help, Smith said, only to call back and say the situation was under control. Then the sheriff, concerned about the safety of the situation, called TC, and staff and interns made three trips, bringing back six tigers and a cougar. When Smith posted the story of the rescue on Facebook and social media, donations of $21,000 came in.

"When you have a situation like this, people are willing to help out who have never even been here," he said.

The new arrivals, like most of the tigers at TC, are elderly -- the youngest is 15, which is 65 in people years. One, named Duckie, is almost blind, but has gotten used to her cage and isn't running into the center pole anymore. On a sunny day in mid-December, the tigers were sitting outside in the sun, much like old-age pensioners who know they have landed a comfortable billet to live out their remaining span -- big cats in captivity live 20 to 25 years, 10 years longer than in the wild. Big cats species -- tigers, lions, panthers and jaguars -- are characterized by an elastic hyoid, the throat bone that aids in swallowing and tongue movement, so can purr only when breathing out.

"That's her saying hello," Smith said as Duckie chuffed a greeting.

When Don and Hilda Jackson started Turpentince Creek, only two or three tiger rescues existed in the country, Smith said. But homeless tigers were becoming a problem due to unregulated breeding of exotic animals in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. Tigers were particularly in demand, he said, because they do better in captivity than lions and have beautiful coats. When the Jacksons first opened the refuge, they thought they would have eight or 10 tigers, Smith said, and run a dude ranch on the rest of the acreage.

"When the doors opened, the calls came pouring in," he said.

Since marrying into the family, Smith, a food chemist by profession, has rescued a tiger that was raised in thebasement of a Dallas home on dry dog food, resulting in bone problems. Another, named Hercules, had been kept in a 4-by-6 foot cage that was 4 feet high. Hercules couldn't walk, only drag himself along on his front paws. Now he and Sierra and the other rescued tigers live in 1/3 to 1/2 acre enclosures, and get raw meat daily. TC's big cats go through a thousand pounds of it a day, Smith said, and closer to 1,400 pounds on cold days. Tyson donates chicken regularly -- recent donations totaled 60,000 pounds. Zero Mountain and Don's Cold Storage in Rogers help provide storage space.

"We now have enough meat to last through January," Smith said.

To help take feed and care for the new arrivals, four interns will be added to the current group of 13, Smith said. A crew of welders are working on the new enclosures, while others are putting in the water line. Pyle's Concrete donates slightly-cracked septic tanks, which don't hold water but make wonderful tiger dens, and Oklahoma Pipe and Steel donated $15,000 worth of pipe for the perimeter fence, Smith said. The Rescue Field enclosures will eventually be used as quarantine areas for cats and a veterinary clinic built there, Smith said, which will be essential as the population ages.

"We are becoming a geriatric center for cats," he said.

Don Jackson, who is no longer involved in the running of the refuge, had experience working with lions because he literally had to walk through the Dallas/Fort Worth zoo to get to school, Smith said. So when the zookeepers needed an extra hand, they offered Jackson a job, even though he was still in his teens.

Turpentine Creek is open daily except Christmas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Winter is a good time to go because the refuge isn't crowded, and the self-guided walking tours make a good family outing. Admission is $15, $10 for seniors, veterans and children 3 to 12. Individual memberships are $40, family memberships $80. Adopting a cat as one of 20 sponsors is $150. Sole sponsorship of a cat for a year is $2,500.

In addition to 115 tigers, Turpentine Creek has seven black bears, a brown bear named Bam-Bam, panthers, bobcats and cougars. For more information, to

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