story by Erin Robertson, special to The City Wire
photos courtesy of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
EUREKA SPRINGS — Hercules the tiger was named for the muscular macho-man of Greek mythology. Rescued from a Texas home with four other tigers, he had been kept in a cage so small and for so long that he had developed deformities in his lower body.
The long-term confinement and a poor diet caused the big cat to have weakened hips and back legs. He could barely walk.
With the help of the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge staff and interns, Hercules is now as strong as his name suggests. In his grassy habitat he roams and plays and is often aggressive at feedings, a healthy characteristic he didn’t display in his extreme captivity.
The tiger’s tale is one of many to come out of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge since it’s inception 20 years ago this month (April). The refuge’s mission is to provide lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused and neglected big cats, with an emphasis on tigers, lions, leopards and cougars.
Turpentine Creek is celebrating its 20th birthday with 20 days of events from Thursday (April 19) through May 5. The celebration includes an art auction and party, informative lectures on the dangers of owning wild animals, a reunion for interns who have worked at the refuge and more. A complete list of festivities can be found here.
It’s the cats that get all the attention, but it’s the heartfelt work of the people behind Turpentine Creek that have kept the refuge open for the last two decades.
Co-founder Tanya Smith has been around big cats since she was 8. Her parents, Don and Hilda Jackson, acquired a lion, Bum, and later another, a female named Sheila, which they cared for in their back yard. The lions moved with the family when they relocated to Eureka Springs from Hope and founded the refuge in 1992. The animals lived out the rest of their lives there.
Scott Smith met Tanya about 18 months after the refuge opened and they married about a year later. Together they serve as officers at Turpentine Creek — she as president and he as vice president. The refuge is open every day of the year except Christmas. Summer hours are 9 a.m. till 6 p.m.; it closes an hour earlier in the winter.
“I always knew, personally, that I would never be an hourly employee in a factory,” said Scott, who hails from Springdale. “But I never dreamed I’d be involved in a place like Turpentine Creek.”
The family-run organization moved to its current 459-acre site after acquiring a large number of big cats all at once. A breeder and black market dealer showed up on the Jacksons’ doorstep with 38 big cats crammed into two cattle trailers. She was on the run from the law in Texas and desperately needed to find a home for the cats. The woman who had delivered the mass of cats eventually moved all of her 70 big cats and 30 horses to the refuge.
Word traveled fast, and soon calls were coming from cat owners all over the country, looking for a sanctuary for their captive animals. The family had sold everything they owned and moved 300 miles to undertake the humbling work of caring for the animals.
Hilda Jackson, the matriarch of the family, was the refuge curator for Turpentine Creek up until she died two years ago. Don built all the buildings at the refuge.
The 459-acre refuge now houses 115 big cats and seven bears, plus a few other animal species thrown in for good measure.
Turpentine Creek is operated by a board of directors; the Smiths and other officers carry out the board’s directives. Tanya owns the land and leases it to the refuge.
Patricia Quinn, a 14-year veteran employee, said the opening of new habitats is an endearing aspect of the refuge. She left a corporate job in Michigan to come to Eureka Springs just to work with the big cats.
“Many cats live in cages for many years before being rescued, and even at the refuge they often live in a cage until enough habitat space is prepared for them,” Quinn said. “Seeing a cat go into a habitat for the first time is magical. It makes us feel really good that we can give that freedom back to the cats.”
“Our most important goal in going forth is to keep rescuing cats and to get them into the habitats to be able to live like a cat is supposed to live, with freedom,” Quinn said.