@story TODD WHETSTINE
@images WILD WOODS PHOTOGRAPHY
Sunday, June 3, 2012, is a day I’ll never forget. I was headed to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge to see more than 100 lions and tigers that live on the 450-acre reserve. It’s the largest big cat refuge in the world, licensed by the USDA, and it’s only a two hour drive from Fort Smith, just eight mile south of Eureka Springs. I spent a few hours with curator and zoologist Emily McCormack on a private photo tour of this vast facility.
The staff that cares for the cats comes here from all over the world. And Emily has been at Turpentine Creek for more than thirteen years. I learned a lot on my visit, like Brodie, the lion, has an oily head, which helps him repel water in the wet seasons.
My personal favorite, though, was a tiger named Heather, a big beautiful Bengal. I got to watch her for quite some time, with my camera as close to the enclosure as I could safely get. I was down on my knees, working hard to get the best shots I could. I thought I was doing fine, but when she jumped so did I, straight in the air, my old bones moving faster than I can ever remember. It’s a powerful thing to be around these animals.
For twenty years Turpentine Creek has been taking in abandoned or abused lions, tigers and cougars. Many were privately kept, and ended up here after living in terrible conditions. On the front of each cage is a plaque that tells the story of the animal’s life. A male lion can weigh more than 400 pounds and can live about twenty-five years, so it’s a huge commitment when they arrive in Arkansas. And boy can they eat. The refuge can go through 2,000 pounds of meat in one day.
To see the cats, all you need to do is show up. It’s open every day but Christmas. Summer hours are 9 to 6. Admission prices vary, so check the website before you head out. You’ll start your tour at the gift shop, hear about Turpentine Creek’s mission and then you’ll start your tour. At times, you’ll be able to get within five feet of the enclosures that keep the big cats secure.
You can watch the cats being fed, take a habitat tour, or if you go on the weekend, you can sign up for the Keeper Talks, which are twenty minute presentations by the biologists and zoologists who will also answer any questions you might have.
There are picnic areas, and if you decide to stay longer than a day, there are accommodations. There are rooms at the lodge, a tree house, five cabins, RV parking, and even a place to pitch a tent.
The refuge offers several events throughout the year. On the Fourth of July, they’ll have the largest firework show in the state. Each Saturday before Halloween they have their annual Howl-O-Ween Spooktacular. These are the only nights of the year the cats can be seen in the cover of darkness.
I had an incredible day. It’s not every day you get to see these magnificent cats up close. I learned a lot about the plight of these animals, and the people who work so hard to care for them. Turpentine Creek is an easy day trip for the summer, and I know the folks at Turpentine Creek will be glad you stopped by.
for admission prices and visitors’ information.