Woman Saves Exotic Pets from Their Owners
On May 14, 1996, the Boone County Sheriff’s Office received several complaints about strange noises and odors emanating from a trailer. The police could smell the scene before they could see it. When they arrived, low, deep growls of lions and higher-pitched, faster snarls of leopards and cougars greeted them. The police didn’t know what animals were making this racket. They were smart enough to keep a safe distance from the trailer and its contents.
Upon investigation, the police discovered a horrifying example of animal cruelty. The evidence suggested animals were neglected for possibly three weeks, according to reports from neighbors and officials.
The police called Tanya Smith, president and a founder of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, to bail them out of this potentially deadly situation. The refuge provides a permanent home to abandoned, abused and neglected exotic animals with an emphasis on large cats.
The refuge houses a variety of dogs, donkeys, ducks, more than 100 big cats, seven black bears and one monkey named Goober. Most of the animals are from private owners, people who purchase a pet and then discover the responsibilities and costs are too great. Smith estimates that 90 percent of the animals come from private owners and would have been euthanized if not for the refuge.
This refuge prevents the senseless killing of dangerous predatory animals. Ostentatious purchases of exotic pets by eccentric owners have created a need for places like Turpentine Creek. Each rescue has its own story, just as each cat has its own personality. Some animals are rescued from breeding companies, such as Zeus, the vocal Siberian tiger. Others animals belonged to private owners, like Thor the lion, who is trained for TV and public appearances.
The refuge covers approximately 500 acres; fewer than 90 of these have been developed for natural habitats. Smith is required to have permits from United States Department of Agriculture and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to conduct her nonprofit business. Turpentine Creek is a nonbreeding facility, which means animals are not bought or sold, according to the refuge website.
Some of the cats are kept in a maze of cages on the walking tour. The thin steel bars are welded in cross patterns and reinforced with thicker frames. The heights are rarely constant, and most of the cages are connected. Any cats with behavioral problems live in solitary confinement, but socially successful cats like Zeus can share cells and travel through multiple cages.
Zeus is one of the refuge’s largest cats. His white color is a result of inbreeding, and his growl reverberates deep within the rib cage of anyone close. The large cat was laid out on the warm concrete stretching in the sun. He is the nearly the same size as the refuge’s grizzly bear, but his cat nap resembled a kittens or normal pet cat. This behavior dwarfed his stature only for the duration of the nap.
“You would be amazed if you knew how much they have in common with normal house cats,” said Ivy Cooper, full-time staff and volunteer coordinator for Turpentine Creek.
When Cooper approached the cage, she chuffed, or made a sound big cats use to communicate in a friendly or peaceful manner. Zeus slowly rose from his resting position and begin to pace while growling at Cooper. His deep voice sounded like the engine of a small plane.
Zeus was rescued from a private breeding facility in Missouri. Cooper was one of the crew that rescued Zeus.
“Seventy-two percent of our population is in natural habitats that are up to a third of an acre in size,” Cooper said. “The rest are the units you see in the walking tour, our goal is to have all of them in natural habitats. The next to get a large habitat is our only grizzly bear, Bam Bam.”
The refuge offers stimulation, food and a clean place to stay. Some of the rescues may have one of these things but often lacks another, Cooper said. Private owners often lack the time, training or space to house an exotic animal.
Turpentine Creek employs more than 20 interns in biology and zoology, who monitor feed and clean the animals daily.
Help was on the way
“It takes a good team,” Smith said. “Every day you have 200 eyes looking at you, and all wondering, ‘How am I going to get food?’ It has been hard, and I didn’t start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel until we got the interns.”
The interns come from all over the world to help and study the animals at the refuge. Some of the students from the UA have developed heating pads to help the animals adjust to the changes in climate. Others have helped to develop crash courses for exotic animal veterinary classes.
Some interns have helped shape legislation to help exotic animals. A former intern of Turpentine Creek helped create the Arkansas code that prohibits personal possession of an exotic animal unless they obtain the proper permit.
“There is nothing like working with tigers and big cats,” said John Chavez, intern. “We do the husbandry, the food prep, feeding, tours and keeper talks — you name it, and we do it. The only bad part about it is the anticipation, waiting to see the animals in their larger natural habitats.”
All of the more than 300 interns who have worked the refuge love animals and live on the land while working there. This love drives them to help creatures that would brutally maim or kill them if it ever got the chance. It drives them to go to horrible scenes to help rescue these animals.
The events in Boone County serve as an example of one of these horrible scenes. Eleven large cats were imprisoned and abandoned by their owner, Katherine Gordon Twist. The sounds and smells of the animals’ cramped enclosure kept the police at bay until Smith and her team arrived.
Twist had eight large cats in a 20-foot horse trailer. Two others were in small cages, and one, whose name was Spitty Smitty the cougar, was in a 3-foot-tall cargo drum.
This story is repeated often on the tour of the compound. It is an example to Smith and her employees; it is one of their reasons they do what they do.
One cat of the 11 is still with the refuge today. Some died of complications from the conditions in which they were found. Others died of old age on the refuge, in a permanent home that provided a clean and warm place to sleep as well as food.
“I believe that the animals that we save deserve to live free of pain and suffering,” Smith said. “It is this that keeps me eager to learn and to educate others about our mission.”