Momma Tiger lived four years as the mother to round after round of cubs at a pay-for-play facility. When Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge employees found her in 2016, she was pregnant and afraid. After years of rehabilitation, Momma Tiger is free.
In response to the need for more protection for big cats like Momma Tiger, Rep. Mike Quigley (D) introduced H.R. 1380, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act, in the House of Representatives in February. If passed, the act will make it “unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive (or) acquire...any prohibited wildlife species,” according to H.R.1380.
At the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, employees care for the big cats that they have rescued from owners around the nation who did not provide the cats with adequate care or overbred them, Assistant Curator Laurie Vanderwal said.
Many of the cats that are under Turpentine Creek’s care come from private ownership, which has resulted in an overpopulation in this country, Vanderwal said.
“These animals need the help now,” Vanderwal said. “It’s one of those weird situations where we wish we didn't have to exist. We kind of wish we weren’t here, but we have to be because (people) try to keep these guys as pets.”
There are at least 3,890 tigers still in the wild, but Momma Tiger is just one of 5,000 tigers living in captivity in the U.S., according to the World Wildlife Fund.
After all the trauma Momma Tiger faced, she was initially aggressive toward the Turpentine employees, Vanderwal said.
“She was definitely nervous around people,” Vanderwal said. “I didn’t see her at the facility, but when she came in she was incredibly aggressive, charging the fence, and hissing at us. But that was because she didn’t trust people.”
The bill would also limit the types of people who can come into contact with endangered species to trained professionals, veterinarians and the faculty and staff of refuges and conservations, according to H.R.1380.
Emily McCormack, the head curator of Turpentine Creek, was determined to rehabilitate Momma Tiger and slowly helped her become acquainted with other people, Vanderwal said. When Momma Tiger arrived at Turpentine Creek, she was also pregnant with cubs, who are still at Turpentine Creek today.
“A lot of it is letting her kind of be,” Vanderwal said. “The interns would clean the enclosures. We just gave (the tigers) their personal space.”
Vanderwal thinks there should be a greater federal law that protects the animal’s right to safety, she said.
“The state law regulates that you cannot own tigers and bears with the exception of animal sanctuaries,” Vanderwal said.
The are 77 cats and 14 other animals living at Turpentine Creek, Vanderwal said.
Scott Eidelman, an associate psychology professor and advisor for the Arkansas Animal Rights Club, a UA Registered Student Organization, is pleased that organizations like Turpentine Creek exist to help these wild animals, but he thinks it is the best of a bad situation, he said.
Eidelman thinks that they have a decent quality of life and ample space to run and be free, but he is unhappy about the cages, he said.
“It’s not ideal, but it is better than what they had before,” Eidelman said.
Senior Clay Herman, the Arkansas Animal Rights Club president who is majoring in criminology, thinks that although Turpentine Creek allows the animals to live free from abuse, workers there are feeding the cats meat-based products, he said.
“It is an ethical dilemma: you let the cat die, or do you have a cow die? I would rather have a lion die if they were eating more than one cow,” Herman said.
However, Turpentine Creek employees obtain most of the meat they feed the cats from recycling chickens that humans can no longer eat, but is still edible for the big cats, Vanderwal said.
“Biologically (the animals) are carnivores, so we don’t have a choice but to feed them some kind of protein,” Vanderwal said. “They cannot survive off of vegetables or tofu.”
Kate Chapman, an assistant professor of psychology, researches the comparative psychology between animals and humans at Turpentine Creek, she said. Chapman thinks that Turpentine Creek’s protection of endangered species is vital, because when animals are subject to life in captivity, there are strenuous legal, ethical and environmental challenges to returning them to their natural habitats, she said.
“Something that really appealed to me was the idea that I could conduct research that would potentially benefit the animals themselves, as well as Turpentine Creek,” Chapman said.”
To help accommodate the wild animals in their new habitat, Turpentine Creek has behavioral management courses and medical care to ensure the cats live the best lives they possibly can in captivity, Vanderwal said.
Momma Tiger is doing well, thriving in an expansive habitat where she can run around freely, Vanderwal said. Turpentine Creek employees introduced her to Bosco, another white Bengal tiger, who she need to fear having to breed with. Together, the two cats live in a stress-free environment that is peaceful and safe.
“We strive to give them something to do every day so they are not bored,” Vanderwal said.
We get them in the habitat, give them space and don’t make them to do anything they don’t want to do, Vanderwal said.