Last week, Facebook and Twitter feeds throughout the world blew up with the news: American dentist and big game hunter Dr. Walter J. Palmer illegally slaughtered Cecil, Zimbabwe’s celebrity lion. Animal activists and animal lovers mourned. According to reports, Palmer and his companions lured Cecil out of the Hwangee National Park, a protected wildlife sanctuary, shot him with a bow and arrow, then, failing to kill him, tracked the injured lion for more than 40 hours, finally killing him, beheading him, skinning him, simply to claim a macabre trophy. Oh, they also removed Cecil’s tracking collar used by Oxford University researchers to learn more about Cecil and study the lion population.
All for the bargain price of $54,000.
The world expressed outrage.
Lucci and Wyoming. Photograph courtesy of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
While Cecil's story is tragic, thousands of large cats in America endure horrific living conditions. In the wake of Cecil’s slaying, I thought about a group of people I met recently: noble, self-sacrificing animal lovers who work tirelessly to rescue large cats. Cougars kept as pets. Lions acquired as accessories. Tigers bred as commodities.
The Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (TCWR) is a safe haven for majestic animals who experienced neglect, abuse, and deplorable living conditions.
Nala. Photograph courtesy of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
Many of the cats’ previous owners purchased adorable cubs as pets from breeders, quickly learning that within a few months, a playful cub can easily overpower an adult owner. Some individuals acquire exotic animals with noble intentions of caring for the animals—but without the proper reality check of the time, space requirements, and monetary commitment that comes with owning exotic animals. Even well intentioned owners often fail to create a succession plan in case of their illness or death, leaving large cats the victims of poor planning and without caregivers.
Lack of education and misinformation also impacts the animals’ health, with some owners feeding cats diets of dog food with no nutritional benefit, and breeders telling potential clients that as long as the cats aren’t fed raw meat—they’ll be as tame as house cats. Instead, the animals suffer from inadequate nutrition, leaving them riddled with health and developmental issues—and often causing more aggression, due to starvation-level diets. As the adorable cub grows and becomes more aggressive, owners restrict their living spaces, with many exotic animals living in cages or kennels meant for Fido.
Frighteningly, there’s very little regulation in the United States. According to bornfreeusa.org, five states have no restrictions for the private ownership of an exotic animal. Want a cute, cuddly lion cub for your toddler? No problem! (Guess what? One of those states without any regulations is MINE.) In 13 states, the only requirement for owning that real-life teddy bear is a license. Get your piece of paper, and that furry baby is yours! The remaining states either ban or partially ban exotic animals as pets—but even here, you’ll find plenty of loopholes, depending on the state. Grandfather clauses, in particular, allow owners to keep their exotic animals. In many instances, potential exotic animal owners simply need to register their property as a wildlife sanctuary.
TCWR’s mission is to provide a lifetime refuge for all rescued animals with the care, safety, and well being of the animals being the number one priority. The ultimate goal of the organization is to house the rescued animals in natural habitats as their permanent homes.
I visited Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in April, invited by the Arkansas Tourism Bureau to tour the facility and learn more about the organizations’ efforts to rescue exotic animals--primarily big cats--and provide a quality life for them. Located in Eureka Springs, the refuge provides a perfect educational venue for animal lovers to experience the beauty and elegance of exotic animals, while learning the realities involved in exotic animal care.
My first thought upon arriving at TCWR was how much I wished my family could experience the facility and the animals. Bonnie Glover, the Education Coordinator of the refuge, toured my friend and travel buddy Robin Horton of Urban Gardens and me through the first area of the refuge, where many of the animals await release into natural habitats. Bonnie’s natural affinity in discussing the plight of the animals, while chatting with Bam Bam the bear, who was rescued more than five years ago, gave me a little foreshadowing: I could easily see Kristen in this role within a decade.
As Bam Bam played in his pool, Bonnie explained that the ultimate goal of TCWR for every animal to reside in a natural habitat. However, material costs for the habitats run between $25,000-$50,000. With a staff of six animal care specialists and 12-16 interns, both money and manpower are in demand to ensure all animals eventually live in natural habitats. The caged area also serves as a quarantine space for newly rescued animals, ensuring the health of the existing residents isn’t compromised and allowing the new additions to be carefully monitored as they adjust to their new homes.
Founded by the Jackson family in 1992, TCWR began as a labor of love—in an unusual manner. The Jacksons owned two lions, which they moved from their home in Texas to Hope, Arkansas. However, in December 1991, Katherine Gordon Twiss, a breeder and black market dealer from Texas, arrived at the Jackson’s home with 42 big cats, crammed into three cattle trailers. According to our second guide and TCWR intern, Stephanie Sandy, Twiss was on the run from the law and desperate to find a home for the cats. A friend of the Jacksons lived on a 500-acre ranch in Eureka Springs and agreed to provide temporary refuge for the animals. The Jacksons quickly began building temporary cages for the cats, only to have Twiss bring even more animals to the refuge. The Jacksons—Dan, Hilda, and Tanya--faced with the care of more than 70 large cats, sold everything, moved 300 miles, and began their lifelong mission of caring for the animals. The friend’s ranch was eventually sold, becoming the home of TCWR.
Haley. Photograph courtesy of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
The Twiss cats aren’t the only exotic animals calling TCWR home. The stories are heartbreaking…and dangerous. India, a privately owned tiger, found herself released into a national wildlife park when her owner could no longer care for her.
She walked home.
In Mountainburg, a 73-year-old woman owned 28 large cats, with only one part-time worker assisting her. When she found she could no longer handle the work, she called TCWR. You can see TCWR’s rescue in action here.
Kenny. Photograph courtesy of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
Kenny's unique face caused much Internet chatter that he's a tiger suffering from Down's Syndrome. Instead, Kenny is the victim of inbreeding, resulting in his unusual appearance. TCWR rescued Kenny, providing him with a forever home.
TCWR is not a breeding facility. Any animals rescued are neutered or spayed or kept apart from breeding opportunities. As part of their mission, they advocate for Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, working to educate the public about the dangers of breeding and owning exotic animals.
Of course, that advocacy work is in addition to building habitats, providing daily care, arranging veterinary services, fundraising, and rescuing the animals. And there’s a waiting list, with more animals needing the care of TCWR.
While the death of Cecil was heartbreaking, many deaths of these magnificent creatures happen outside the public’s eye—right here, in the United States. Thankfully, with organizations like TCWR, many of the large cats are saved, living out their days in safety and security.
However, TCWR receives no federal, state, or city funding. They also don’t receive any financial reimbursements when an animal is rescued. Along with their day-to-day work of caring for more than 100 large cats and other animals, the staff and board must constantly raise funds.
While many of us were shocked by the $54,000 price tag on Cecil’s head, I thought about Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. I asked Scott Smith, Vice President of TCWR:
What would $54,000 provide for your animals?
• 80,000 pounds of meat (An 80-day supply.)
• 1,700 enrichment toys for the animals.
• Two new, ½-acre enclosures.
• 65 veterinarian visits.
While we need more restrictions on poaching, we also have the opportunity to help large cats close to home. Did you know, for instance, that more tigers live in captivity in Texas than in the wild globally? Increased legislation is a must—-but the more immediate need is to help fund wildlife refuges that offer sanctuary to these former pets.
If you were outraged by Cecil’s death, please consider supporting the good work of TCWR. You can honor Cecil by helping to care for other large cats through a donation to TCWR. You can donate here.
Let's remember Cecil by celebrating World Lion Day and protecting the large cats close to home. You can make a difference.
Thank you to the staff of TCWR for caring for these beautiful animals.
Disclosure: the Arkansas Tourism Bureau sponsored my trip to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and other locations throughout the state as part of their #ARStory campaign. However, my opinions are my own. You all know how much these beautiful animals captured my heart, and we’re all so fortunate that organizations like Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge exist.