Lions, tigers, and even a few bears occupy Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
By Arlene Chiarolanzio, F181694
We were invited by a friend to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, one of Arkansas’ top tourist attractions. It turned out to be one of the greatest places we have ever visited.
This part of Arkansas has hilly, twisty, mountainous roads with scenic vistas. The refuge is a few miles outside the tourist town of Eureka Springs, at the end of a long drive. The 450-acre refuge is surrounded by the scenic Ozark Mountains. Approximately 70 acres are used to house the exotic animals, with 11 enclosures and shelters. Refuge coordinators would like to build more enclosures, so that eventually each big cat can return to a more natural habitat.
We parked our motorhome facing west in the on-site campground. The location provided us with spectacular sunset views, and during the night it was a joy to listen to the big cats “talking” among themselves.
Zoologist Emily McCormack, a refuge employee, gave us a fantastic personal narrated tour in her golf cart around the perimeter of the enclosures. We enjoyed hearing Emily greet the big cats by making their greeting sound, and hearing their response back to her. After the tour, we grabbed our cameras and headed for the main compound to see the animals and say “hello” to Goober, a rhesus monkey who is the refuge’s only primate.
The refuge has approximately 118 wild cats, which include tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, bobcats, mountain lions, and servals. Each animal is housed behind two layers of fencing to protect them and the visitors, and each has its own personal, but usually sad, story plaque on the front of its cage.
Conway, a white tiger at the refuge, was rescued from a Bentonville, Arkansas, breeder who no longer had use for him. Baby, a female bobcat from North Little Rock, was taken in after her previous owner was sent out of the country on a military deployment. Alex, a cougar, was confiscated during a drug raid in Little Rock. Many other stories tell of animal abuse, neglect, or exploitation. This refuge exists because wild, exotic animals do not make good pets. In spite of this, people breed them to be sold, and buyers take them home when they are small and cute.
We never realized how huge these amazing cats are until we stood five feet away from their cages. It was fun watching families with kids of all ages enjoying the animals and visiting the small petting zoo. In this area, you can interact with goats, sheep, and a potbellied pig.
Visitors can spend many hours stopping to see all the animals, watching them play, stalk, or lie peacefully on their platforms. When we were there, time stood still. No one hurried me, and I enjoyed being in a “big cats” world.
The biologist/zoologist interns and volunteers are devoted to the animals. They were very friendly during our visit and never too busy to answer our questions. The amazing young interns are constantly on the go, cleaning the cages daily, among other chores, and feeding the animals. They provide guided walking tours and, for those who are handicapped or need transportation, a cart tour is available. We spent a lot of time in the main compound watching and taking pictures of Bam Bam, a grizzly bear, and of the big cats playing with their bowling pins, barrels, and balls.
Lodging is available for everyone on the refuge. If you have friends who don’t own a motorhome, they may want to stay in a tree house bungalow, a “Zulu Safari” guest lodge, or other rooms. The tree house has a fantastic view, and the Zulu Safari lodges are actually five African-themed cabins. We met people on their honeymoon enjoying their stay at the lodge.
Feeding time is at 5:00 p.m. in summer (4:00 p.m. in winter), and it is the highlight of the day. Everyone hurries to see the animals pace, growl, and roar as the interns toss their dinner into the cage. According to the refuge, the interns typically prepare more than 1,000 pounds of raw meat daily for the hungry residents.
Browsing the gift shop is a must, as it is stocked with disposable cameras, unusual T-shirts, jewelry, books, stuffed animals, snacks, toys, gifts, and “big cat” goodies.
Turpentine Creek’s mission is to provide permanent homes to neglected, abused, and abandoned exotic cats. The refuge also educates the public about irresponsible breeding and the dangers of keeping exotic animals as pets, and also speaks up for responsible legislation.
There is a tremendous demand for resources to meet the needs of these majestic cats. The refuge is USDA-licensed and depends on volunteers, supporters, and donations, with all the money going to the animals’ upkeep. The creatures are wild at heart, but here they are given the caring, lifetime home they deserve.
Once you visit, you probably will be touched by the plight of exotic animals in this country and want to learn more. As it turns out, many other refuges with the same purpose as Turpentine Creek are scattered throughout the United States.
I won’t forget the memories, the pictures, and the wonderful people I met at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. We plan to go back.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is located 7 miles south of Eureka Springs via State Route 23. It is open daily year-round, except Christmas, from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in winter. Admission is $15 for visitors ages 13 and up; and $10 for children ages 3 to 12, seniors, and veterans.
RV park nightly rates are $25. Sites have 20-amp electrical hookups, water, sewage, picnic tables, and fire rings. You may check for site availability and book reservations online at the refuge’s Web site.
For more information, contact:
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
239 Turpentine Creek Lane
Eureka Springs, AR 72632