By the time that Carole Baskin was reaching fame through Netflix’s popular show “Tiger King,” Tanya Smith had been rescuing big cats from abusive situations for decades.
Smith and her family founded the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs in 1992, often taking lions, tigers, bears and assorted other wild animals from the homes of people and breeders who had no training to care for them. Turpentine gives those animals rehabilitation, a place to live out their lives with the proper care, peacefully.
In 31 years, Turpentine Creek has rescued more than 500 animals and counting — most recently Fred, a 6-month-old tiger cub rescued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of that time, Tanya Smith has been at the helm. It didn’t begin as an entity open to the public, but now Turpentine Creek has about 55,000 visitors to the refuge each year, emphasizing in every tour that large cats are “predators, not pets,” and providing education in local schools.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is one of 11 accredited Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) in North America, and the majority of its staff is made up of women, including Smith’s daughter Miranda, who was 6 months old when Tanya and her parents, Don and Hilda Jackson, founded the refuge.
“You have to have a lot of passion to work with animals,” Miranda Smith says. “We all have the same mission — do what’s best for the animals and get them out of the hands and situations they’re in … to let them retire and live a life of peace.
“She is a very passionate woman, who goes out of her way to make people and animals safe,” she says of her mother.
Early on, Smith’s facility gained a reputation for rescue and respectful treatment of exotic animals. Many times it has faced the choice to either raise more money to keep providing care for continually more animals, or to find them other safe places to go.
That conundrum led Smith to becoming a founding member of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance Rescue Committee, which partners with other sanctuaries that place the treatment and health of the animals as top priority.
“The mission of the refuge and their future goals to end the exotic pet trade was something I wanted to be a part of,” says Emily McCormack, chairman of the alliance’s steering committee. When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and moved from upstate New York to Eureka Springs in January 1999, she had no idea that there was a big cat crisis happening in the United States. Twenty four years later, she’s still at Turpentine Creek, as curator.
“We went from a very small refuge to now (Smith) running one of the most highly recognized sanctuaries in the country,” she says.
HERE COME THE CATS
Baskin is the latest in a long line of people seeking to send animals to Turpentine Creek, only this time the request comes with funding attached — roughly $1.8 million of the necessary $2.5 million estimated to build out what will be known as the Freedom Field.
Two of the big cats have already arrived, but the remainder of the 40 will come once accommodations are finished. Each cat is given a large living area where they have room to stretch out, run around and play with various toys and sensory items that the refuge provides.
Having so many more cats means Turpentine will be doing a lot of hiring, Smith says. They already employ 31, keep an average 16 biology and zoology interns from across the U.S. busy, and have an emergency rescue team at the ready for any catastrophes such as tornadoes, forest fires or earthquakes. But between Freedom Field and the new visitor education center they are constructing, the effects of the projects will be include 220 new hospitality jobs and bring $51 million to Northwest Arkansas.
“It is important because it will set us up for the next 30 years,” Tanya Smith says.
“I see Turpentine Creek as a success story for Eureka Springs,” says Jack Moyer, general manager for the Crescent and Basin Park hotels. “Driven by the passion of the Smith family with Tanya at the lead, Turpentine has grown huge in measure. Tanya connected the success of the community to the success of her initiative. In doing so, she’s committed (much) time in doing the right thing for all of us.”
THE GATEWAY CAT
Tanya Smith’s parents, Don and Hilda Jackson, rescued the first of the exotic animals for what would one day become Turpentine Creek in 1978. Their family was living in the little town of Hughes Springs, Texas, where Tanya’s parents were good friends with the local car dealer.
One day when he went to repossess a car, he arrived to the motel parking lot where the owner was meant to leave the vehicle. It wasn’t there, but in the space where the car should have been was a lion cub tied to a cinder block.
“Next thing you know, they’re trading whatever was owed on the car for the lion club,” Smith says of her parents. Her dad had grown up close enough to the Dallas Zoo that he passed through it each day on his way to school. He loved it so much that half the time he didn’t make it to class. Eventually they put him to work. “He had a little knowledge on exotics, but even back then, when we called the zoo in 1978 to say we ended up with this lion cub, they said, ‘Neuter him and that’ll make him more docile.'”
What the Smiths didn’t know was that doing so meant the male lion would never grow his mane. He did go on to live a full life, however, eventually moving to Eureka Springs with them in 1992. Smith’s parents traded five motorcycles for that first cub, and her mom always said it would be safer for the kids than the motorcycles. Smith laughs about that now.
“The only time she had seen lions was on TV,” she says. “We experienced everything you can imagine throughout that time frame of having a lion in our back yard. We ended up having to have a double cage around that cage because you can’t go to work — people come on your property and mess with your lion.”
A few years later, the Smiths got their second lion, a female named Sheila. The first owner had been raising her in an apartment in Fort Worth with a baby under the same roof. Since they already had one lion, the Smiths didn’t see any problem with taking on a second, so they had Sheila spayed and took her on, too.
The trouble in the early years was that Smith’s parents worked a lot. The sole instruction for Tanya and her brother when they got off the school bus and had some hours by themselves?
“‘Don’t get that lion cub out of the cage when I’m gone, don’t do that,'” Tanya recalls her mother saying. So of course young Tanya couldn’t resist. She put the lion cub on a leash. In that instance, the lion cub bit her cousin, her older brother had to pull the wild animal off, and the two learned their lesson.
But there was no denying that Smith was an animal lover from day one. She was always bringing home the stray dogs and cats that would be abandoned at a dump. She once brought home three litters of kittens at once, each of varying sizes.
“My mom came home and said ‘Tanya, where’d all these cats come from?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, they just wandered up,’ but she knew exactly where they came from,” Smith says. “My mom and dad were true animal lovers also.”
The three of them spoke often throughout the 1980s about making plans for a way to house animals in Eureka Springs. The town was their family’s vacation spot once a year, and they knew it was a charitable area. How the dream project would manifest and what types of animals it would include were the parts debated, turned over again and again.
“Every time we came, my parents would think, ‘We need to find a place that we can come and do something with animals,’ maybe a dude ranch,” Smith says. “We really didn’t know where we were going, but we knew that we loved animals and wanted to do something to help them.”
She began to work in insurance sales and real estate after high school and helped her parents keep an eye on the property that felt right for them, an expansive 460 acres in Northwest Arkansas.
Then, in 1991 or ’92, they got a call from one of their neighbors, who also owned an African lion. A notorious exotic cat breeder named Catherine Gordon Twist showed up on his doorstep with 42 lions and tigers in three cattle trailers. Texas officials had banned her operation from the state.
Smith was working in Hot Springs at the time and coming home three days a week. That day when she got home, her parents said, “You’ve got to see this,” then led her to the farm to take a look at the packed trailers and spitball how to use corn crib cages to get them out.
Smith was a single mother of two — Victor was 5 years old and Miranda just 6 months — when she and her parents answered that call with the 42 big cats waiting for them. They didn’t even have enough fencing yet.
Not long after, a family friend agreed to open their large property in Eureka Springs to the Smiths to use for their animals under a two-year lease, with the promise that the two years could be renewed at the end of the first term.
That “first rescue with 42 cats crammed on the side of the road, she was told ‘If you don’t pick up these animals, they’ll die here,'” Miranda Smith says. “They took it as a sign from a higher power to make this move.”
When they began to set up the refuge in Eureka Springs, most of the calls they got were from people who had been keeping wild animals in their back yards, people who had a single lion or one tiger.
But after a while, Smith noticed trends in the types of animals they received, and it was “almost directly related to whatever was coming out on TV.” At the start, in the mid-1990s, “The Lion King” was new to box offices. “So at first we had so many lions,” Smith says. “Everybody wanted a baby lion, but the lions grow up. One year we had 20 cougars or more.”
For years, they took almost everything offered to them — armadillos, raccoons and deer, opossums and snakes. The early years, without the income of visitors’ fees, made it difficult to keep all the animals that came their way. Even once they opened their doors to the public, the nature of living in a tourist town meant expecting a dead period in winter and often wondering how they would pay the bills.
In 1993 or ’94 they began allowing visitors, charging $5 each. The hope was that they could earn $25 a day, enough to feed the cat population.
“I thought, ‘If we could just get enough money for the food, it would help a lot,'” Smith says. “There were a lot of times of destitution and just not knowing how we would get by.”
At one point, the refuge owed $100,000.
To keep Turpentine Creek operating, Smith took out loans from DePaul University, which gave them small increments of $5,000 at a time. But it didn’t do much for the overall debt. The arrangement came to a head when the university demanded repayment. If not repaid by a certain date, it would take control of Turpentine Creek’s property in the name of rectifying the loan.
Desperate, Smith invited a local TV station to the refuge to get the word out.
The day that they ran the story, Smith got a call from a Springfield resident who wanted to donate the full amount owed and release Turpentine Creek from its obligations to DePaul. Smith negotiated it herself, saving the organization roughly $20,000 in legal fees, then used that saved money to go back into Turpentine Creek operations.
SELLING OFF JEWELRY
Another one of those unfortunate circumstances meant that Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge nearly had to find another home.
The renewal of Smith’s two year lease agreement hadn’t been captured in writing before the owner of the property passed away. Afterward the trustees of the land wanted to try to sell the property, in hopes it might bring more money than they were making by leasing it.
Smith had to either find a new place for Turpentine Creek or a way to buy the land. So over the course of 30 days she and her team raised $45,000 for a down payment, with the help of her mother, who sold every last bit of her jewelry to close the funding gap.
In the end, “we were able to raise the money,” Smith says. But that wasn’t the only important thing to happen that day.
That evening in April 1994, Tanya’s brother Robert convinced her to go out and celebrate. Smith had worked hard at the refuge all day, and the stress of the last month had taken its toll. But she had a babysitter already, so she reluctantly agreed a drink was in order.
When she walked into a little bar in downtown Eureka, one man jumped up and approached her immediately, declaring his love for tall women. She bought him a beer, and the two have been together ever since.
“My first impression was ‘over the top,'” Scott Smith says. But Tanya didn’t tell him that she had a wildlife refuge. She let him find out when he came over before their first date. Then “Tanya asked that I give her a hand for a minute … took me to see a 250-pound male lion and said, ‘Can you hold him down while I put iodine on the wounds on his feet?’ Trying to remain macho, reluctantly I said yes.”
Smith had the lion jump on a big bench and lay down, then Scott held on for dear life. It was over in a few seconds, but that didn’t make it any less scary for his first time restraining a big cat. Scott is now vice president of Turpentine Creek and has seen Tanya do many more amazing things, like rescuing big cats from every different scenario you can imagine.
The Mountainburg rescue brought in 34 big cats; there are regular calls from the Department of Justice bringing cats under a witness protection program; and then there was the Colorado rescue.
“We went to Colorado to shut down a breeding facility; (that) took almost six months,” Scott Smith says. “During this time, Tanya did a great job of running two facilities while saving 115 tigers and lions from horrible conditions. Not everybody can do that.”
By now, Smith and her team have been able to pay the majority of expenses for the foundation, so 100% of donations go directly back to animal care costs. Whenever the gig gets exhausting, Smith says all she has to do is take a walk around Turpentine Creek to be reminded of the reason she works so hard.
“[I] go see the animals, and you’ve got 200 eyes looking at you (saying) ‘How are you going to take care of me for the rest of my life? You made a promise,'” she says. The reward is in seeing the animals come back to good health and begin to enjoy life again.
“Probably the best day of my life was when we tore down the original compound here,” Smith says. “All the small cages were gone, and the big cats were running free as they could, you know. Just beautiful.”
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