Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge near Eureka Springs (Carroll County) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization providing lifetime homes for abandoned, abused, and neglected big cats and other endangered wildlife. With over 450 acres and more than 120 exotic cats, the refuge is one of the largest big cat sanctuaries in North America licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The sanctuary is rated a “Must See” attraction by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and is one of the most popular destinations in the Eureka Springs area.

Don Jackson, a former employee of the Dallas Zoo, along with his wife, Hilda, and their daughter, Tanya Smith, founded the refuge in 1992. After a friend acquired a lion cub and realized that it needed more help than he could provide, the Jacksons adopted the cub, named Bum. The family built a large enclosure in their back yard and improved the young lion’s diet. Word quickly spread about the adoption, and they were soon overwhelmed with calls from private wildlife owners who could no longer care for their exotic cats. The Jacksons decided to create a sanctuary for abused and neglected big cats.

Over the years, the refuge has rescued animals from all over the United States from a variety of sources, including private owners and roadside zoos, as well as animals confiscated by law enforcement agencies. One of the largest rescue efforts in the refuge’s history took place from November 2012 through April 2013 when they orchestrated the relocation of thirty-four big cats from a private facility in Mountainburg (Crawford County) that was about to be closed by the local sheriff due to unsafe enclosures and risks to the animals’ health. In 2023, it was announced that the refuge would be receiving thirty-five big cats from Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida.

At the refuge, lions, cougars, ligers, leopards, tigers, bobcats, and bears are housed in large natural habitats surrounding the main compound enclosures and gift shop. Each animal has its own story/history plaque for self-guided tours.

In 1998, refuge management implemented an innovative six-month intern program for college seniors studying animal-related sciences. The program has “graduated” more than 400 interns since it was founded. In 2016, an on-site veterinary clinic, the Jackson Memorial Veterinary Hospital, opened at the refuge to provide care for the animals and serve as an educational tool.

Student interns lead guided, half-mile walking tours at 11:00 a.m. daily, and trolley tours are also available. Tour topics include a refuge operations overview, wildlife rescue initiatives, and background on the different species of animals. Staff and interns conduct twenty-minute “Weekend Keeper Talks” each Saturday at 10:40 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. and Sundays at 10:40 a.m. “Keeper Talks” are designed to educate visitors on a variety of topics, including wildlife conservation, the role of sanctuaries, and responsible pet ownership. The popular daily feeding times for the animals range from 4:00 p.m. (winter) to 5:00 p.m. (summer).

The refuge offers on-site lodging in the five-room Safari Lodge and three other special accommodations. An RV park and campground area features fire circles, a reflecting pond, a gazebo, and picnic tables. A lighted, outdoor performance stage is also available for the many special events held at the refuge. Open every day but Christmas from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the winter, the refuge is seven miles south of historic Eureka Springs on Highway 23.

The facility covers approximately seventy percent of its annual operating costs through refuge admissions, lodging, special events, and gift shop sales. Private and corporate donations provide the remaining annual revenue.

For additional information:
Bain, Jacob Paul. “Turpentine Creek: Arkansas’ Refuge.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2013. Online at https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/856/ (accessed July 6, 2022).

Rohrbach, Jill. “Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge Opens Veterinary Clinic.” Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, August 08, 2016. http://www.arkansasmediaroom.com/press-releases/display.aspx?id=2621 (accessed October 19, 2021).

Thompson, Doug. “Arkansas Refuge to Receive 35 Big Cats from Florida Sanctuary.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 31, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/31/target-of-tiger-king-plot-giving-big-cats-to/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. http://www.turpentinecreek.org/ (accessed October 19, 2021).

Eric Studer
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge


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