Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Chapter 4 – Big Cats and Bigger Hearts

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!

This should go without saying: tigers don’t make good pets. Nor do leopards, or lions, or bobcats. Basically any species of cat that is not a domesticated feline has no place in the care of someone who is not trained.

I get the desire. When they’re kittens, they’re adorable. When they’re mature, they’re beautiful. But it’s just not a good idea to try to put a leash, literally or figuratively, on an actual, real live predator. On a wild animal.

I know that – you know that – yet there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than there are in the wild, anywhere. These are not animals that are in zoos, by the way. They’re in somebody’s backyard, or barn, or caged next to a gas station to draw tourists.

There are well over 10,000 big cats in captivity, a vast majority of them tigers with the remainder a mix of lions, leopards, and other wild cats.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, to the literal rescue.

After we left Eureka Springs, Arkansas, we visited this home for abused, abandoned, and neglected wild cats and bears that’s just seven miles from the town. Cecil the Macaw greeted us in the Refuge’s gift shop entrance and we exited the other side of the building, entering a world of rescue, education, and sanctuary.

Cecil the Macaw at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Entrance to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Rescued tiger at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

At first, I felt bad for these wild animals that couldn’t roam free. However, as we made our way down the path and read the signs sharing each animal’s story, I quickly learned that this haven is their best option, and they’re given a life of relative comfort because one family decided to sacrifice some of its own.

The tale of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge began in 1978 in Hughes Springs, a small town located in the northeast corner of Texas. Don and Hilda Jackson took in a lion cub named Bum when the cat’s caretaker, who’d received the feline in lieu of an auto payment from a ne’er do well shyster, called the couple in desperation.

After what I’m sure was a conversation along the lines of “well, Hilda, we’ve been wondering what to do with that extra 15 pounds of raw meat every day. Shall we take him in?” “Sure Don; maybe then we’ll finally get our extra freezer back” the couple agreed to provide a home for Bum. Tanya, their eleven-year-old daughter, thought this was thrilling.

(Honestly – what pre-teen in the pre-iPhone era wouldn’t? I would have LOVED it if my parents decided to rescue a lion. Until I had to clean up after him, a task which I would have immediately punted to my younger brother.)

Don and Hilda were known for being good with animals, and apparently, the reputation was earned because Bum survived and five years later the couple rescued another lion named Sheila.

For almost a decade things were quiet on the Texas front. And then, in 1991 a redheaded black market dealer named Katherine Gordon Twiss, on the “lamb” (ba dum Bum) from the law, dumped 42 big cats into the Jacksons’ laps.

Fortunately, the Jacksons had friends in the Ozarks who just happened to have a 460-acre ranch, and who also just happened to be generous enough to loan them the use of that ranch for their new menagerie.

This was a good thing, because Twiss wasn’t done. A year after her initial visit she dumped another 28 cats and 30 horses on the new refuge.

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Then the couple started getting calls from other people who decided they no longer wanted to deal with 400+lb animals eating their duvets and sitting on their children.

The Jacksons sold everything, bought the ranch, and moved to Eureka Springs. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge was born.

Over the years the non-profit TCWR has grown in stature and reputation, and in 2015 it received accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It’s one of the top big cat refuges in the country, and they’ve also rescued several bears. Tanya and her husband Scott Smith now run the place, and they’ve continued her parents’ legacy of being really good with animals.

The sanctuary is open to the public, 364 days a year. If you have a short amount of time to visit, like we did, you can take the Discovery Tour and see several of the rescued animals.

There’s signage everywhere, so you can read about the triplet of tigers and a lion named Tsavo, all rescued from a facility in West Branson, MO, or about Elvis, the bobcat that really wasn’t suited for promotional work.

You’ll learn about Spyke, a black leopard whose mom was pregnant when she arrived at Turpentine and who was named for his sponsor’s own little black cat.

Bobcat at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Tiger at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

If you have more than the 45 minutes we had, take the Habitat Tour. This guided experience, included with your admission, will introduce you to the residents on a wider and deeper scale, led by one of their passionate and knowledgeable biologists, zoologists, or interns.

You can also spend the night. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge offers suites with views of the tigers, safari lodges, RV and tent spaces, a glamping safari tent, and a TREE HOUSE.

As we left the refuge one of the employees was taking a scrawny dog out for a walk, and the pup was trying to follow us out to Mae. We learned that someone had left him behind, and Turpentine Creek had taken him in until they could find a home for him. Right then and there we knew that their mission is not just a statement; it’s what they do.

We left the puppy in good hands (reluctantly, I might add) and drove to Bentonville, Arkansas. You might recognize the name of that town as the headquarters for the ubiquitous Walmart chain. It’s also the site of a world class museum.

As the daughter of an artist, art has always been part of my life. Many summer weekends were spent wandering art fairs while dad displayed his work.

When I was around twelve, I think, my dad was exhibiting at the Around the Fountain art fair in Lafayette, Indiana. I browsed the other artists’ tents and fell in love with a framed and matted photo of a backlit buck in a golden glade.

All I had was $20. I don’t know if it was because I was a pre-teen or because my dad was a fellow artist, but Mr. Chet Chalinski accepted my bid and I purchased my first piece.

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Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was also an early art fan who used her allowance to buy her first work of art. At ten years old she bought a reproduction of Picasso’s “Blue Nude” in her father’s Ben Franklin dime-store franchise. Alice grew up to become a full-fledged collector and in 2011 founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Over the years Alice used several millions of her billions to purchase works by some of America’s most defining artists, to the chagrin of the art scene on the coasts. She caused quite the stink when she bought Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” for $35 million from the New York Public Library. “She’s taking it WHERE?” was the hue and cry.

The maverick heiress was even known to bid on Sotheby’s auctions from the saddle of her horse in Texas. To the benefit of those who aren’t in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, her dogged pursuit lined the walls of her museum in the Ozarks with works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Frederic Church, Roy Lichtenstein, and John Singer Sargent, to name a few.

Eight galleries showcase a broad cross-section of American art, from before the country began to modern times. It’s a veritable who’s who of American artists and a collection of iconic American symbols.

Admission to the museum is free, courtesy of Walmart, which means that anyone can view, up-close, the iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, or Alexander Hamilton in the most gigantic gold frame you’ve ever seen, or Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, brandishing a sandwich to go with that bandana. You can see the brush strokes in Sargent’s Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, or the languid subjects of Mary Cassatt.

Every turn, every new gallery elicits a gasp of either recognition or appreciation or, most often, both.

One gallery is devoted to U.S. Presidents and their slogans: A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage was Herbert Hoover’s promise. Don’t trade horses when crossing streams was Abraham Lincoln’s admonition. Let’s make America great again was the rallying cry of…Ronald Reagan.

The museum does not just contain art, the architecture itself is a work of art.

Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, it straddles Crystal Creek, harnessing the natural beauty that surrounds and envelopes its unique design. Instead of razing trees and building the museum on the banks of the river, Safdie created two ponds from the creek and erected the museum over and around the water, which is how the name Crystal Bridges came to be.

Even the restaurant is a performance piece, situated between the two ponds and enclosed in a light-filled frame of floor to ceiling windows and an arched roof. Outside, sculptures turn the three miles of trails that weave through the grounds into an alfresco gallery.

We strolled a scant bit of those trails, knowing that we had to get back on the road. Ever since we’d left, I’d felt like we were continuously running just a little bit behind. Turns out this time I didn’t have to worry.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

This chapter was previously posted with modifications at Big Cats and Bigger Hearts and Exploring Alice’s Wonderland.