“Hey all you cool cats and kittens!”
Carole Baskin, the “Tiger King” reality TV series celebrity, greeted guests at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge with her trademark catchphrase. Her captive audience, about 100 or so in total, were dressed as if they were attending a casting call for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit Broadway musical, “CATS.”
There were tiger print scarves and blouses. Leopard print pleather jackets. Tiger-ear headbands. Shirts, scarves, skirts and camisoles covered in cheetah spots. Baskin, and her husband Howard, were both clad in matching, head-to-toe sateen tribal, cheetah print robes and matching lion and lioness headpieces.
The Baskins were at the big cat rescue in April for its annual “Feast with the Beasts” fundraiser.
Their presence at Turpentine Creek, also celebrating its 31st year of operations, was symbolic.
The organization is transforming from a scrappy nonprofit to a major player in national and international efforts to save the beautiful, and endangered, big cats from a global wildlife trade where they’re kept as pets, used in circuses, housed in petting zoos or mutilated for their pelts and parts of their bodies believed, in some cultures, to have medicinal value.
In March, the Baskins announced they would move the remaining big cats from their Tampa, Florida-based Big Cat Rescue to Turpentine Creek so they could sell the land and use the money to support international efforts to save cats, like tigers, lions, cheetahs, servals and ligers (a cross between a tiger and a lion) from exploitation.
In many ways, the event was a coming out party for the refuge, located on a few hundred acres and about 10 minutes from downtown Eureka Springs (tourists sometimes remark in shock about hearing tigers and lions moaning and roaring in the middle of the night, Turpentine Creek co-owner Scott Smith remarked at the 2023 Feast with the Beasts event, held April 29).
The event features food, drinks, live music and a silent auction of plentiful amounts of big cat artwork. (A painting of a whimsical tiger by Carole Baskin’s daughter sold for more than $1,000).
Operating historically as a smaller nonprofit, raising money when needed to care for the animals or pay a shoestring staff, Turpentine Creek is now running with the big cats, so to speak. Its founders, Scott and Tanya Smith, were heavily involved with the 2022 passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which curtails the private possession of the animals and their use in petting zoos.
For years, Turpentine Creek expanded with fits and starts, running a gift shop and educational programs out of an old barn and other rickety buildings. When calls came in for animals that had been confiscated by authorities, they’d scramble to build new habitats with whatever funds were on hand. Since it was founded in 1992, the sanctuary has rescued 500 animals nationwide from abuse and neglect, according to a Turpentine Creek fact sheet.
It costs at least $10,000 a year to provide food and other care to a big cat, like a tiger. Once at the refuge, the animals spend the rest of their lives there.
“It has gone from being a grassroots organization that when there was a crisis, like the federal government called and said they needed a place for 40 animals they’d seized, [Turpentine Creek] would then go out to donors and talk about the latest crisis,” said Carol Wick, the CEO of Orlando-based nonprofit Sharity, a firm that assists organizations including Turpentine Creek with strategy and fundraising.
“Now they are working on a multi-year strategy where organizations and individuals can see what their plans are and that they are sustainable,” Wick told Arkansas Business.
Turpentine is in phase two of a $6.5 million capital campaign, a large-scale expansion of animal habitats for dozens of additional cats and is planning a new museum and educational center. New habitats, which will house about 40 large and small cats, including the Baskins, are under construction in the new 13-acre “Freedom Field” addition to the sanctuary.
The nonprofit hired a lobbying firm in Little Rock to drum up government support. Economic studies for its $4 million goal of the second phase of fundraising efforts estimate the creation of 223 new jobs and an annual impact of $51.8 million for the surrounding area. Turpentine estimates its current economic impact is about $4 million.
Over the years, Turpentine developed a modest regional reputation and was positioned well to take advantage of tourists and natives of northwest Arkansas who visited to see its inhabitants: lions, tigers, ligers, bears, bobcats and African servals — almost all rescued from exploitative or abusive situations across the U.S., even the world.
It’s now one of the few refuges in the U.S. accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to take big cats (and bears) that have been saved from private owners, petting zoos or other places, like the now infamous Oklahoma exotic animal park featured in the 2020 Netflix hit television series, Tiger King, which documented the exploitation of animals, like tigers and lions, and the surly cast of characters involved in such business ventures.
The Baskins declined interview requests with journalists. One guest remarked that Carole Baskin had received numerous death threats and had had bad experiences with the press. Carole Baskin’s co-star and arch enemy, Joe Exotic (aka Joseph Maldonado), is now in prison for animal abuse and for plotting to hire someone to murder her.
(There was speculation Carole Baskin murdered her first husband and fed his body to a tiger, but she told the New York Post in January that he’d been located alive in Costa Rica.)
Tanya Smith, Turpentine Creek co-founder and president, said she worked closely with the Baskins to lobby for the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. She said she does think “Tiger King” helped the cause.
“It did create awareness,” Smith said. “We believe they [the Baskins] are truly nice people. They were just in a bad situation.”
The night before Feast with the Beasts, Turpentine received a tiger cub that was confiscated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife from a private owner living in central Arkansas, Smith said.
An estimated 20,000 big cats are kept in private ownership in the U.S., “often purchased as cubs or bred for photo opportunities,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife said in an April 2023 news release. “As they outgrow those uses, they are sold into the exotic pet trade or the illegal market or abandoned to already financially strained sanctuaries.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife “were aware of the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” Smith said. “The guy is going to be prosecuted for tiger abuse, and the tiger will live here for the remainder of its life.”
“There will be maybe five or 10 years that it will take to make sure that all of the animals that are in these situations will be able to have sanctuary,” Smith said. “We have to get ready for whenever this happens or as it happens.”