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story.lead_photo.caption A liger named Fergie basks in the sun Wednesday at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge near Eureka Springs. Fergie was one of 28 big cats rescued from a failing zoo in Colorado. - Photo by Jason Ivester

EUREKA SPRINGS -- An Arkansas wildlife refuge recently completed a frantic, five-month rescue of 115 big cats, bears and other animals from a roadside zoo in Colorado.

Tanya and Scott Smith, co-owners of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge near Eureka Springs, said it was the largest big-cat rescue in U.S. history and the largest collaboration of exotic-animal sanctuaries in the country -- 15 of them.

The rescue began Sept. 21 when Turpentine Creek bought Serenity Springs Wildlife Center in Calhan, Colo., and the animals came along with the property.

"The previous owners were ill and searching for someone to take over the care of their 115 animals," Turpentine Creek said in a news release.

"We went way out on a limb for this," said Tanya Smith, who is president of Turpentine Creek. "We actually purchased property for this. We put our name and our money on the line to buy the property in Colorado."

Turpentine Creek partnered with Tigers in America on the rescue, and they split the cost of the real estate, which was $350,000, the Smiths said.

Tigers in America is a nonprofit founded in 2011 to identify the best tiger sanctuaries in the country and support their rescues of unwanted or abused tigers.

A spokesman for Tigers in America said there are 7,000 tigers in the United States and 3,200 in the wild. He also said there are 2,000 roadside zoos in the U.S.

So far, Turpentine Creek and Tigers in America have spent about $1 million on the rescue, but money is being raised to offset those expenses, said Tanya Smith. She said Bob Barker's DJ&T Foundation of Los Angeles gave a $100,000 grant to help with the rescue and re-homing of the animals.

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Turpentine Creek and Tigers in America have removed all the animals from the Colorado facility, with the last four big cats delivered to a California sanctuary Feb. 10, according to the news release.

Tanya Smith said a freelance writer and photographer from National Geographic followed the rescuers from Colorado to document the delivery of the last animals from Serenity Springs to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary near Sacramento, Calif.

Scott Smith said he has traveled 51,000 miles since Oct. 2 hauling animals all over the country, which included getting into a wreck near Portland, Ore.

Tanya and Scott Smith got back home to Arkansas in mid-February after securing homes for all the animals that were at Serenity Springs. Three interns lived in Colorado during the rescue and several former interns drove to Colorado to help, said Tanya Smith.

In total, Turpentine Creek found homes in 15 sanctuaries for 74 tigers, five lions, two ligers, one ti-liger, six leopards, five cougars, two bobcats, one serval, two coatimundis, two caracals, nine bears and two lemurs. Also, three rented alligators were returned to their owner, and one wolf hybrid found a new home.

Turpentine Creek kept 34 animals from Serenity Springs, including 27 big cats and five bears -- four black bears and one Russian brown bear. The rest of the animals from the "Colorado project" were adopted by 14 other sanctuaries.

Before the Colorado rescue began, Turpentine Creek had 84 big cats and 11 bears at its 459-acre site on Arkansas 23 south of Eureka Springs.

Tanya Smith said Serenity Springs was a "cub-petting zoo," where visitors could have their pictures taken handling young animals. This type of zoo can generate $1,000 a day, but that kind of income can only be generated while the animals are young. Then there is the expense of feeding and caring for a large animal for the rest of its life.

"The cubs can only be worked for about three months, and they can live to be 18 or 20 years old," Tanya Smith said. "Financially that doesn't make any sense."

Scott Smith said 41 of the rescued cats needed immediate veterinary care for problems such as tumors, bad teeth or botched declawings.

He said three white tiger cubs taken to Turpentine Creek from Colorado were suffering from metabolic bone disease but are up and running around now after receiving proper nutrition and veterinary care for the past few months.

Vicky Keahey, president of In-Sync Exotics, a wildlife rescue in Wylie, Texas, said the center took in 15 animals from Serenity Springs but three were ill and have since died. In-Sync still has nine tigers and three leopards from Serenity Springs.

"I had to build a new enclosure to hold nine tigers, but eventually we'll run out of dirt," Keahey said.

The Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, took one of the tigers rescued from Serenity Springs -- a 17-year-old male named Charlie.

Noelle Almrud, director of Black Beauty Ranch, said Charlie was healthy when he arrived in December and is doing well now.

"He's rolling in the grass and playing with the toys we give him," she said.

The ranch has 40 species of animals, including two other tigers.

Almrud said the sanctuaries have worked together on rescues in the past.

"We have a community," she said. "We all know each other with the reputable sanctuaries. We work well together. This was a multi-organizational rescue to provide them with better lives."

The Performing Animal Welfare Society took eight tigers from the Serenity Springs rescue. Ed Stewart, co-founder of the organization, said none of the sanctuaries had room ready for the animals but they made room and enclosures.

"You have to at least adjust things and sometimes build enclosures and move animals around," he said. "We didn't really have ready space, but we made space ready so the tigers now have really beautiful areas to live in."

Stewart said it's important for tigers to have trees and stumps so they can blend in with the terrain.

"The whole idea of being a predator is to blend in, to be the watcher instead of the watchee," he said.

Stewart said big rescues like this shouldn't have to happen.

"It just seems to me that regulatory agencies, state and federal, should take care of these things themselves and not let things get out of hand where they're breeding tigers like a puppy mill," he said.

Stewart said it's a waste of taxpayer money to do inspections and then not ensure that changes are made when there are violations.

"It doesn't matter if they have 100 violations or 1,000 violations, somehow these places stay open and keep producing babies," he said.

According to a June 26, 2015, article in The Colorado Springs Gazette, Serenity Springs had been cited several times by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for animal-welfare violations. The violations included failure to provide adequate veterinary care to sick and underweight tigers, according to the article.

Scott Smith said the Colorado rescue has implications nationwide. If the USDA is unable to shut down a roadside zoo that has committed violations, private sanctuaries may be able to come to the rescue, he said.

"There's nothing they can do," Smith said of the USDA. "They don't have the budget. They don't have the teeth to go in there and take it over. We showed them a pathway to how these things can be solved."

Scott Smith said Turpentine Creek may sell the 11.7-acre Colorado property but plans are still being discussed.

Turpentine Creek is building additional habitats to accommodate the new animals and the refuge plans to start work soon on new visitor education center, which will include a restaurant and multimedia room.

The Smiths said Turpentine Creek couldn't have rescued and rehomed the 115 animals at Serenity Springs without the help of Tigers in America and the 14 other sanctuaries.

"We could only take a third of them," Scott Smith said of the animals. "Where would the other two-thirds go?"

Tanya Smith described Turpentine Creek as a "rescue" facility. No cats are bred at Turpentine Creek.

"There are already too many unwanted animals in the world," she said.

Metro on 03/04/2017

Print Headline: Colorado animals find new homes

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