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The Grandpa of Turpentine Creek

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


When John Hollopeter arrives at work, he always takes time to greet everyone by name. He has a cheerful "Good morning" for Flip, who comes waddling out and stands up on his hind legs. Goober comes running when he sees John get out of his car. While others don't get up, they do respond to John's greeting.

"That's Miss Izzy," John said. "She's a pretty girl. Talk back to me, Izzy."

Izzy is one of the 100-plus tigers that call Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge home. Flip is a coatimundi, a South American version of raccoon, and Goober is a monkey.

Turpentine Creek also home to lions, panthers, bears, cougars and other animals that were adopted as pets and abandoned. They are fed and cared for by Tanya and Scott Smith and their staff with the help of a cadre of interns who consider John part of their extended family.

"They all call me Grandpa," he said.

John is actually an uncle by marriage to Scott Smith, who is the nephew of John's first wife. A former truck driver, he has worked at Turpentine Creek for a couple of years, driving the trolley for the habitat tours. It's a job John continues to do despite being diagnosed with bone cancer last year.

"I feel like I've got to keep going," he said.

Born in 1935, he grew up on a small farm in the upper Midwest where "life was all work," he said. He and his older sister walked to school in winter even when the plows had piled the snow so high, the power lines along their road were buried.

"I can hear my mother saying "Watch out for the power lines,'" he said.

In 1952, he enlisted in the Navy Reserves. His mother went to the recruiting office to sign for him because he was only 16. Attached to a reserve unit near his home, John remembers going every other week for training, then to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training. He was told when he finished that the unit would be going to the Far East Command, but John and a handful of others didn't get to go to Korea. So he put in his three years in the states, he said, receiving his discharge papers in the mail.

He put the discharge papers on a shelf of the cabin he built on 40 acres in Michigan. In the early 60s, he had a job picking up newspapers off the train and delivering them to towns along Lake Michigan. He returned home one morning to find the cabin had burned down along with everything in it, including the discharge.

"That's the last I saw of it," he said. "I probably should have done something about it at the time, but I didn't."

When he went to get a copy, he found out that a fire in St. Louis had destroyed thousands of military records, including his own. Efforts by people at the Veterans Administration to get a copy have failed, he said, as did an attempt by his older daughter in Michigan. He remembers the promises the recruiting officer made when he enlisted.

"I doesn't need a loan to build a house," he said. "I'd like to get some help from the V.A. for this cancer that I've got, but it doesn't look like that will ever happen."

In the meantime, he is losing weight. The interns take him out to dinner several times a week, but nothing tastes good, John said, and he has to force himself to eat.

"I know I'm sick, but I can't do anything about it," he said. "I can't afford it."

Coming to Turpentine Creek and helping any way he can helps, he said. Part of his job is to talk with visitors, making sure they have a good time. So he gets up in the morning, puts on his uniform and drives from his home in Berryville to the refuge, where he greets Flip and Goober, Thor the lion, Miss Izzy and the other tigers. A source of joy is seeing the animals released from enclosures with concrete floors into large, natural habitats with room to roam. For animals raised in cages, it's the first time they have walked on dirt or grass.

"It's something to watch," he said.

Only Miss Goldie, sitting under a picnic table with her head ducked under her wing, doesn't respond to John's greeting. But he doesn't care.

"I've got to speak to everyone every morning," he said. "It may sound silly, but sometimes they seem like your best friends."

Right In Your Own Backyard: A Wildlife Refuge


Story by: Jim G. Miller  Photo: Courtesy of Turpentine Creek

On scenic highway 23 about seven miles outside of Eureka Springs, there rests one of the largest wildlife preserves for big cats in the country. That refuge is called Turpentine Creek, and it has been a refuge for tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, and other endangered wildlife since 1992. “It’s right in your own backyard,” says Scott Smith Vice- President of TCWR. Smith began as a volunteer who devoted his services as a carpenter and welder to the refuge back in 1994 and has never looked back since.
“We invite everyone who has not been here to come see these magnificent cats. The spring season is the best time to visit.” Turpentine Creek originated when Tanya Jackson Smith’s family acquired a lion named “Bum” while they lived in Northeast Texas in 1978. Smith, who currently serves as president, was only 11 at the time but remembers the second lion they got in 1982 that was named “Shelia.” The family was successful at taking care of these two lions in their backyard up until 1992 when they moved to Eureka Springs to establish the Refuge.
The Jackson’s soon acquired many more big cats for their refuge when a breeder and black market dealer on the run showed up with forty two cats stuffed in cattle trailers. The Jacksons put a great deal of work into preparing the 500-acre refuge where TCWR now rests. Over time people from all over the country began contacting the Jacksons, seeking to relieve themselves of the burden of their big cats. TCWR is UDSA regulated and now rescues cats that have been abandoned, abused or neglected by their licensed or unlicensed owners.
“The cats go through about 1500 pounds of raw meat everyday,” says Smith. Eighty-five percent of it is donated as poultry by Tyson Foods. The remainder is donated by individuals or purchased using donations. If you are interested in volunteering or donating your time or money to this one of a kind refuge located right here in Arkansas, visit their website at www.turpentinecreek.org or visit them and their amazing big cats while it is still cool outside.
Cost for admission is $20 for adults, $15 for teenagers, and $10 for Senior Citizens. Children three and younger get in free. During the summer months, the refuge is open from 9am to 6pm. The park is open everyday of the year except for Christmas. Feeding time is a major highlight not to be missed which is usually around 5 p.m. during the summer. TCWR also offers habitat tours and educational talks given by refuge zoologists and biologists.
TCWR houses 130 big cats and other endangered wildlife. All of the cats are spayed or neutered and are given the best care possible. The refuge also offers photography opportunities as well as lodging. Some people have even been married there. Definitely worth the drive, this is a must see destination for every Arkansan and an opportunity to help support a place of safety for these animals in need.

Spring Break, But With Tigers - Texas students arrive to build habitats at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Channeling their inner tiger are from left, back row: Maddie Drake, Santiago Aguirre, Brittny Nguyen, Samna Rasheed, Jennifer Pimentel and UNT staff member Laura Pasquini. In front are Ruben Molina and Catherine Deblois.
Last year, Santiago Aguirre spent his spring break building houses for Katrina victims in New Orleans. The neatest part:

"We got meeting the person who was going to live in the house," he said.

Last week, Aguirre, a sophomore at the University of North Texas, helped create homes for homeless refugees with the help of six other UNT students. And they got to see one of the occupants step into her new home for the first time -- all four paws.

The new occupant was named O.D., and she was one of 30 tigers that Turpentine Creek adopted last year when Riverglen Tiger Refuge was closed. The North Texas students painted O.D.'s den and picked up rocks from her new backyard, a 20-by 40 foot space where the tiger can stretch her legs. The students also installed all the wire fencing around a habitat being built for Grumpet. Each new habitat will provide 1,000 square feet of space, more than two and half times that required by regulations.

The students arrived on Sunday, March 9 for the week, staying at the Retreat at Sky Ridge. They worked at Turpentine Creek from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and a half-day on Thursday, but also had time to sight-see. They visited Eureka Springs and Thorncrown Chapel, went fishing on the White River and horse-back riding at Bear Mountain. They hoped to get in some canoeing or kayaking on Lake Leatherwood before driving back to Texas on Friday.

"It's like vacation and a working holiday," Aguirre said.

UNT offers alternative spring breaks to raise students' awareness of social issues and injustice through volunteer service. Last year, senior Brittny Nguyen, an education major from St. Paul, Minn., chose to work at a food bank in downtown Memphis in order to enlarge her knowledge of how people live. This year, she wanted to do something completely different, and be in the countryside, so chose Turpentine Creek as first choice. While none of the students plan careers in animal science, it was the love of animals that led them to choose Turpentine Creek, they said. But it wasn't the tigers that drew Ruben Molina.

"I love lions," he said. "Me and lions, we get each other. The first thing I did when I got here was run up to Thor."

Thor lives in an enclosure in the old compound, but Turpentine Creek president Tanya Smith, vice-president Scott Smith and their staff of professionals and interns have been focusing on getting all the animals into larger habitats on the refuge's acreage. Habitats for the tigers from Riverglen Tiger Sanctuary, most of whom are elderly, are being built on Rescue Ridge, a remote section of the refuge where they can quietly live out their lives.

UNT students on alternative spring break trips also rebuilt homes in Joplin, Mo., Moore, Okla., and New Orleans for tornado and hurricane victimes; worked with children at the Cherokee Nation's Head Start Program in Tahlequah, Okla.; created care packages for the homeless in San Antonio, picked up trash on Galveston beaches and worked at facilities serving neglected children and homeless teens in St. Louis.

The Turpentine Creek contingent were accompanied by Laura Pasquini, a university staff member who is working on a Ph.D. in learning technologies with an emphasis on social justice. The group included three high school students who attend UNT: Maddie Drake of Paris, Texas; Catherine Deblois of Melissa, Texas, and Ruben Molina, of Mission, Texas.

Drake said the opportunity to work at Turpentine Creek was very rewarding.

"We got to start a project and finish it, and then watch the tigers released into the habitat," she said. "We got to see the difference we made in a tiger's life."

Students pay a small fee to participate in alternative spring breaks, and those who go on one of the trips tend to sign up again, university coordinators said. The University of North Texas is located in Denton. (unt.edu). For more information about Turpentine Creek, click here.