KST Cover

The Owl and the Big, Hungry Cats

Carrie Trudeau '00's skills as a two-sport athlete and biology major all come in handy in her work at an Arkansas wildlife refuge.

by Stuart Kaufman

Carrie Trudeau and engal/Siberian tiger mix. Courtesy photo.

On a snowy day in Arkansas several years ago, Carrie Trudeau posed with a young female Bengal/Siberian tiger mix named Heather. Carrie sent us this photo and pointed out that posing in this way was a rare exception to the refuge's safety rules. Heather has since matured to the point that this would not be possible.

Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!

After playing basketball as a freshman at Keene State College, Carrie Trudeau '00 decided to go out for the field hockey team the following fall. "I remember going through preseason thinking, 'What did I get myself into?' It was a totally different animal compared to basketball," she said.

At the time, Trudeau had no way of knowing that her present job as a staff biologist at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, would bring a literal new meaning to the phrase "different animal."

Trudeau, a biology major, has been working at the refuge since graduating from Keene State. Located on a 450-acre ranch in the Ozark Mountains, the refuge, which opened in 1992, is home to an assortment of abandoned, abused, and neglected big cats, especially tigers, lions, leopards, and cougars. The sanctuary also includes several bears.

As a senior, Carrie noticed an advertisement in the biology department for an internship at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and decided to apply. Fortunate enough to get the internship, Trudeau was at the right place at the right time six months later when a position on the staff opened up.

"It's unreal," she said. "I'm so lucky to have fallen into a job that I really love and is perfect for me."

Trudeau and the refuge staff perform a variety of daily jobs, from cleaning cages to medicating and feeding the animals. In a given week, the animals will devour more than 1,000 pounds of raw meat.

"Because the cats sleep about 20 hours per day, a lot of the time it's so quiet you can hear a pin drop," said Trudeau. "They wake up about a half hour before feeding time and become real loud and aggressive."

Trudeau, who also does training and enrichment programs with the animals, says she's never been hurt. She and the staff follow a strict safety policy that limits the possibilities for encounters with the animals.

Trudeau says the biggest animal she has ever worked with was a liger (half lion, half tiger). "He was 800 pounds and all muscle," she said.

The retreat, a nonprofit organization, relies on donations. The facility, which is open to the public, receives the bulk of its funds through admission tickets and visitors who want to stay in the refuge's onsite lodging.

As the promotional video on its website suggests, "There's nothing quite like waking up to the roar of a lion or looking out your window at breakfast and seeing a tiger staring back." To enhance the experience, staff members, including Trudeau, also direct photo tours for the guests.

One of the most fascinating, yet disturbing, parts of Trudeau's job takes place when she goes out on a rescue. Turpentine Creek staff members have traveled to 17 different states to rescue animals that are abused, neglected, starved, or kept under miserable conditions.

"It's quite sad," said Trudeau. "People think they can have large cats as pets. But when the animals get older and larger, they realize they've made a mistake and can't keep them anymore."

The Turpentine Creek staff treats the animals with respect, affection, and a healthy dose of common sense. "You bond with just about all the animals, whether they like you or not," said Trudeau.

She said most of the species like women. But there was one exception. "There was one tiger that didn't like me at all," she said. "Anytime I came near, he would charge the cage at me. That tiger made it very clear that he wanted to eat me for dinner."

Trudeau says she enjoys the slower pace of life that the South has to offer. "It's pretty remote, but I fell in love with it from day one." She can't think of anywhere or anything else she'd rather be doing.

"It's not a job, it's a way of life," she said. "Because I live right on the grounds, I can lie on my couch and hear the lions roaring. It sounds strange, but it's soothing. It's really like a dream come true."