Nestled away in the tall pines of East Texas is a place where the big cats are free to roam and roar as they please.
Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Tyler has provided a home to abused, neglected or displaced big cats since 1997.
Open to the public Monday through Saturday, the refuge is dedicated not only to providing a permanent home for the animals, but also on educating the public.
“The cats are really amazing individuals,” said Jennifer Chellette, director of animal care at Tiger Creek. “It’s really neat, to me, for people to be able to come here and see the big cats exhibiting their natural behavior. They’re like house cats — they’re just bigger. It’s very easy to fall in love with them.”
A purr-fect home
Brian Werner started the Tiger Missing Link Foundation in 1995 in an effort to start documenting tigers in captivity in zoos outside of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. One of the first tigers he acquired was a rare Indochinese tiger. That tiger participated in the first genetic testing of tigers, according to Tiger Creek’s history.
In 1997, Brian Werner met up with Terri Werner, who also had an enthusiasm for rescuing big cats. Together they established Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge on 25 acres of land that Brian Werner had purchased years before. They cleared the land and built habitats for the unwanted tigers. In 1999, Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge opened up to the public.
“We started with one tiger and before long we got another, and then another and we just kept growing,” Chellette said.
The refuge is now home to 26 tigers, five lions, three pumas, two leopards and two bobcats. The refuge receives animals that have been abused, neglected or displaced. For example, when a drive-through safari closed down, Tiger Creek took in eight big cats that didn’t have anywhere else to go, Chellette said. Other cats have come to them from circus acts, roadside attractions and owners who did not provide them with the proper care, she said.
For animals that have been abused, refuge workers have to be more careful about how they handle them; however, for the most part the refuge is hands off with the big cats.
“We have to get to know their personalities,” she said. “Some of them like to be talked to. Some of them don’t. If they want to socialize, then we try to do that with them. We don’t force it though. We want to make the cats feel comfortable.”
When Tiger Creek first opened, it could only afford smaller cages with exercise yards to rotate the cats in; however, it began to grow and developed more space for the cats. The refuge has seen a lot of changes in recent years, particularly since 2008, Chellette said.
Newer habitats have indoor enclosures so the cats can be locked up while caretakers clean their outdoor spaces, she said. The indoor enclosures are also used to separate two cats when first introducing them. It allows one cat to be outside with the other inside; however, the two can see each other through bars.
The cats have lounging areas, pools of water, toys and more space, she said.
“Our goal is to increase the comfort level of the cats while also giving them more space,” Chellette said.
At Tiger Creek, there is no breeding or selling, she noted.
“We provide a home of top-quality care for the cats for the rest of their lives,” Chellette said. “Every cat who comes here stays here for the rest of its life.”
Meet the cats
Each of the cats at Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge has an individual personality. Some are well-socialized and friendly; others, prefer their space. They can be aggressive, playful and loving.
Their backgrounds are as varied as their personalities.
Tara, a tiger, arrived at Tiger Creek as a cub along with her sister. Chellette said their owner was not able to keep them. Tara has been at Tiger Creek ever since. When she was a young cub living under her owner’s care, Tara didn’t receive the proper nutrition and developed a metabolic bone disease, Chellette said. While her growth has been stunted a bit, Tara is one of the refuge’s friendliest tigers. Chellette attributes it to her being raised there since she was a cub.
Near Tara’s home, is another habitat for Pepe, Kenya and Scrunches, three lions who reside together. Kenya, a female, came from a private owner while Pepe, a male, and Scrunches, a female, came from Mexico where they were part of a roadside attraction, Chellette said. People would stop along the roadway to take pictures with the lion cubs; however, once Pepe and Scrunches grew up, their owner had no use for them anymore as part of the roadside attraction, she said.
“When Pepe came here, he had ringworm and mange. It took a while to get him back to good health,” she said. “Scrunches growth was stunted. She has joint and development issues, and she requires special care, but she has a very good attitude.”
Juda, another male lion, came to Tiger Creek after the sanctuary he was living in had to let him go when laws changed. At the time, female lioness Ngala did not have anyone to share a habitat with because a male lion at Tiger Creek had just passed away.
“Since we had a lone female, we introduced them,” Chellette said. “Lions are very social creatures. They prefer to be with another. Tigers are not as social.”
Tiger Creek consistently receives calls from people looking to place a big cat, Chellette said. When the refuge is at capacity as it is now, she said, they try to call other sanctuaries to see about placing an animal that they can’t take with them.
Sarge and Lily (shortened names for Sergeant and Tiger Lily) came to Tiger Creek from a sanctuary in Indiana. That sanctuary had taken in a female tiger that turned out to be pregnant, Chellette said. The tiger had four cubs and Tiger Creek took two of them. Sarge became the mascot of East Texas Baptist University in Marshall.
Sarge and Lily’s first year of life at Tiger Creek was filmed for a documentary, “Growing Up Tiger,” that aired on Animal Planet a few years ago, she said. The documentary showed their first time to play outside, their first time swimming and other firsts for the two tigers.
Last week, as Lily rubbed her face against one of her toys (a rubber tub), she would jump back in fear when her face created a noise against the tub.
“They’re so big, you would think they wouldn’t be scared of anything,” Chellette said with a smile as she watched Lily. “But, they’re just like any other cat, only bigger.”
Panthera tigris proliferation
Though Tiger Creek’s mission continues to stay the same, the nonprofit entity is continuing to grow.
The refuge has grown to more than 40 acres and is continuing to open new, bigger habitats for the cats.
“Getting enough space is always a challenge for big cats like these,” Chellette said. “You also have to get them paired with the right neighbor. Having the funds to provide them with the habitats they need and the vet care they need is the biggest challenge. If you have the funding, the cats themselves are actually really easy to work with.”
Because it is a nonprofit organization, the majority of its funding comes from donations, Chellette said. The bulk of its funding comes from a nationwide mail out campaign. Gate fees at Tiger Creek help provide for the cost of extra things, she said. Gate fees are $10 for adults; $9 for seniors ages 55 and older; $6 for children ages 4-12; and free for children ages 3 and younger.
While winter months are slower than the summer, overall Tiger Creek sees more than 15,000 visitors each year, Chellette said.
Among the most rewarding aspect to Chellette is that people get to see cats in their natural environment while Tiger Creek educates them on the need for facilities such as this.
“Seeing the cats settle in and be happy, especially when they’ve come from a bad situation is just so fulfilling. They can run and be carefree here,” she said. “Our goal is to provide a top quality facility that can be a model for other sanctuaries. We want to provide a safe, stress-free environment for the cats.”