BY EDIE GROSS, The Free Lance-Star
Growing up, Kelly Farrell had a fondness for dogs??and? bunnies.
These days, the 2006 Colonial Forge High School graduate is into cats. Really, really big cats.
Farrell is in the midst of a six-month internship caring for cougars, leopards, lions, tigers (and, yes, even bears) at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Ark.
Most of the 459-acre sanctuary?s residents are victims of the exotic pet trade. Adorable when they?re little, the animals are often cast off when they?not to mention their jaws and paws?grow into adulthood.
?No matter how cute and cuddly they are when they?re little, when they grow up, you better hope they?re not still living in your house?because at that point, you?re a snack,? said Farrell, 24, who will work at the refuge through mid-February.
Farrell recently earned a degree in biology from George Mason University. She once dreamed? of becoming a veterinarian.?
But she switched her focus to habitat conservation and large-species preservation after volunteering with endangered clouded leopards at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal during college.
Volunteers at the institute, which is the conservation and research branch of the National Zoo, handle everything from caring for the animals to mowing the grass, said animal keeper Jessica Kordell.
Farrell was a hard worker with a knack for understanding each leopard?s individual quirks, said Kordell.
?She really can just read the animals well. She ?got? their behavior,? said Kordell. ?That?s good for their day-to-day care. You have to use those personalities in their management. You can?t treat them all the same.?
At Turpentine Creek, she?s already bonded with some of her charges, including Santania, a beautiful leopard, and Bam Bam, a grizzly bear who, at 400 pounds, is only half-grown.
?He likes to hang out in his pool and bob for apples,? said Farrell.
Just like at the Smithsonian facility, Farrell?s duties are varied.
?It?s definitely pretty labor-intensive, but everybody here is pretty dedicated,? she said. ?We?re cleaning, we?re feeding, depending on how much experience you have you?re giving medication, giving tours, running the gift shop, anything and everything. As far as experience goes, it?s priceless.?
REGULATIONS ARE DICEY
In a perfect world, said Farrell, there?d? be no need for the facility, which opened in 1992. But the public?s fascination with exotic animals combined with an ignorance over how to care for them often breeds tragic results.
Many of the animals come to the refuge malnourished after owners have fed them dog food or canned tuna in the mistaken belief that such a diet would tame them.
In the best cases, the animals were simply kept in inappropriate settings: a full-grown lion in a suburban backyard or a tiger with her own bedroom and a seat at the dinner table.
In the worst cases, the animals arrive at Turpentine Creek emaciated, sick or injured after mistreatment by hoarders or breeders.
?People are always shocked when they find out the conditions these animals come from,? said Farrell. ?It?s a nice opportunity for me to raise awareness and educate the public.?
Part of the problem, she said, is that federal regulations don?t outright prohibit citizens from owning dangerous, wild animals.
Both the U.S. House and Senate are looking at a piece of legislation?called the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act?that would tighten regulations. But in the meantime, the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates there are as many as 20,000 big cats in private hands in this country.
Rules about exotic pet ownership also vary from state to state. For instance, Ohio?s law was considered one of the weakest in the nation. Then, last October, the owner of a big-game farm in Zanesville released more than 50 wild animals?including tigers, lions, bears and wolves?before killing himself.
Most of the animals had to be killed to protect the public. Ohio has since enacted a stricter law, but enforcement could be a problem because the state has few records of who already owns those kinds of animals.
In the wake of the Ohio tragedy, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell called for a review of Virginia?s law, a process expected to be completed in December.
Essentially, Virginia law allows licensed exhibitors, like zoo or circus operators, to import animals classified as predatory but only for public education purposes?and even then, they need a special state permit and often a federal one as well.
In addition, local governments can limit the possession of exotic animals. They?re expressly prohibited as pets in Fredericksburg as well as Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties.
?In Fauquier County, exotics are OK as long as the owner registers them with the animal warden.
In Caroline, Culpeper, Louisa and Orange counties, officials defer to the state code rather than address it locally
But even well-meaning animal lovers can get in over their heads, said Farrell, and the animals usually suffer.
?Hearing the conditions these animals have been in before, it?s appalling,? she said. ?They don?t deserve that.?
?HAPPY AND HEALTHY
These days, Turpentine Creek is home to more than 120 exotic animals, everything from cougars and white tigers to grizzly bears and bobcats. There?s even a donkey named Pistol Pete.
Visitors can tour the facility and meet the animals, though for obvious reasons even the employees aren?t allowed inside the enclosures with them. Even standing on the other side of a fence, caretakers are required to take two steps backward before turning their backs on any of the animals, Farrell said.
The ultimate goal is to house each of them in an onsite natural habitat. The nonprofit refuge uses donations to buy materials?each habitat costs about $20,000?while employees and volunteers provide the labor.
Farrell recently had the opportunity to watch as two ligers?a cross between a lion and a tiger that would not exist in the wild?were introduced to a habitat.
?It was the first time either of these cats had ever felt the grass beneath their toes,? she wrote on her blog, Living with Lions.
??Brady was fascinated by his first tree. He tried to eat the branch, then simply tore the whole thing down onto the ground.
Afterwards he settled on his bench and hasn?t really moved since. It seems he likes his new perch overlooking the Ozark Mountains.?
Farrell hopes tougher federal regulations will one day cut down on the number of exotic animals in need of rescue. In the meantime, she said, it?s great to be part of the solution at Turpentine Creek.
?It?d be better if they were in the wild, but at least they?re getting to be on grass, getting the appropriate medical care they need or getting fed daily,? she said. ?At the very least, it?s rewarding to know they?re happy and healthy given the circumstances.?
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428