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Big Cat Rescue's merger means a new Arkansas home for the animals and a property sale

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Rescue
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is a nonprofit rescue facility in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It’s an accredited 450-acre habitat in the Ozarks.

The refuge is selling its 67-acre habitat in Citrus Park and will focus on projects to save the big cats from extinction. The nonprofit's residents will have a new home at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.

Big Cat Rescue is closing its longtime Citrus Park habitat and merging with an accredited Arkansas sanctuary, which will take in most of the nonprofit's animals.

In announcing the plans, Howard Baskin, husband of owner Carole Baskin, cited finances, a declining cat population and a desire to continue their focus on rescuing other cats from abuse and extinction.

The 67-acre property on Easy Street, squeezed between the heavily populated Westchase and Citrus Park communities, will be closed and offered for sale.

The new home for 35 cats will be Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit rescue facility in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It’s an accredited 450-acre habitat in the Ozarks with room to expand, Baskin wrote in a website post.

Six older cats, over 15 years old, will remain at Big Cat Rescue until they find a home.

The COVID-19 pandemic and inflation sparked financial stress that have made it difficult for the Baskins to maintain the refuge. During the pandemic, the staff was cut in half, but the nonprofit’s annual overhead was still over $1.5 million, Baskin wrote.

“As the population declines, it becomes an increasingly inefficient use of donor funds per cat to operate a facility like ours,” he wrote.

Big Cat Rescue gained national fame while being featured on Netflix’s “Tiger King” series. But a brighter spotlight shined on the Baskins’ 11-year effort to push Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The 2022 law, aimed at ending abuse of the cat cubs, ended public contact with cubs and ended unregistered private cat ownership.

Before the merger, Baskin, 73, and his wife, 62, considered a transition to younger management but opted against it.

“With other sanctuaries having capacity and the need for rescues expected to decline, such a transition would not make sense,” he wrote.

Instead, they will focus their efforts on the nonprofit’s “three-pronged mission:” provide the best life possible to big cats, stop their abuse and avoid their extinction in the wild.

“During these past few years, as the capacity at other sanctuaries opened up, Big Cat Rescue has, in a sense, gone ‘all in’ on getting the BCPSA passed.” Baskin wrote. “Instead of putting our resources into rescues, we have focused intensely on the federal bill. During that time, with cats living so long at our facility and our cat population becoming increasingly geriatric, we have had cats pass away.”

As recently as 2011, Big Cat Rescue had 119 animals, and 89 were over older than 15, he wrote.

As part of the merger, Big Cat Rescue will fund the building of cat enclosures at Turpentine Creek. The total cost will be about $1.8 million, Baskin wrote. At the same time, the nonprofit must pay to maintain the sanctuary until the sale.

Construction on the enclosures at Turpentine Creek has begun and is expected to take six months.

“The plan is to build the tiger enclosures first,” Baskin wrote. “We may move our tigers before the small cat enclosures are completely finished, possibly as soon as July.”

Big Cat Rescue employees who stay until their positions no longer exist will receive 12 months of severance and a reference to assist in finding new jobs, Baskin promised.

To donate to Big Cat Rescue, click here.

I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.
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