When I heard the story I’m about to tell you, I doubted it.
Surely, I thought, what was presented as fact was conjecture, and key information was omitted deliberately to boost a two-alarm horror story into five.
After all, how could I ever again hike or camp along the majestic Buffalo National River if it were true that an adult 400-pound tiger had honest-to-God once been abandoned there in 2005?
Earlier this month, our tour guide at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, south of Eureka Springs, said just that.
In doing so, she painted a verbal picture of a pre-2005 Arkansas in which it was perfectly legal for your neighbor to breed and keep as pets exotic animals such as lions, tigers and bears.
Some of those animals, inbred to the extent that crossed eyes and displaced joints were common, have ended up at the refuge.
The nonprofit focuses on rescuing big cats but has also taken in bobcats, servals, bears and a hyena. My wife and I saw a big griz there.
How a tiger gets let loose on the Buffalo River
The guide on our tour said there once was a tiger housed at the refuge from 2005 to its death in 2017 that was first abandoned — as in set free — by its owner. He had purchased it as a cub and kept it as a pet at his home near Harrison.
Although the owner, no doubt, had many reasons for deciding a tiger was less pet-like as an adult than a cub, it is incomprehensible to me that he said goodbye and shooed it off into the woods near the Buffalo River.
But that’s exactly what he did. True story.
Back in 2005, Mike Connor — I’ve also seen it as “Conner” in some news stories — told one of the Turpentine Creek founders, Scott Smith, the big cat had become increasingly irritable.
No one really knows how long the tiger — named India Nicole — sniffed for prey in the Buffalo National River Wilderness.
What is known, according to a Jan. 21, 2005 story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in Little Rock, is that no one was hurt or devoured and there were no tiger sightings, according to a wilderness spokesman.
But seriously? Would you call in to report a tiger in the wild in Arkansas?
Would you make that call after a beer or two?
I personally cannot recall coming face-to-face with a free-range adult tiger while hiking the Ozarks, but just imagining that scenario has shortened my expected lifespan by 18 months.
He leaves tiger at Buffalo River; then what?
Here’s the kicker of the story — what a prize-winning novelist might call the “denouement” — the tiger reappeared at Connor’s home near Harrison four nights later. It found its way back.
It was then that Connor surveyed his tiger situation and his big-picture journey in life with a greater sense of moral rectitude and decided, this time, to take the tiger to Turpentine Creek — but only after feeding it a farewell deer carcass.
According to news accounts that have Smith, not Connor, as the source, Connor was in tears when he handed over his jumbo-sized pet.
Connor said he bought the tiger at 3 months in 2003 from men who had tortured it with a prod.
Two years later, Connor said he had lung cancer and could not handle the tiger anymore.
Nowhere do any of the surprisingly few news stories I found on this event state why Connor did not clearly see his first option to de-tigerize his life for what it was: dangerous and stupid.
Smith called it “irresponsible,” but said it was common behavior in the Ozarks since more than half of the 117 big cats at the refuge back then came after owners outgrew the novelty of an exotic pet or, more accurately, the pets outgrew their owners.
I don’t believe Connor was charged with a crime. At the time, his only possible violation was the federal misdemeanor of introducing wildlife into a park ecosystem. But the tiger was never spotted or captured in the park.
Influencing Missouri law
As a result of Connor’s indifference to those of us terrified by this story, Arkansas tightened its state laws in 2005 regarding possession of exotic animals — as in creating its first laws regarding possession of exotic animals.
Arkansas had other reasons to act. For example, in 2002 four lions were shot and killed after escaping from their enclosure. They were roaming near a farm in Quitman, Arkansas, 135 miles southeast of Eureka Springs.
According to news accounts, Connor occasionally took his tiger to one of the few, I would suspect, veterinarians in his area willing to look into the large and impressive mouth of a tiger.
Beverly McClintock, who worked near Harrison in Western Grove, told the Associated Press that at one appointment Connor was playful with the tiger and actually wrestled with it.
But she also told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazzette that Connor’s teenage daughter had concerns that kept her up at night.
She mentioned that out of fear she kept the door to her bedroom locked at night because the tiger had discovered how to open it.
The veterinarian also said she had a hard time giving the animal a shot because, the story states, it kept trying to bite her.
This is Pokin Around column No. 29