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Stafford native is earning her stripes at wildlife refuge
Colonial Forge grad is into cats. Really, really big cats.

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Date published: 10/14/2012


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."


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Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge houses more than 120 exotic animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and bears, on 459 acres in Eureka Springs, Ark. turpentinecreek.org.

Kelly Farrell, a graduate of Colonial Forge High School and George Mason University, is interning at the nonprofit refuge through mid-February. You can read her blog at livingwithleopards.wordpress.com.

For more information on Virginia's exotic animals law and efforts to study its effectiveness, go online | to virginiaanimals.net.

And to follow federal initiatives aimed at curbing the private ownership of big cats, see Senate Bill 3547 at senate.gov or House Resolution 4122 at house.gov. The legislation is known as the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act.