Tina, one of the refuge's 15 tigers, shows her teeth as a way to draw in air and pick up scents in the surrounding environment.
Tina, one of the refuge's 15 tigers, shows her teeth as a way to draw in air and pick up scents in the surrounding environment.
The hills between Ozark and Branson seem an unlikely place for a sleek white tiger, smooth orange Siberian or a bushy-maned lion, but no matter. The big cats of the National Tiger Sanctuary seem at home on the rocky hillsides, biting hay playfully or turning muddy tractor tires as they wait for their food.

NTS owners Keith Kinkade and Judy McGee have run the sanctuary, which currently partners with two zoos and hosts interns from as near as College of the Ozarks and as far as Denmark, since 2000. The married couple moved their 501(c)3 in January 2011 to 81 acres north of Saddlebrooke and just west of Highway 65 at 518 State Highway BB, from Bloomsdale, south of St. Louis.

The couple got their start working with big cats while volunteering with an Arkansas Sanctuary, which led them to launch the sanctuary to care for five baby tigers.

“The tigers chose us,” McGee says.

The couple partnered with DePaul University, which was looking to build an environmental campus in Missouri, during the first four years before the university sold the property to a winery and folded its plans. Between 2004 and 2011, McGee and Kinkade held tours on the land while looking for a permanent home of their own for their slowly growing sanctuary. They ultimately decided that the corridor between Branson and Springfield would be the most suitable site for the sanctuary, which is focused on education and fostering connections between people and animals.

Neither McGee nor Kinkade imagined their retirement would have involved raising tigers; all they knew was that they loved animals and wanted to make a difference.

“We thought we should be giving back,” Kinkade says. “We started volunteering and decided there was a real opportunity for education. The tigers don’t have any predator besides man, and so they make a great marquee for what’s happening with the rest of the environment.”

Cat care
NTS, which is inspected annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Missouri Department of Conservation, hosts as many as 20 volunteers and interns a time during the summer months. The sanctuary is home to 18 big cats that each consume up to 15 pounds of raw chicken, beef or pork daily.

Angela Tennison, student services coordinator for the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, says she has been impressed by the knowledge and care NTS demonstrates for its animals. Tennison said she learned of the organization from Dr. Tony Mann, a professor at the college who has performed surgery on one of NTS’ tigers, as she looked for a place students may want to work. “We have worked with veterinarians who go to the tiger sanctuary, and they are willing to take students, as well,” Tennison says, describing the university’s relationship with NTS as informal. “I think the level of care for the tigers and the quality of veterinary care there is outstanding.”  

McGee and Kinkade, who formerly owned small businesses and managed commercial real estate in Kansas City, were hesitant to guess how much of their own money they’ve spent on the animals, but they say it’s in the millions.

Annual costs to house, feed and provide veterinary care for 15 tigers, one lion, one mountain lion and a black panther have been as high as $500,000, according to McGee and Kinkade. They estimated their revenues – derived from donations, a gift shop and three types of tours, which range from $15 to $50 and $10 to $15 for kids – were roughly $200,000 for the first 12 months since opening near Saddlebrooke.

Long-range planning
Now, McGee and Kinkade say NTS has reached a critical mass and is ready to grow. In the last month, they have hired Rob Patrick as general manager. He previously worked with big cats as part of the Kirby VanBurch Magic Show in Branson and met McGee and Kinkade after he and VanBurch visited NTS and decided it could make a great retirement home for Merlin, a nearly 400-pound lion.

Patrick says he’s helping the couple determine the future of the sanctuary, in part by researching construction costs and options for a visitor’s center. The current center is a tent with cushy stuffed tigers for purchase and folding chairs for groups awaiting one of three daily tours. Plans also are under way for a capital campaign.

“We have to have the plans in place before we can ask people to contribute,” Patrick says.

NTS currently supports the national Species Survival Plan, a collection of programs of the American Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which helps develop populations and transfers for animals such as tigers. According to AZA.org, there are thought to be fewer than 500 tigers in the wild, and four of nine subspecies have disappeared in the last 100 years. Working with Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. and Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, NTS is housing tigers such as Tigger and Jaycee, which were being sold to a Mexican citizen preparing to cross the border without proper permits.

Patrick says NTS could help more, but it needs to grow first.

“We could throw money into advertising, but we want to get this right,” Kinkade adds, noting that the sanctuary is now marketed via a single billboard on Highway 65. “We want it to be here in 100 years.”