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In big-cat fight, judge scratches defamation counterclaim against PETA

January 10, 2018

A lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against what it terms “an unaccredited roadside zoo” near Charlestown is proceeding after a judge dismissed the owners’ counterclaim that the nonprofit had defamed them in its complaint.

PETA sued Wildlife in Need and owners Timothy and Melisa Stark in September, claiming the southern Indiana attraction was violating the Endangered Species Act by owning the animals and, among other things, declawing tigers, lions and other big cats and cubs used in its “Tiger Baby Playtime” events.

In its complaint, PETA claims the animals are harmed by declawing, cited prior investigations of the facility’s treatment of animals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and claims “defendants harm and harass protected big cats by separating them from their mothers, forcing them into direct public contact, and handling them roughly.”

Wildlife in Need fired back in its counterclaim for defamation that PETA “is a radical, extreme, militant, activist, animal rights group cloaked as a non-profit organization to bully, harass, annoy, and to bring litigation under the Endangered Species Act in order to further it’s [sic] efforts to fund raise [sic] from members of the public who might believe themselves to be in alliance with the objectives of the organization.”

Judge Richard Young of the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in New Albany on Monday granted PETA’s motion to dismiss Wildlife in Need’s counterclaim for defamation.

He ruled WIN’s allegations fell well short of making a claim for defamation, but he declined to award PETA attorney fees under Indiana’s Anti-SLAPP law.

Young will hear arguments in New Albany Jan. 24 on Wildlife in Need’s motion to dismiss the case. However, Young in October granted PETA’s motion for a temporary restraining order barring the declawing of lions, tigers or hybrids in WIN’s possession. Also pending before Young is PETA’s motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the practice. That motion also will be heard Jan. 24.

Wildlife in Need argued last month in support of its motion to dismiss PETA’s suit that its conduct is governed by the Animal Welfare Act rather than the Endangered Species Act, which would not provide standing for PETA to sue.

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