Judge ends ‘Tiger Baby Playtime’, halts cub declawing

A federal judge Monday shut down a southern Indiana attraction’s public encounters with tiger cubs. The judge also halted the declawing of tiger cubs and separating them from their mothers so they could be used in “Tiger Baby Playtime” events where people pay to mingle with declawed big cat cubs.

Judge Richard Young of the District Court for the Southern Distrct of Indiana in New Albany granted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ motion for injunctions. PETA alleges Wildlife in Need, Wildlife in Deed Inc., and owner-operators Timothy and Melissa Stark, run “an unaccredited roadside zoo” in Charlestown in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Young noted that the defendants in the case had failed to respond to plaintiffs’ discovery requests, did so unsatisfactorily when ordered, and had been sanctioned during these proceedings. Young previously dismissed WIN’s defamation counterclaim against PETA.

“Though it is not [defendants’] burden to prove a negative (that no violation of the ESA occurred), their unwillingness to produce any discovery (including sit for depositions) leaves the court with only Plaintiff’s evidence to consider,” Young noted before granting the injunctions.

The “Tiger Baby Playtime” events involve people physically interacting with declawed tiger cubs ranging from infancy to 20 months, Young noted. Attendees pay $25. “This fee allows them to enter a caged room approximately fifteen feet by twenty feet where one to three Big Cat Cubs will be released and allowed to play,” Young wrote. “On average, there are about thirty to thirty-five people per session.”

Young noted Timothy Starks has been cited more than 50 times for failing to meet minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare Act. Young noted he refused to permit a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection, and his USDA license has twice been suspended. The record shows USDA ordered the defendants to cease declawing, “but those directions have gone unanswered,” Young wrote. WIN noted its programs reached more than 32,000 people in 2016.

Starks said he declawed about a dozen tiger cubs in 2016 alone, but the USDA had concerns about his methods — notably, he used a mobile provider and provided the animals no pain medication. At least two cubs died after declawing procedures, the record says, but Starks denied this was due to declawing.

Young ruled that PETA has shown likelihood of succeeding on its claims that the declawing and public exhibitions harms or harasses the tigers, constituting a “taking,” or violation of the Endangered Species Act.    

The order issued Monday enjoins defendants from declawing any big cats, using them in public encounters, or separating cubs less than 18 months of age from their mothers, unless the court grants a motion that must be based on an animal’s medical necessity. The order also bars anyone not employed by the defendants from having physical contact with the animals.

PETA hailed the ruling in a statement issued Tuesday.

"The court has done the right thing in stopping Wildlife in Need from tearing cubs away from their mothers for use as public playthings and amputating their toes, which can leave them with lifelong lameness, pain, and psychological distress," said PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet. "PETA looks forward to seeing the Starks permanently forbidden from mutilating, exploiting, and profiting off baby animals."

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