In a second legal defeat in one week, the owner of the controversial Charlestown zoo appearing in Netflix’s “Tiger King” series has lost his bid to reinstate his federal exhibitor’s license.
The appellate decision came just two days after Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled against Stark and his zoo — Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed Inc., or WIN — entering an injuncting that permanently ends the zoo’s “Tiger Baby Playtime” program and prohibits the declawing of big cat cubs, among other prohibitions.
“In the present case the final decision of the Secretary of Agriculture was entered on April 8, 2020, and the petition for review was filed on June 15, 2020, one week late,” the 7th Circuit wrote in dismissing Stark’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
An administrative law judge with the USDA ruled in February that Stark had violated dozens of federal regulations at the zoo. Citations included inadequate and unclean animal shelters, a lack of potable water, inadequate veterinary care and safety threats to the public. Also, Stark exhibited hostility toward inspectors, the ALJ said, threatening them in such a way that on one occasion, they hired a bodyguard to accompany them to the zoo.
In April, a second judge with the USDA affirmed the ALJ’s revocation decision.
The ALJ described Stark as showing “blatant disregard for the regulation Standards and requirements applicable to him as a licensee.” He added that Stark “revealed a belief that his own experience and expertise is more reliable than that of experienced USDA personnel and experts … .”
A similar attitude was at issue in Judge Young’s Monday order, which entered summary judgment for animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA has been engaged in a years-long legal battle with Stark, WIN and Stark’s ex-wife Melisa Lane in federal court.
During a deposition in the federal litigation, Young wrote that Stark was asked about his criteria for declawing big cats. Stark answered, “I don’t have to have criteria. I own the damn cat. If I want to have it declawed, I will have it declawed. That’s my prerogative. I chose to do it. … I don’t give a damn what any veterinarian’s opinion is. I don’t care.”
Young’s order enjoined Stark from declawing his big cats, and from separating big cat cubs from their mothers without medical necessity. PETA had alleged that Stark removed cubs from their mothers’ care and forced them to engage with the public during Tiger Baby Playtime.
“The reader may wonder why the court did not discuss any of the WIN Defendants’ evidence opposing an injunction. That is because there was none,” Young wrote. “They ignored their discovery obligations prior to the hearing: Stark and Lane did not respond to PETA’s interrogatories, they refused to schedule their depositions, and they improperly objected to PETA’s motions for inspections. … As a result, the court limited the WIN Defendants only to offering evidence that had been disclosed prior to the hearing – which ended up being nothing.”
PETA celebrated both court rulings, issuing a statement saying Wednesday’s 7th Circuit dismissal was the “end of the road” for Stark’s federal license.
“He can never again force frightened bear cubs, sloths, spider monkeys, or any other USDA-regulated species into his cruel animal encounters, and thanks to PETA’s recent court victory, his ‘Tiger Baby Playtime’ days are over, too — and PETA looks forward to the day when the animals are living at a reputable sanctuary, undisturbed and in peace,” Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement for the PETA Foundation, said in a statement.
But Stark has indicated that he’s not yet giving up the legal fight to shut down his zoo.
In a message posted to the WIN Facebook page on Wednesday, Stark took aim at “animal rights activists” and at Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who filed a state-court action in February to shut down the zoo.
“When their (animal rights activists’) suit was not going well, they enlisted the Indiana Attorney General and the media to create a whole other smear campaign,” Stark wrote in the posted, titled “This is not Pretty.”
“The Attorney General was eager for both a high-profile case during an election year as well as the means to take the spotlight off his own lawsuits so false testimony from former (WIN) volunteers, who had not seen our property for several years, are the basis for this suit,” Stark wrote. “This group was an attention seeking lot that relished the opportunity to be on tv and cry for the public. However, when asked to detail their lies for the court, most of them dropped out. A few remain.”
Like the federal case brought by PETA, the state case against WIN has been tumultuous, resulting in Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer holding Stark in contempt for defying court orders against exhibiting his animals. Sanctions are now pending.
But in his Facebook message, Stark called on WIN supporters to reach out to Hill’s office and to the Office of Gov. Eric Holcomb to tell them to “stop wasting tax dollars and drop this suit.” He urged supporters to submit their messages by Aug. 13.
“We need your voice to relay what you have seen and when you were here with regards to abuse allegations made without evidence,” he wrote.