Charlestown zoo owner featured in ‘Tiger King’ now facing contempt sanctions

The owner of an embattled Charlestown zoo is now facing possible contempt sanctions after defying court orders against animal exhibition, acquisition and removal.

Tim Stark — who is being sued along with his nonprofit zoo, Wildlife in Need, and fellow zoo leader Melisa Lane — has also been ordered to show cause for why he should not be ordered to pay the state’s attorney fees as a discovery sanction.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill announced a lawsuit against Stark, Lane and the zoo in February, seeking to shut down the nonprofit Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed Inc. and to remove Stark as its director. Lane serves as WIN’s officer.

In a Monday order, Judge David Dreyer of Marion Superior Court Civil Division 10 amended an existing injunction prohibiting the zoo from exhibiting animals during the pendency of the action, regardless of whether the defendants receive compensation or donations for the exhibition. The defendants were also ordered not to acquiring any additional animals during the case.

Dreyer previously entered orders aimed at personal safety, prohibiting the general public and WIN employees and staff, aside from veterinarians, from entering big cat enclosures unless the cats are locked in a separate enclosure. Likewise, egress doors on big cat enclosures must remain closed unless the cats are locked in a separate space.

The parties had agreed to those terms of the injunction, but Dreyer additionally imposed reporting requirements on the zoo. Under those requirements, the zoo must file a weekly report with details about each animal including:

  • The identification of the animal, its location at the zoo and the name of the people who have cared for it;
  • Medical concerns/issues and medical treatment;
  • Unusual behaviors or events, such as poor appetite;
  • Food consumption;
  • Enclosure concerns;
  • Births, deaths and eggs laid; and
  • “All other information regarding any circumstance, event, or condition of animals or the property that is not status quo.”

In court filings, Stark characterized the state’s requested reporting requirements as “onerous and overly burdensome” given the zoo’s significant use of volunteers. He had advocated for a weekly report on any changes in the status quo.

Dreyer previously entered an injunction against the defendants in March, ordering them to comply with a state inspection and to provide proper care and treatment for the zoo’s animals, which include species such as tigers, lions, bears, dogs, hyenas, monkeys and hybrids, among others. Then in June, he entered a temporary restraining order barring the zoo from taking in new animals.

The TRO also prohibited Stark from exhibiting his animals at least until a June 26 hearing. Earlier this year, Stark’s USDA exhibitor’s license was revoked.

But the same day the TRO was entered, a message was posted on the WIN Facebook page reading, “Chin up! Due to pending legal issues about his USDA license and to avoid any legal ramifications, Tim Stark, Wildlife in Need’s founder, has decided to give the people what they want. He has decided to give free admission for this Father’s Day weekend to show not only his animals but also his property without compensation.

“As he has stated all along, he has nothing to hide,” the post continued. “Come see for yourself. So, for this Father’s Day weekend he will offer free admission to not only some of the most remarkable interactive sessions involving exotic animals but also guided tours of his property where the rest of his animals reside. …”

In court documents, Stark notes he did not accept any compensation or donations for the Father’s Day weekend exhibition, which he says occurred on his private property, not the zoo’s. But according to a state brief, the June TRO “unambiguously ordered Defendants to ‘not exhibit animals’ without any reference to compensation.”

Additionally, in a motion for rule to show cause, the state alleged Stark failed to report the birth of a wolf pup and the acquisition of an ostrich at WIN. The show-cause motion was filed June 22, and on June 26 Stark filed a notice of the birth and acquisition with the court.

But the state also pointed to the unreported birth of a lion cub and a second wolf pup, both of which were transferred to a Stark “associate” in Connersville. Additionally, the state said a lioness and tiger died at WIN in the spring, but the deaths were not reported for several weeks.

“Because of the USDA revocation of Stark’s exhibitor license due to Stark’s incompetence and insubordination, the animals at WIN face additional risk of not receiving proper care,” the state wrote in its brief, filed after the June 26 hearing. “On June 17, 2020, Stark declared under oath to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that if his USDA exhibitor’s license revocation is not stayed, then he will be unable to raise the revenue to feed and care for the animals at WIN.

“Stark’s petition to stay his USDA license revocation was denied on June 23, 2020,” the brief continues, “which means the animals at WIN may not be properly cared for in the near future, and for this reason, aside from the lack of veterinary care at WIN, periodic reporting on the condition of each animal is necessary.”

In addition to the order amending the preliminary injunction, Dreyer also found Stark in contempt for noncompliance with the March injunction and the June restraining order. The judge took sanctions under advisement and set a compliance hearing for 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 7.

There is also an ongoing discovery dispute between the parties, with the state alleging in its motion that Stark said the litigation “is all a game,” and he would respond to discovery requests “when [he] feel[s] like it.” The state also alleged Stark also told state counsel to “go f— yourself.”

To that end, Dreyer ordered Stark to comply with discovery requests within 14 days of the July 6 order and to show cause within 14 days as to why the court should not award attorney fees to the state.

Stark has been proceeding pro se since the lawsuit was filed in February. Lane and the zoo had been represented by J. Clayton Culotta of New Albany, but Culotta filed a motion on Monday saying Lane had asked him to withdraw from representing her.

The state case is State of Indiana v. Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc., Timothy Stark, Melisa Lane, 49D10-2002-PL-006192.

In addition to the state court proceedings, Stark and WIN are the defendants in litigation brought by animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Stark has also gained notoriety by appearing in the hit Netflix docuseries “Tiger King.”

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