Charlestown zoo owner must keep big cats during animal-rights case

A federal judge is doubling down on an animal-rights ruling that prohibits the owners of a southern Indiana zoo from moving its large cats out of its possession, though the judge stopped short of issuing sanctions for an alleged failure to follow that order.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had urged Indiana Southern District Judge Richard L. Young to issue sanctions and find Tim and Melisa Stark in contempt. The owners of Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc., a roadside zoo in Charlestown, previously offered “Tiger Baby Playtime” sessions with declawed exotic cats.

Young issued a preliminary injunction in February 2018 that ordered the Starks to stop declawing tigers, lions and hybrids. A related preservation order required the Starks to preserve “all tangible and documentary evidence,” including animals, in their possession, custody and control.

PETA argued WIN ignored the latter directive by transferring ownership of its big cats to Jeff Lowe, the owner of an Oklahoma zoo called Red River Safari. In a February 2019 Facebook post, Lowe announced a collaboration between him and Tim, writing they had “joined forces” in the “collaboration of the decade.”

PETA moved for an emergency preservation order and sought sanctions and contempt, while the Starks argued the injunction and original preservation order did not prohibit them from transferring ownership and possession of the animals. In agreeing with PETA, Young wrote in a Thursday entry that the animals are among the “tangible” evidence considered by the preservation order.

“The court’s Preservation Order requires Defendants to ‘preserve all tangible and documentary evidence relating to (and including) the tigers, lions, and hybrids thereof in [their possession], custody, and control,’” Young wrote. “The plain language within the parenthesis brings the Big Cats within the scope of the order, and so Defendants are required to preserve the Big Cats throughout this litigation.”

That order is likewise binding on Lowe, the judge said, pointing to text messages sent between him and Tim.

In the text messages, Lowe urged Tim to “sign your cats over to me” if the court closes down the WIN operations and said the duo should “formulate a plan that nobody could possibly see coming.” Regarding the injunction and preservation order, Lowe wrote, “They think they can tell me what to do because they got a temporary injunction against you? Just wait till [sic] they find out [our] secret. Lol.”

In additional texts, Lowe and Tim discuss forming their Oklahoma partnership, with Lowe writing that “there’s no real loss to take a partner on that thinks and works as hard as you (Tim) do.” He also suggested that the move to Oklahoma would move the court proceedings to federal court in the Sooner State, where, according to Lowe, the “court hates the [Animal Rights] groups… .”

“These text messages were in 2018 – well before PETA’s most recent filings,” Young wrote. “This all shows that Mr. Lowe is aware of the court’s orders and is acting in concert with Mr. Stark. Accordingly, Defendants and Mr. Lowe shall abide by the preliminary injunction and preservation orders.”

But the judge declined to enter sanctions or a contempt order against WIN, the Starks and Lowe, though he noted that decision was applicable to the situation “at this time.”

“Defendants at least had an arguable basis for believing they could transfer the Big Cats because the final Preservation Order did not contain an explicit requirement not to transfer the Big Cats as did a previous draft,” he wrote. “Moreover, the text exchange between Mr. Stark and Mr. Lowe occurred over a year ago. Since then, both Mr. Stark and Mr. Lowe have represented that they will not transfer the Big Cats without court approval.

“… Though the court does not impose any additional sanctions,” Young continued, “it is imperative that Defendants and Mr. Lowe follow the court’s orders so that the judicial process runs its course.”

Though declawing was not at issue in PETA’s most recent court filings, Young also noted in the July 25 entry that the injunction forbids the declawing of big cats during the pendency of the litigation. It also forbids the use of big cat cubs in public encounters, such as Tiger Baby Playtime, or the premature separation of the cubs from their mothers without medical necessity.

Following the February 2018 injunction and preservation order, Young in October 2018 issued a first-of-its-kinds order banning the declawing of large exotic cats as a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Arising out of the same litigation, the agreed judgment was entered against Dr. Ricky L. Pelphrey and Mobile Veterinary Services Equine, which provided veterinary services for the WIN cats, including declawing.

According to PETA, two tiger cubs died after Pelphrey performed a “botched” declawing and failed to prescribe appropriate medication for the animals. Stark had hidden the cubs during a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspection, and PETA argued neither Stark nor Pelphrey are trained or qualified to care for the big cats.

The judgment enjoined Pelphrey and his mobile veterinary services from declawing or performing any medical or surgical care on exotic cats absent medical necessity. It also says the defendants admitted to performing “medically unnecessary declawing procedures” for WIN.

According to PETA, “the pain and suffering associated with (declawing) may be exacerbated in wild feline species, and welfare concerns associated with declawing are heightened for Big Cats.” The complaint alleges the two tiger cubs who died were reluctant to walk and left behind blood in places touched by their front paws. Stark, however, has maintained that the declawing procedures did not cause the cubs’ deaths.

In a counterclaim, the Starks and WIN alleged PETA had defamed their operations. Young dismissed that claim in January 2018. The case and counter-claim are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc., Timothy L. Stark, Melisa D. Stark; Melisa D. Stark, Timothy L. Stark, Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc. v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., 4:17-cv-186.

 

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