Indiana AG sues to shut down embattled Charlestown zoo

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The owner a controversial Charlestown zoo who recently lost his federal exhibitor’s license is now also facing a state lawsuit that would shut down the zoo’s underlying nonprofit organization and remove him as its director, citing allegations of animal abuse, financial improprieties, intimidation and more.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Timothy Stark, Melisa Lane, and Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed Inc. The suit alleges Stark and Lane, as the primary decision-makers for Wildlife in Need, or WIN, have undermined the nonprofit’s stated mission by abusing and neglecting animals and misappropriating funds.

In response to that misconduct, Hill is seeking Stark and Lane’s removal as director and officer, respectively; an order requiring Stark and Lane to return all misappropriated funds and assets; the dissolution of WIN and the appointment of a receiver; and an injunction prohibiting WIN, Stark and Lane from owning, acquiring or exhibiting exotic or native animals.

“This organization claims to promote the best interests of animals when evidence indicates the exact opposite is happening,” Hill said in a Tuesday statement announcing the lawsuit. “Generous Hoosiers who have contributed money to Wildlife in Need deserve to know the truth.”

According to the complaint, WIN was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1999 and stated its purpose as being “dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of all wildlife. … The main objective is to return the creature to the wild.” The zoo is home to nearly 300 animals, the complaint says, including lions, tigers, bears, dogs, hyenas, monkeys and hybrid animals, among several other species, some originating from Africa, Asia and South America.

But “WIN does not provide an appropriate level of care to properly rescue and rehabilitate animals and WIN does not provide appropriate care to injured and abandoned wildlife,” the complaint alleges. “The majority of animals at WIN are never returned to the wild.”

The lawsuit alleges a litany of misdeeds on the part of Stark, Lane and WIN, all in violation of Indiana Code §§ 23-17-24-1(a)(1)(B), (C) or (D), 23-17-13-1(a)(1), (2) or (3), or 24-5-0.5-3(a) – Indiana’s Nonprofit Corporations Act and Deceptive Consumer Sales Act.

Rather than rehabilitated and released, the WIN animals — 293 in total, as of 2018 — are abused and neglected, the complaint alleges. The animals live in deplorable conditions, it says, including cages that are too small, not well lit, not well ventilated and/or unclean.

Several animals have died while in the WIN facility, the complaint says, including a camel that needed deworming medication but instead was left “in an area of the property where the camel was always standing in mud up to the camel’s knees.” Similarly, an ostrich that was placed in an emu enclosure was killed by emus and “left to rot inside the emu enclosure for multiple days.”

On another occasion, the complaint alleges, Stark transported roughly 100 animals in a 28-foot enclosed trailer to Oklahoma, leaving the animals in the trailer overnight. At the end of the 36-hour trip, “over 30 animals had died in the trailer and several others sustained heat-related injuries.”

The zoo is also notorious for declawing big cats, particularly tigers. This practice has been the subject of a federal lawsuit brought against WIN by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and resulted in a federal ruling that declawing big cats without medical necessity is illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

“Declawing of big cats is against (United States Department of Agriculture) standards due to the injurious nature of the process, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) expressly condemns the declawing of big cats. Further, the USDA, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, maintains that declawing of big cats for any other reason other than medical necessity constitutes a violation of the Animal Welfare Act,” the state lawsuit says. “Stark has indicated that he, and thus WIN, has no intentions of returning big cats to the wild as he has stated ‘no cat in captivity needs their claws.’”

Other allegations of abuse including punching a sloth in the face when it would not come out for pictures with the public, throwing a monkey across the room when it was not prepared for a public show, and throwing, kicking and stomping on a teething tiger cub that bit him. WIN is perhaps best known for its public encounter programs, including the former Tiger Baby Playtime program that was shut down in 2018 by Indiana Southern District Court Judge Richard Young.

Stark has also admitted to euthanizing a malnourished leopard by beating it with a baseball bat.

Additionally, WIN “has had numerous incidents of its wolves escaping,” a problem made worse by the presence of dead trees near the wolf enclosure. “If a dead tree were to fall and knock the fence down,” the complaint says, “the wolves would be able to escape.”

Aside from animal abuse, Stark and Lane are accused in the state complaint of using “scare tactics” to prevent WIN employees and volunteers from reporting wrongdoing at the zoo.

For example, an employee who was attacked by a tiger and received 40 stitches was told to say he was injured in a chainsaw accident. When another employee was attacked by a spider monkey and sustained nerve damage in her hand, Lane allegedly ripped off the employee’s WIN shirt, made her to drive herself to the hospital and told the employee to lie about being injured at WIN.

“Days later, Stark told (the employee) not to tell anyone that she was injured at WIN and told her ‘I know people,’” the complaint says.

In a similar vein, the nonprofit is accused of not maintaining a sufficient number of employees to keep up with its growing number of animals. A similar violation was just one of hundreds — including intimidation, records mismanagement and neglect — that led the US Department of Agriculture to revoke Stark’s exhibitor’s license earlier this month. However, the Feb. 3 revocation order stopped short of finding Stark had abused his animals.

Asset mismanagement also features prominently in the state complaint.

WIN board meetings “were rarely held,” while “meeting minutes were rarely, if ever, taken. Stark and Lane are the only people who have access to WIN’s finances. Stark and Lane handle all decision-making at WIN.”

The complaint accuses Stark of routinely embezzling WIN money despite telling guests that all donations go toward the animals and that he receives no income from the nonprofit.

“However, Stark has directed thousands of dollars’ worth of WIN assets for non-WIN purposes,” the complaint alleges. “In 2019, Stark bought a brand new Dodge Ram pickup truck and used it to transport WIN materials and machinery to Oklahoma to use for his attempted for-profit zoo partnership. WIN machinery Stark had transported to Oklahoma included a bulldozer, an LC 200 excavator, and a John Deere skid steer.”

The Oklahoma project was an attempt to form a partnership with 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 Stark, writing they had “joined forces” in the “collaboration of the decade.”

But that relationship seems to have soured, with the state’s complaint saying Stark has sued Lowe — also named in the complaint as the owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma — for exhibiting animals allegedly owned by Stark.

“However, the animals in the Oklahoma lawsuit are the property of WIN, so any claim for moneys owed for exhibiting those animals should be made on behalf of WIN, for WIN’s recovery,” the complaint says. “WIN currently does not have a functioning board of directors to intervene in Stark’s lawsuit to protect and preserve its assets from Stark’s attempted misappropriation.”

In addition to the complaint, the Office of the Attorney General on Tuesday moved for a preliminary injunction seeking to prohibit Stark, Lane or WIN for “removing animals or disposing of or transferring any other assets from WIN … .”

“A headcount of animals at WIN is necessary at this time because the State has reason to believe WIN may dispose of animals and other WIN assets during the pendency of this lawsuit,” the injunction motion says. It adds that Stark has “told multiple WIN employees that he intends to shoot WIN animals if the government attempts to take the animals away from WIN.”

A July 2019 ruling from Judge Young in the Indiana Southern District addressed a similar issue, prohibiting Stark from transferring ownership of big cats to Lowe in Oklahoma while the PETA lawsuit progressed.

“A preliminary injunction enjoining WIN and its agents from removing animals and any other assets from WIN pending this lawsuit’s proceedings is necessary due to WIN having a history of hiding animals from USDA inspectors and transferring WIN animals out of state,” the motion says.

The requested injunction would also require WIN to “ensure proper and adequate care to all animals” on its properties and to “allow an expedited inspection of documents and inspection of the entire property … .”

Indiana Lawyer has reached out to Stark for comment on the state lawsuit, the revocation of his federal license and his potential plans to open a zoo in Oklahoma.

According to WHAS 11 in Louisville, the USDA’s revocation of Stark’s exhibitor’s license does not impact the ownership of the animals. Stark has the ability to appeal the revocation.

In response to the latest development in the legal saga against Stark, PETA called the state lawsuit “one mare nail in the coffin for Wildlife in Need.”

“This new suit describes Tim Stark’s abusive acts, including punching a sloth in the face, throwing a monkey across a room, and kicking and stomping on a tiger cub who wouldn’t play with him during a public encounter,” Brittany Peet, the PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement, said in a Tuesday statement. “Moreover, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office agrees with PETA and the USDA that declawing big cats is abuse. PETA has long called for all animals to be removed from this terrible place and sent to reputable facilities, and this complaint asks the court to do just that.”

The lawsuit filed in Marion Superior Court, Civil Division 10, is State of Indiana v. Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc., Timothy Stark, Melisa Lane, 49D10-2002-PL-006192.

None of the defendants have listed attorneys who could speak on their behalf.

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