Judge rules for PETA in suit against embattled Charlestown zoo

A federal judge has ruled that an embattled private Charlestown zoo harmed and harassed big cats in violation of the Endangered Species Act, setting the stage for the transfer of its animals to “a reputable sanctuary.” The ruling is a victory for an animal-rights group in one of several legal actions against the zoo owner who appeared in the Netflix series “Tiger King.”

Southern District of Indiana Judge Richard Young on Monday granted summary judgment to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in its lawsuit against Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed and its owners, Timothy Stark and Melisa Lane, among other defendants.

“Within 30 days, PETA shall file a motion (with appropriate evidence) to appoint a special master and identify a reputable wildlife sanctuary,” Young wrote, noting that a separate order will spell out details of the injunction. That order had not been issued early Tuesday afternoon. “The WIN defendants can respond accordingly.”

Young’s order made permanent a temporary injunction that prohibited the zoo from prematurely separating big cat cubs from their mothers and declawing cubs who were then displayed to the public in hands-on events called “Tiger Baby Playtime.”

“The WIN Defendants insist they have not violated the ESA because other zoos supposedly engage in the same conduct. But they have not shown their conduct — pulling Cubs less than a week old to use in Tiger Baby Playtime — is substantially similar to other zoos’ conduct nor have they otherwise properly laid a foundation to admit such evidence. … Simply saying ‘other zoos do it too’ is insufficient to create a question of fact,” Young wrote.

“(T)he evidence demonstrates declawing and prematurely separating Cubs from their mothers for Tiger Baby Playtime poses a serious harm — in many cases a deadly one,” the judge wrote.

Stark, who represents himself in the federal litigation, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In finding that WIN’s actions represent a “taking” of animals under the Endangered Species Act, Young noted that in at least two documented cases, tiger cubs at WIN died after botched declawing procedures. A witness testified that as many as four tiger cubs may have died from declawing complications.

A veterinarian who worked with Stark, Dr. Rick Pelphrey, admitted that after cubs were declawed, he treated their paws with wound dressing for horses. The dressing is toxic to cats.

“Two weeks after the procedure, Stark hid the Cubs from USDA inspectors, and when inspectors found them, Stark explained that Pelphrey had ‘botched’ the job,” Young wrote. … “Inspectors also observed the two Cubs in pain … The two Cubs eventually died, likely as a result of the declawing procedure.”

The injunction is the latest legal obstacle for a southern Indiana exotic animal business that has long faced allegations of animal abuse and harassment in violation of the ESA but continued to operate in disregard of court orders.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture revoked Stark’s license. The operation also faces a state lawsuit seeking to shut it down.

Last month, Stark faced possible contempt citations in the state case for defying court orders barring his exhibition and acquisition of animals.

Young likewise noted Stark’s obstinance in his summary judgment entry Monday in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. v. Wildlife in Need and Wildlife In Deed, 4:170-CV-186.

At one point, according to the record, Stark replied in a deposition to a question about his criteria for declawing tigers and other big cats by saying, “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.”

“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.

“Worse,” the judge wrote, “… they have refused to follow court orders. The Court preliminarily enjoined the WIN Defendants from separating Cubs from their mothers absent a medical necessity and supporting statement from a veterinarian. On May 31, 2018, Stark filed a ‘memo’ stating that he removed a Cub from its mother because the Cub was found out of the den box and not being tendered to by its mother. … He also stated he did this after consulting with his veterinarian. … This was a lie. Later text messages between Stark and the veterinarian, Dr. Pelphrey, showed Stark did not consult Dr. Pelphrey beforehand …”.

Young cited a text from Stark to Pelphrey, which in part read, “According to the court bullsh*t I’m not supposed to pull babies unless it’s an emergency. The court paperwork says I’ll need some stupid bullsh*t written up by you saying what I did was necessary.”

Stark also disobeyed court orders by transferring ownership of several big cats to Oklahoma zoo owner Jeff Lowe, who also is named as a defendant in PETA’s suit, Young wrote.

The court did not award PETA its legal fees in the matter — at least not yet. “PETA can file a motion for such expenses when there is a final judgment entered in this case, and the court will consider it then,” Young concluded.

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