License of embattled Charlestown big-cat zoo revoked

The owner of a controversial Charlestown zoo that has been the subject of a bitter years-long court fight has lost his federal exhibitor’s license and is on the hook for more than $300,000 in civil penalties.

An administrative law judge within the United States Department of Agriculture revoked Timothy L. Stark’s Animal Welfare Act license, taking away his ability to exhibit animals —including lions, tigers, monkeys, bears, cougars, foxes and hybrid dogs, among other animals — at Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed Inc. in Charlestown. Stark and Wildlife in Need jointly and severally are liable for $300,000 in civil penalties, while Stark is liable for an additional $40,000.

The USDA license revocation was handed down Monday in a nearly 200-page order detailing dozens of violations at the Charlestown zoo, known for its former “Tiger Baby Playtime” events. Indiana Southern District Judge Richard Young ended Tiger Baby Playtime in 2018 as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service initiated the administrative action against Stark and Wildlife in Need, also known as WIN. The service brought allegations of at least 339 “willful violations” of the AWA and applicable regulations against Stark and WIN, plus an additional four violations on Stark’s part.

While Chief administrative law judge Channing D. Strother did not uphold every alleged violation against Stark and WIN, the order holds the zoo accountable for numerous violations including hostility toward inspectors, inadequate shelter for animals, a lack of potable water, danger to the public and more.

Inspectors described coming to Stark’s property and being met with threats and intimidation, including explicit language. Stark would leave the enclosures open, they alleged, with no protection between the inspectors and the animals. On one occasion, inspectors hired a bodyguard to accompany them to Stark’s zoo.

The public was also placed at risk, the order says, with visitors regularly walking away from Tiger Baby Playtime with animal bites. For example, Stark would rile up tiger cubs, Strother wrote, then throw them onto visitors’ laps.

But PETA has taken greatest issue with the treatment of the WIN animals, particularly big cats that the organization says have been unnecessarily declawed and separated from their mothers. In response to PETA’s lawsuit, Judge Young in the Southern District ruled that declawing big cats without medical necessity is illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

The order describes animals kept in cages and other enclosures where nails and sheet metal were exposed. The water was overgrown with algae, while dry food was stored in an area where rodent feces were prevalent.

In one instance, Stark admitted to euthanizing a leopard by beating the animal with a baseball bat. He argued that blunt force trauma to the head is an approved euthanasia tactic, but the ALJ’s order says such a tactic is generally used on animals such as young piglets, not large animals like leopards.

Stark was also found to have forged the signature of a veterinarian in an attempt to prove that he maintained an attending veterinarian for his zoo.

Dr. Rick Pelphrey eventually became the attending veterinarian in October 2013, but Pelphrey became part of the declawing injunction after he allegedly “botched” the declawing of two tiger cubs that later died. The forgery occurred before Pelphrey became the attending vet.

Stark was found to have committed numerous other violations, though the ALJ did not uphold allegations that he had subjected the WIN animals to actual physical abuse. In his defense, Stark generally argued that his methods of caring for the animals were backed by science, that his methods should be shown deference or, generally, that APHIS was biased against him.

Strother rejected the claims of bias, writing that “APHIS inspectors’ inspections and reports were completed according to the AWA and the Regulations promulgated thereunder and not to carry bias targeted enforcement that ‘stem’ from USDA superiors.”

Strother described Stark as showing “blatant disregard for the regulation Standards and requirements applicable to him as a licensee,” adding that Stark “revealed a belief that his own experience and expertise is more reliable than that of experienced USDA personnel and experts … .”

But noting Stark could only offer “lay opinions,” Strother said “(t)he animals at issue are not family pets, generally exposed only to family and volunteers, but are exposed to the public for commercial purposes … .”

“Therefore, based on careful review of the record and arguments before me, I find that Respondents willfully violated the AWA on multiple occasions,” the ALJ wrote. “As set out below, I also find that Respondents’ business is large, the gravity of such violations was great, there is a history of previous violations, and Respondents did not act in good faith. Therefore, Respondents are ordered to cease and desist from violating the AWA and the regulations and standards issues thereunder.”

PETA celebrated the license revocation in a Thursday news release.

“The USDA has effectively cut Stark off at the knees, preventing him from continuing to torment and exploit vulnerable lemurs, sloths, dogs, and other animals for a quick buck,” PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement Brittany Peet said in a statement. “PETA looks forward to seeing this terrible place shut down and the animals moved to reputable facilities where they’ll never again be used as photo props.”

The Wildlife in Need Facebook page was still active as of Thursday.

Indiana Lawyer has reached out to Wildlife in Need for comment on the license revocation. It is unclear whether Stark and WIN will appeal.

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