State moves to restrict access to big cats in Charlestown zoo

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The state of Indiana has completed its first inspection of a controversial Charlestown roadside zoo and is asking a judge for a restraining order meant to protect zoo employees and volunteers, as well as the public.

The Office of the Attorney General filed the motion for temporary restraining order Friday in State of Indiana v. Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc., Timothy Stark, and Melisa Lane, 49D10-2002-PL-006192.

The case was filed last month in an effort to shut down the zoo. As part of an initial preliminary injunction, Marion Superior Court Civil Division 10 Judge David Dreyer ordered zoo owner Timothy Stark to make the Wildlife in Need, or WIN, properties available for inspection March 6.

Despite some pushback regarding the identity of the inspectors, the inspection went forward as scheduled, when the state says it “learned of WIN practices and encountered WIN animal enclosures that present threats to WIN assets and serious risks of death or serious injury for WIN’s employees, other staff, volunteers, and the general public … .”

In an affidavit accompanying the TRO motion, Matthew Broadwell, deputy director of the Investigations Division of the Office of Indiana Attorney General, described concerns about access to big cat enclosures housing lions, tigers and hybrids.

“During the inspection, Timothy Stark stated that he allows volunteers and employees into enclosures with unsedated and unrestrained big cats. Stark stated that he would use a handgun to take down animals if an issue ‘crossed the line.’

“Stark stated of going into big cat cages, ‘When you’re dealing with this sh—, I go in cages with them. When you’re in there, it’s not a matter of damn “if,” it’s a matter of when. I’m willing to take that … I would much rather die doing what I love to do than doing what I hate to do,’” the affidavit says.

The TRO motion and Broadwell’s affidavit also raise concerns about the possibility of the big cats escaping their enclosures.

According to the motion, “Cages housing big cats … are equipped with a door (‘egress door’) providing the cats with a direct route to escape the enclosures when the door is opened. This egress door is not contained within a secondary locked chamber designed to prevent a cat’s escape in the event the cat passes through the egress door.

“The State’s inspection team witnessed Stark open the egress door on one of these cages during the March 6 inspection, presenting a fully grown male lion the opportunity to escape its enclosures,” the motion says.

Stark, proceeding pro se, and attorney Clay Culotta, representing WIN officer Melisa Lane, do not agree with the allegations in the motion, but they agreed to the entry of the TRO pending a hearing, according to emails submitted with the motion.

“The State anticipates that additional serious deficiencies in WIN’s animal treatment, housing, and handling practices will be identified by its inspection team once that team has completed its review of information and observations obtained during the inspection,” deputy attorneys general wrote in the motion. “However, the State believes the conditions and practices identified in this motion require immediate injunctive relief to ensure the public health and safety of both WIN’s animals and staff, as well as the public.”

The plaintiffs requested a hearing on the TRO within 10 days of the motion. Online court records do not yet list a hearing date.

In addition to the state litigation, WIN is also being sued in federal court by animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture last month revoked Stark’s exhibitor’s license over concerns of animal neglect.

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