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A KyCIR investigation found that a Louisville-area nonprofit housing wild animals has a troubled record; that state and federal officials have done little to address complaints; and the handling of lions and other exotic animals is potentially putting the public's safety at risk.

USDA Launches New Attempt to Revoke Tiger Petting Zoo License

The operator of a roadside zoo in Southern Indiana could lose his license and pay up to $1.1 million in fines under a new complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The complaint filed last week outlines more than 100 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act by Tim Stark and his animal exhibit, Wildlife In Need. It alleges that Stark abused animals, denied them medical care and allowed an escape.

Stark faces the loss of his animal exhibitor license and a fine of up to $10,000 for each of the 118 alleged violations. Despite numerous clashes and 13 violations during USDA inspections since August 2014, the feds have so far levied no fines against Stark.

According to USDA inspectors, Stark euthanized a young female leopard by beating it to death with a baseball bat. Another leopard, investigators said, escaped and killed a neighbor’s pets before the neighbor shot it. Stark also is accused of physically abusing young tigers that bit customers’ clothing during a “Tiger Baby Playtime” exhibit.

Four animals -- a kangaroo, an adult otter and two baby otters -- died after Stark failed to call a veterinarian when they got sick, the complaint said. Stark is also accused of lacking purchase records of some animals. When inspectors visited, they said Stark yelled profanities -- and ordered them and the state troopers that accompanied them to get off his property.

Reached by phone Friday, Stark declined to comment on the most recent complaint. In a phone interview with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in May, Stark denied any wrongdoing, and said the federal agency has a vendetta against him and his company.

A 2014 series by KyCIR revealed the troubled history of Wildlife In Need, the non-profit that runs the tiger petting zoo in Charlestown, Indiana, and detailed the fatal leopard escape mentioned by USDA’s complaint. (Read our coverage:  Troubled Tiger Exhibit Puts Public's Safety At Risk)

“Wildlife in Need is a death trap that needs to be shut down immediately,” said Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “There’s no reason that he should be entitled to an Animal Welfare Act license.”

Stark keeps a large collection of exotic animals at Wildlife In Need, but the zoo is best known for its 15 tigers. The tiger playtime exhibit allows visitors, including children, to play with young tigers.

The USDA previously cited the exhibit because some tigers were too large, and could pose a danger to the children.

In January, the USDA argued that Stark was unfit to hold an animal exhibitor license because he was convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act during the 2004 transfer of an ocelot, but the administrative court ruled in favor of Stark. The USDA appealed in February and that case is still pending.

An administrative law judge will decide whether to issue fines and revoke or suspend Stark’s license over this month’s complaint.

In January 2015, Indiana legislators shot down a bill that would have required exhibitors like Stark to get a state license and be subject to more inspections.

[documentcloud url="http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2994188-2016-07-08-USDA-AWA-Complaint-Tim-Stark.html"]

Will Wright, KyCIR's summer fellow, can be reached at wwright@kycir.org and (724) 344.6945.

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