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PETA Demands Federal Probe of Deaths at Southern Indiana Animal Refuge

Submitted photos

This story has been updated.

A national animal rights organization has asked a federal agency to investigate what it calls preventable animal deaths at a southern Indiana wildlife refuge.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wednesday, asking officials to determine whether the deaths of several bears, lemurs, and spotted leopards violated the Animal Welfare Act.

PETA cited the nine deaths that were listed in a November captive-bred wildlife permit application by Wildlife in Need owner Tim Stark. In requesting the permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Stark wrote that he wanted the license to “make acquisition of new species and specimens as simple and expedient as possible.”

The application requires Stark to provide information about how many animals died on his property within the past five years.

The application, a copy of which was released Wednesday by PETA, notes that a bear killed a black bear on Stark’s property. A black-and-white ruffed lemur died because of a malfunctioning heater.

A Syrian bear was euthanized because of its “incompatibility with other bears,” the application states. Also, three spotted leopards died of metabolic bone disease. And two ring-tailed lemurs died because of “sudden fights” in 2012 and 2014.

PETA officials say the Animal Welfare Act requires that animals be housed in a manner that does not cause them harm or discomfort.

Stark, who has previously defended his organization and its safety record, did not return a call for comment Wednesday. He e-mailed a lengthy statement later in the day.

"I am aware that PETA has filed a complaint with the USDA against my CBW permit, however, this is the same action PETA takes against every owner who files for the CBW permit. As for your article, yes, animals do die. It is a sad fact of life and I hate every single time it happens. I also report it, as required, every time it occurs."

A spokesperson for the regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not immediately available for comment.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found in its own investigation of the refuge last fall that the facility has a troubled record, including repeat violations documented in federal inspection reports. Those violations included cages that were not tall enough to prevent big cats from escaping among other problems.

KyCIR also revealed that Stark signed a plea agreement in 2007 to a charge of unlawful receipt, transport and shipment of an endangered species -- a case the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not even aware of, and something that should have affected his ability renew his federal license.

Last summer, Stark held popular fund-raising events, called Tiger Baby Playtime, during which visitors paid a fee to play with tiger cubs in a group. Federal inspectors have also cited problems at these events. Several visitors have been scratched and bitten. The events are no longer held because the cubs grew too old. Meanwhile, a former employee and several volunteers have expressed concerns about safety at Tiger Baby Playtime.

Wildlife in Need calls itself a refuge for rehabilitation and release of indigenous wildlife. It also provides, according to its website, a safe harbor for exotic and endangered animals while educating the public.

PETA on Wednesday demanded authorities “make sure that this man doesn’t get away with harming animals or thumbing his nose at the laws designed to protect them.”

“Each one of these deaths likely could have been prevented if Tim Stark had taken any reasonable care with these animals,” PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Delcianna Winders said in a released statement.

Earlier this year, an Indiana lawmaker unsuccessfully proposed legislation -- his third attempt in three years -- to put more restrictions on owners of exotic animals. In the Hoosier state, if wild animal owners are licensed by the USDA, they don’t have to adhere to Indiana regulations. Local officials have no jurisdiction over the facilities.

Brittany Peet, deputy director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA, said the organization has been keeping tabs on Wildlife in Need for years and has filed multiple complaints against Stark because of problems at his facility.

“Wildlife in Need is a ticking time bomb,” Peet said. “And the citizens of Indiana need legislation now to protect them from Tim Stark, not after it’s too late.”

Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at kgoetz@kycir.org or (502) 814.6546.

Kristina Goetz is an investigative reporter specializing in higher education, military, law enforcement and public financing.

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