Judge grants injunction against Wildlife in Need in southern Indiana

This photo taken from a video shows Wildlife in Need owner Tim Stark handling a tiger cub in front of visitors. (photo taken from video courtesy PetaPreview.com via News and Tribune)
ELIZABETH DEPOMPEI
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CHARLESTOWN, Ind. (News and Tribune) — The owner of a Charlestown facility that houses wildlife says he plans to dispute an injunction that prevents him from using tiger cubs for public encounters.

Wildlife in Need, located on Jack Teeple Road and owned and operated by Tim and Melisa Stark, has become known for its "Tiger Baby Playtime," events where visitors can pay to interact with tiger cubs and have their photos taken.

But an injunction filed Monday temporarily bans the Starks from continuing such events. The ruling also orders the operators to stop declawing its big cats and to stop separating cubs from their mothers unless medically necessary.

The decision comes following a lawsuit filed last year by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, that alleges the operators have repeatedly violated federal law protecting endangered species.

Tim Stark said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon that he had not yet reviewed the details of the injunction, but that he knew what PETA was seeking, and he doesn't agree with the judge's decision. He said he plans to contest the ruling.

According to court filings, Stark had "about a dozen cubs" declawed in 2016 and admitted that he declaws tigers "because it makes them easier to handle." PETA submitted evidence to show that two cubs declawed last year subsequently died from complications, but Stark said that's not the case. Those cubs, he said, died from medications from an unrelated issue.

Furthermore, Stark said, it is not against the law to declaw big cats, likening the practice to declawing domesticated house cats. An online search of the Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations "blue book" Stark cites did not turn up any regulations regarding the practice of declawing animals.

But in the injunction, the judge ruled the Starks violated the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The judge's findings were based on expert witness testimony on PETA's behalf. One expert said the practice of declawing can cause a lifetime of pain and affect the animals' natural behaviors. A second expert witness testified that the "Tiger Baby Playtime" events subject cubs to "abnormal external stressors of extreme frequency, intensity and duration."

"The court has done the right thing in stopping Wildlife in Need from tearing cubs away from their mothers for use as public playthings and amputating their toes, which can leave them with lifelong lameness, pain, and psychological distress," PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet said in a press release. "PETA looks forward to seeing the Starks permanently forbidden from mutilating, exploiting, and profiting off baby animals."

Stark said he was unable to get expert witnesses to testify on his behalf, saying anyone would be too afraid of retribution for going against PETA.

The most recent lawsuit and the latest injunction is not the first time Stark has faced scrutiny. Over the past five years, the United States Department of Agriculture has written up Stark more than 50 times for failing to meet requirements under the Animal Welfare Act, or AWA, according to the injunction.

Stark, who is a licensed exhibitor under AWA, says if he was really in violation of the act, the USDA would have successfully revoked his license or declined to renew it by now. The USDA did try to revoke his license in 2015, but a judge ruled twice in Stark's favor. Stark contends he is "100 percent in compliance" with AWA regulations described in the blue book.

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