Former Employee, Volunteers Express Concerns About Troubled Wildlife Refuge

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Travis Ellis at an animal playtime event at Wildlife in Need in Charlestown, Ind.

Kristina Goetz / KyCIR

Travis Ellis at an animal playtime event at Wildlife in Need in Charlestown, Ind.

In the wake of a KyCIR investigation that found a history of problems at an Indiana exotic animal refuge, current and former members of the organization have come forward to talk about their experiences at the facility.

Meanwhile, legislators who’ve received recent complaints about Wildlife in Need are looking at potential changes in Indiana law.

KyCIR’s investigation showed Tim Stark’s exotic animal facility in Charlestown, Ind., has been cited by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors for a variety of problems over the past several years, including having enclosures that are not adequate to prevent big cats from escaping, and allowing cubs that are too old and too aggressive to interact with the public. (Read KyCIR’s reportOversight of Indiana Tiger Exhibit Big on Growl, Light on Teeth)

Former Wildlife in Need employee Travis Ellis, as well as a current volunteer and a former volunteer, portrayed the organization as in distress and disarray. They allege Stark is dismissive of authority, has contempt for veterinarians and uses volunteers who have good intentions but little to no background in animal care.

The volunteers, who provided evidence of their work there, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Ellis does not have a degree in animal science but said he grew up around exotic animals and is a licensed falconer in Tennessee. Officials there say Ellis is in compliance with state regulations and has a good track record.

Ellis met Stark when he was animal curator for Kentucky Down Under, he said, and then the two started doing business together. Ellis grew concerned while working for Stark this summer.

“On my side of the tent, we gave people a pretty safe experience with the exception of using that tiger and that bear,” he said of the exotic animal encounter show.

Ellis believes people should be able to interact with exotic animals. He just doesn’t think Stark’s operation is a safe place to do it.

Ellis said he was bitten and clawed by a large tiger this summer. He has photos of the encounter as well.

During the last show of the evening one August night Ellis told a crowd of about a dozen visitors to get ready for the finale.

Travis Ellis said he was bit and scratched by a tiger at a playtime event at Wildlife in Need.

courtesy Travis Ellis

Travis Ellis said he was bit and scratched by a tiger at a playtime event at Wildlife in Need.

“Remain in your seats,” he remembered saying. “Please don’t make loud noises. Don’t attempt to touch her.”

For a moment, he disappeared behind a door but returned with a 250-pound tiger on a woven-knot leash with a leather loop. Just feet away — with no barrier in between —  visitors watched the year-old tiger put her paws on two volunteers sitting on the ground, Ellis recalled. Ellis said he tugged the leash to lead the tiger in a circle in order to show off her stripes.

“Once I pulled her away from these girls, she reared up on top of me, grabbed me in my armpit with her teeth and stuck her claws in my back,” he said. “I played it off. The public had no clue what was going on.”

Still feeling the sting of the cat’s teeth, Ellis walked backward out the side door to the tiger’s holding pen.

“She was chewing on me, and she was growling,” he said. “I was still up. I knew if I ever got down it would be bad.”

The tiger hung on, Ellis said, until one of the volunteers smacked her in the nose with a plastic bat.

Ellis scrambled out of the cage, bleeding from four puncture wounds, and slammed the door. He walked back in the tent.

“The public was still sitting there so I had to suck it up and finish the show,” he said.

Ellis claims Stark had little to say after the incident and seemed more upset about what visitors had seen.

“When the cat incident happened, and he wasn’t willing to take responsibility … that was the final straw,” Ellis said. He never worked there again. He did not file a complaint with any agency.

Stark did not return an email or a phone message left on Wildlife in Need’s voicemail, asking for comment.

One former volunteer said she quit after she found herself crying every day about the animals.

Other volunteers have forged bonds with the animals and don’t want to jeopardize their ability to spend time with them, according to a current volunteer. She questions what she saw there, from dirty cages to overcrowding.

This volunteer was asked over the summer to help with a Tiger Baby Playtime fundraiser event during which patrons paid $25 to play with tiger cubs in a group.

Tim Stark with a baby tiger at a playtime event this summer.

Erin Keane / KyCIR

Tim Stark with a baby tiger at a playtime event this summer.

“I was told, ‘If they’re staring, and their ears go up, and they lock onto someone, especially a kid, keep your eye out for that and get in the middle.’ I did not feel comfortable doing that. What you’re telling me is that I’ve got to watch for the tiger to attack someone and stop it? Are you kidding me?”

KyCIR’s investigation of the facility also has caught the attention of several legislators who’ve fielded calls from constituents about Wildlife in Need. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Todd Young said his office has received letters and phone calls from three constituents who were concerned about both the animals’ welfare and public safety.

“We have been working with the USDA to identify an appropriate point of contact for concerned citizens to reach out to,” spokesman Trevor Foughty said.

On the state level, Sen. Michael Crider, a Republican who represents Indiana’s District 28, said in a phone interview this week that he plans to introduce legislation for the third year in a row that would require a permit for everyone in the state who has certain types of exotic animals.

Currently, a permit is required for people who own these animals as pets. But those like Stark who have USDA  permits to be animal exhibitors are exempt from state regulations. Crider wants dual jurisdiction so Indiana officials have the authority to inspect the property along with the feds. He’s also looking at restrictions other states have implemented.

“This issue is not going away,” said Crider, who retired after 30 years as an Indiana conservation officer. “In fact, in some cases it’s gotten a little bit worse since I first started talking about it. Hopefully we can come up with something that we can get passed, and it will provide for adequate oversight.”

State Rep. Steven Stemler, a Democrat who represents Indiana’s District 71, said he has been aware of people’s concerns about the facility for some time and would support Crider’s proposed bill. Several constituents called his office last year when they heard a leopard was shot and killed by a neighbor near Stark’s property. USDA officials have yet to definitively determine whether the animal belonged to Stark.

“Personally I think our responsibility is to provide public safety for citizens,” Stemler said. “And whenever there is a question of public safety that is possibly compromised — and in this case with exotic animals — then there should be oversight that is allowed to ensure that safety.”

Rep. Terry Goodin, a Democrat who represents Indiana’s District 66, has received calls from constituents about Wildlife in Need and knows that neighbors have concerns about the facility.

“As I’ve spoken with folks they became frustrated probably with me because I had to tell them openly, hey, the state has no jurisdiction over the facility so there’s nothing really that I can do other than try to work on policy as we move forward.”

Goodin said USDA specs are minimum standards, and he believes the state should build on those. He supports the dual certification Crider is proposing.

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