Indiana Lawmaker Aims to Regulate ‘Big Cat’ Animal Exhibits, Dealers

tiger playtime

An Indiana state senator has proposed a bill that would put more restrictions on owners of dangerous animals in the Hoosier state.

State Sen. Michael Crider, a Republican who represents parts of Marion, Shelby and Hancock counties, is one of several Indiana legislators who fielded calls from concerned citizens about a troubled non-profit animal refuge in Charlestown.

The refuge, Wildlife in Need, was the focus of a recent Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting series that found a number of Animal Welfare Act violations and conditions that potentially put the public’s safety at risk. (Read: Oversight of Indiana Tiger Exhibit Big on Growl, Light on Teeth)

Crider said the published reports underscore the need for regulation of “dangerous” Class III animals, such as wolves, bears and wild cats. He said there are too few federal inspectors examining animal dealers and exhibitors.

Indiana Sen. Michael Crider

Indiana Senate Republicans

Indiana Sen. Michael Crider

Under Indiana law, dealers and exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are exempt from state regulations, meaning there’s no state oversight of their facilities. If there are complaints, or if a dangerous animal escapes, state officials have no jurisdiction to investigate.

“I’m more and more convinced that we need to have oversight in the state of Indiana so that we have some accounting of who has what, where it’s located,” Crider said. “And if something does escape, does the person that owns the animal have the means to recapture or to destroy the animal if that’s what’s necessary?”

Crider has proposed similar bills in two previous legislative sessions, though neither made it out of committee.

The KyCIR investigation found that USDA inspectors have cited Wildlife in Need owner Tim Stark with 22 violations, including 10 repeat infractions, during the past eight inspections. The most recent inspection report available, from August, shows that enclosures containing two tigers and two lions still needed work. The inspector wrote that the adult tigers in those pens “could easily jump/climb out of the enclosure if they were motivated to do so.”

Last summer, Stark hosted a popular fund-raising event called Tiger Baby Playtime during which visitors paid to pet and play with baby tigers. USDA inspectors have also cited problems with the event.

Tim Stark holds up a tiger during Tiger Baby Playtime.

Kristina Goetz / KyCIR

Tim Stark holds up a tiger during Tiger Baby Playtime.

In June 2013, Stark’s neighbor fatally shot a 48-pound leopard after the animal allegedly killed several cats and dogs. Neighbors believe it was Stark’s leopard, which Stark denies.

Crider sent a letter to a regional director of the USDA in November, looking for answers. He received a faxed response Jan. 8. It provided no insight into the agency’s inquiry.

“As a result of noncompliant items noted during our inspections of Wildlife in Need, our agency opened an investigation in July 2013 into alleged AWA (Animal Welfare Act) violations, including the animal handling practices at the sanctuary,” administrator Kevin Shea wrote. “However, because our investigation remains ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

Crider said he has no hope of getting any information from the feds, especially in time for debating his proposed legislation.

“I’d hoped they would be further along in their investigation,” said Crider, a retired conservation officer. “I don’t think it’s particularly complicated… I think it just re-emphasizes the need to get my bill passed. The inability to control local situations on a local level is problematic in my mind.”

Crider’s measure aims to require all owners of Class III animals — wolves, bears, wild cats, venomous reptiles and crocodiles that are at least five feet long — to abide by state regulations whether they have a USDA permit or not. They would have to apply for a permit and follow guidelines regarding cages. Owners would also have to submit to an annual state inspection and notify neighbors of the types of animals they have on their property.

Senate Bill 226 bill has been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.

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

 

 

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