USDA Cites Controversial Southern Indiana Wildlife Refuge

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Tim Stark holds up a tiger during Tiger Baby Playtime.

Kristina Goetz / KyCIR

Tim Stark holds up a tiger during Tiger Baby Playtime.

Federal regulators have cited the operators of the Tiger Baby Playtime attraction in Southern Indiana after witnessing tiger cubs bite two people — including a young girl — in September, and watching workers swat the cubs with riding whips to keep them under control.

The citations were issued after two agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service visited the Charlestown, Ind., attraction on Sept. 13. They said 40 to 50 people attended the Sunday afternoon session, among them a newborn baby, a toddler and about 10 children under 10 years old.

People pay $25 for 30 minutes of “play time” with the cubs, another $20 for photo sessions. The attraction was the subject of a 2014 investigation by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that revealed casual oversight there and prompted calls for greater oversight of exotic animal exhibits.

According to the USDA report, four cubs were released into an open play area. They had no leashes and “would leap through the crowd” beyond their attendants’ control, only to be swatted on the nose, sometimes severely, “causing the cubs obvious discomfort.”

The agents wrote that an 8- or 9-year-old girl yelled “Ow” after one cub “crawled into her lap and grabbed her right lower bicep in its mouth.” In the same play session, a cub bit a woman on the forearm, prompting one attendant to tell another that there had been a “battle wound.” The attendants escorted the woman out of the room.

“These animals are too big, too fast and too dangerous to rely on a riding whip to control their actions,” the USDA report states. “These cubs could easily have pounced on a younger child in the audience and caused serious injury or even death to the babies. When tiger cubs reach this size, speed and strength, contact with the public is no longer safe.”

The agents wrote that, according to the attendants, the cubs were 16 weeks old and weighed 35 to 40 pounds.

On a subsequent visit to Tiger Baby Playtime on Oct. 8, the USDA observed what appeared to be sick animals being denied adequate veterinary care, numerous animal enclosures in disrepair, animals unable to access food or water, and big-cat enclosures littered with bones and feces.

The operators of Tiger Baby Playtime, Tim and Melisa Stark, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The USDA reports appear to indicate that someone agreed to correct the cited shortcomings of animal treatment and facility conditions, but the signatures are blacked out. The citation issued in connection with the tiger biting incidents states “Remains Uncorrected.”

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation said it filed the complaint that prompted the USDA to take another look at Tiger Baby Playtime. Deputy Director Brittany Peet said the attraction should be shut down.

“These latest citations confirm what PETA has warned for years, which is that nobody with a lick of concern for their children’s safety or for animals should ever buy a ticket to Tim Stark’s roadside zoo,” Peet said in a statement. “This cruel and dangerous operations must be shut down and the animals retired to reputable sanctuaries where they won’t be used as playthings.”

Read the USDA reports: 

  • Janet & John Staples

    My husband and i attended baby tiger play time December 12, 2015. My honest opinion and gut feeling after viewing all areas possible to be seen, due to some parts of the grounds blocked off for construction is this. It was a very clean environment inside the Tigers, Lions and cubs cages which are very large and secure. NO bones, no poop, or anything they should not have. The area where play time happens was very clean, orderly, and there were at least 5 to 6 people in the room at all times following and watching over the 3 tiger cubs that were romping and playing. There were several rope and ball toys to encourage the babies to play a few minutes in front of the audience. No one was allowed to stand, setting or laying down was encouraged. I assume, my common sense says, If you stand, they could knock you down, just like a dog would. So set down, pay attention and be aware, they do have teeth, just like house dogs, cats and other pets. These babies are 7 weeks old and i agree after 12 weeks, they should be kept away from very young children, simply because they get so big and pounce around. In no way does the baby cub intend harm, this is all there nature and there is a short window of time for people to get the chance of a life time of touching, petting and holding a Tiger before it gets to big. I was blessed to be able to set among such beautiful little creatures, touch them, listen to there cooing sounds, little growls, (quiet natural) and realize they will grow up to be beautiful majestic creatures that deserve someone to care enough to try and keep there populations growing and preserving the breeds. They are very endangered in the wild and as everyone knows, wont survive in there own natural environments very many more years due to humans taking it all away, poaching, and just plain deadly cruelty. I hope and pray that Tim Stark can build larger enclosures to give them as close to a natural and safe home in this world as he can. Tim Stark came into the room during play time on this day, and as he spoke to the cubs in coos and sounds, words they knew, they followed him as though he were there mother. He sat down, and they came and cuddled all over him as though there was no one else in that room. I promise you all of one thing, i have never seen in all my 56 years of life any animal show affection for a human that abuses them. They would try and hide IF they were afraid or harmed by a person. Tim is really in need of financial help, labor and people to sincerely help build what is needed and if it is also needed, more property and space to make it all work. Instead of criticizing and looking for things wrong how about being supportive. There needs to be true honest help by the public who really care and want to see these animals be around for future generations. Education on repopulating, breeding, and facilities to keep these animals in the best natural homes is a must. It has to happen. More large reserves of land to keep them safe and happy. It can happen here in the U.S. and it should.

    • Tif

      No.