CHARLESTOWN, Ind.—A crowd of visitors sat mesmerized under a big-top tent this summer in rural Indiana watching two tiger cubs stalk stuffed toys dangled above their mouths. A golden cub batted a woman’s hair before it bounded over to a high school student.
When the teenager felt the sting of the tiger’s teeth on his bare leg, he scooted the cub away.
“It hurts,” he said, checking for bite marks.
The event’s host, Tim Stark, reminded the crowd that nips and scratches are normal. These aren’t poodles. They’re tigers. Real tigers.
The Tiger Baby Playtime attraction in Charlestown was often a sold-out fundraiser event this summer with patrons paying $25 to play with tiger cubs. For $20 more in cash, they could pose for a photo with one in their arms.
What visitors may not have known was that some grown tigers outside the tent were lounging in cages inspectors have deemed inadequate to prevent escape, that Stark pleaded guilty to selling an endangered animal and that he’s boasted he’ll never shut down — no matter what the law says.
A months-long investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WFPL News found that Stark’s non-profit organization called Wildlife in Need has a troubled record; that state officials in Indiana are powerless to address complaints; and that despite several years of repeat violations documented in inspection reports, federal authorities have levied no sanctions against the facility.
Three years after a brief bout of mayhem in Zanesville, Ohio, where a man let loose a menagerie of wild animals – tigers, lions, leopards and a grizzly bear – and then shot himself to death, there is still no federal law that uniformly regulates the possession of big cats.
State regulations vary so widely that a backyard tiger is legal in Indiana but not in Kentucky. A pending federal bill, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, would impose strict limitations on the possession of these animals. Activists and federal legislators who support the measure say the proposed restrictions are in the interest of public safety.
Past the long driveway on Stark’s Charlestown property this summer, three adult tigers lazed in a pen behind a heavy-gauge wire fence — more than two adults tall. Moments before a recent Tiger Baby Playtime event, Stark swung open the gate to the enclosure and led a white-striped tiger to the front of the cage. He pried its jaws open so the crowd could see its fangs – the teeth tigers use to sever the necks of their prey. He told a half-dozen visitors why he goes behind the locked gate.
“Sissy-ass zoos, they quit doing that back in 2001,” he said. “I guess ‘cause this country don’t believe in anybody getting injured in any way, shape nor form nowadays because they’re trying to raise a bunch of damn pansy-asses. But the way I look at it, if you’re going to have these animals, they thrive on that interaction. They deserve it, and it’s supposed to be that way.”
The Sellersburg, Ind., native, who describes himself as a student of “U of L-I-F-E,” is a well-known animal breeder and rehabber in southern Indiana. For decades he’s been the man folks call when they find a hawk with a busted wing or a deer with a broken leg. He describes himself as straight-forward, proud to be self-taught in everything he does. The former Army man once stationed at Ft. Knox peppers his speech with swears.
From 2000 to 2006, Stark had an animal dealer’s license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He switched in 2006 to an exhibitor’s license and has held one ever since. His facility is currently closed to the public, though, due to construction projects.
But it’s the Tiger Baby Playtime fundraiser events that put his facility on the map. People from Louisville, Cincinnati and other cities across the region flocked to his refuge this summer for the chance to play with a tiger cub. Photos and videos of giddy visitors are plastered on Facebook and Twitter.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WFPL News found that as Stark’s nonprofit business has grown so have his problems. Financial filings show Stark’s donations grew from $40,861 in 2006 to $184,267 in 2013. But a review of more than 500 records from the USDA, federal court, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources found his run-ins with inspectors have also increased. (See Stark’s filings: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013)
In 2007, Stark signed a plea agreement in U.S. District Court in southern Indiana. He pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful receipt, transport and shipment of an endangered species. Court records show he sold an ocelot – a wild animal twice the size of an average house cat with a spotted coat – to someone in Texas. A federal judge sentenced him to a $5,000 fine and three years of probation, though Stark’s request to terminate the probation early was granted.
Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the federal agency was unaware of the case but would look into it now. She couldn’t say whether it would affect his license at this point because the case was so long ago. But usually, she said, any conviction involving an animal — trafficking or cruelty, for example — would mean a license denial.
USDA inspectors have cited Stark with 22 violations, including 10 repeat infractions, during the past eight inspections.
Since 2012, officials have cited Stark four times for not having enclosures tall enough to “properly contain the animals,” according to the most recent USDA records made available. In a June 2013 report, the inspector wrote that enclosures holding seven tigers and a lion had fencing less than 12 feet high. “These enclosures are similar in height to those where tigers and lions have had documented escapes,” he wrote. “An escape places the animal’s life in jeopardy and may endanger the safety of the public.”
The most recent inspection report available, from August, shows that enclosures containing two tigers and two lions still needed work because construction of new enclosures is still in the planning process. 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.” With neighboring homes just a few yards away from Stark’s land, public safety risks are endless.
In January, the USDA performed an inspection of Tiger Baby Playtime. Stark was allowing visitors to play with cubs up to 15 or 16 weeks old and 50 pounds. Stark told the inspector that some visitors had been scratched but that “a little blood is nothing,” according to the report.
“It is clear with the evidence of recent reported injuries that these tiger cubs are too large, too strong and too aggressive to have contact with the public with minimal risk of harm,” the inspector wrote.
The inspector also told Stark he could no longer allow visitors to physically reprimand the cubs to keep them from getting too aggressive, the inspection report said.
The inspector also warned: Visitors must not have contact with cubs capable of biting, scratching or bruising people.
USDA inspectors visited Tiger Baby Playtime again in August. They watched as Stark dropped an agitated tiger cub into the lap of an unsuspecting visitor. And three visitors were scratched or bitten, including a young boy around age 10, according to the report.
“The child did yell out, pushed the tiger off of his leg, and crawled away rubbing his thigh,” the inspector wrote. “One of the assistants asked him if his leg was still ‘attached’ and teased him about his leg being chewed like a drumstick.” The report also noted that a cub bit the back of one of the inspectors and drew blood.
But the USDA inspector didn’t shut Stark’s exhibition down or identify which animals were prohibited. The inspector simply wrote that allowing tiger cubs to walk freely among so many people with no direct control by the keepers “provides an immediate opportunity for injury to the public by the tigers’ sharp teeth and claws.”
The inspector noted that animals could be injured or harmed “when interaction with the public is free and uncontrolled.” He added: “There needs to be more control of the environment and animals when they come in contact with the public.”
In Indiana, residents who want to own exotic animals as pets must have a permit. But state law exempts people like Stark who have USDA licenses — animal breeders, dealers and exhibitors — from those regulations. So when the Indiana DNR receives complaints about Wildlife in Need, all state officials can do is refer callers to the feds.
A state senator who retired after 30 years as an Indiana conservation officer has introduced legislation twice in the past two years that would have required dual jurisdiction, but the measure never made it out of committee. He said USDA-license holders thought the federal requirements were stringent enough and didn’t want to be forced to notify neighbors that they have dangerous animals as required under state regulations.
“I can tell you that there are people whose neighbors have those animals that don’t know,” said Sen. Michael Crider, a Republican who represents Indiana’s District 28. “I’m fairly confident of that. There’s a reason why some of the folks are resistant to having a state permit.”
Espinosa, of the USDA, couldn’t say why more hasn’t been done in two and a half years to force Stark to modify his enclosures. She said roughly 120 inspectors cover 7,500 licensees nationwide, or about 63 licensees per inspector. People have to be given time to correct problems, she said, but wouldn’t say how much time was enough. Espinosa said USDA doesn’t keep statistics that show how many licenses are revoked each year but that roughly 30 cases go before administrative law judges annually.
“There are maybe different mitigating circumstances,” she said. “We look at various things. So, yes, there may be two years worth of these inspection reports.”
But if a licensee is “working in good faith” to remedy violations, the USDA doesn’t always open an investigation, Espinosa added. The inspectors may just work with licensees instead, monitoring their progress.
After weeks of inquiries, Stark agreed to an interview, but only if it would take place at the Green Tree Mall in Clarksville. Dressed in camouflage and with his wife by his side, Stark fought back against all criticism and scrutiny of his operation.
Complaints, they said, come from animal rights activists and “haters” who are against personal ownership of exotic animals. That, or people who are jealous Stark has cornered the market with Tiger Baby Playtime.
Stark has collected a slew of detractors who slam his operation in Internet postings. But he has also caught the attention of animal rights organizations. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has tracked Stark’s non-profit organization for a dozen years. PETA sent out a press release in August, saying Stark’s “roadside zoo” was “no place to take kids or anyone else who cares about animals.” The Humane Society of the United States also released a statement in September, saying that places like Wildlife in Need contribute to the problem of surplus tigers.
“The cycle of breeding, exploiting and then dumping baby animals after a few months fuels the exotic pet trade, puts animals at risk, endangers the public and creates a burden for both law enforcement and sanctuaries,” the statement said.
Stark said he isn’t against regulation, just the way the USDA inspectors, or “opinionated bullies,” oversee his operation. He called federal regulations a “a bunch of gray-area mumbo-jumbo bull—- that nobody can understand.”
Stark claimed to be the victim of an overzealous inspector, a “foreign bastard that had a vendetta against” him. Stark said he doesn’t care if people think he’s prejudiced.
His baby tigers are no more dangerous than a 6-month-old Labrador puppy, he explained. Stark admitted that he smacks his tigers on the nose. But it’s all about perspective, he said, and drawing a common-sense line. He said he’s never done anything to a tiger cub that came close to what its own mother would do.
“I’m the expert, not them,” he said of the USDA. “… There’s not a single person that works for USDA (who) knows their ass from a hole in the ground about a (expletive) tiger or a lion or a bear.”
He added: “Would I tap a dog on the nose? You damn right I would. Would I smack a dog’s ass? You damn right I would. I’m a firm disciplinarian.” He is the same with his tigers.
Stark also insisted that he asked his inspector for the new animal cage height specs for months to no avail. They only came out recently, he said, which means he has only been out of compliance for a short time, not two and a half years.
The USDA’s spokeswoman said inspectors are trained professionals, many of them veterinarians, and that they provide any changes in regulations promptly.
All of that is little consolation for some neighbors who fret about wild animals escaping.
Some in Charlestown think that’s already happened.
On a summer afternoon in rural Charlestown, fat little dogs – Jack Russell-Chihuahua mixes – skittered on the table, yapping for Doris Armstrong’s attention.
Near her home on Crescent Road, it’s common to see turkeys and horses, deer and opossums, maybe an occasional coydog – part coyote, part dog.
But in 2013, Armstrong’s mother, who lives next door, spotted an animal – too big to be one of the neighbor’s tiger-striped house cats – dart across the driveway. The mysterious animal later ate cat food on the porch. It looked like a lynx in a children’s books but with a long tail.
Then Armstrong’s dog Tinkerbell disappeared.
She asked her neighbor, Stark, for help. Armstrong knew about his exotic animals, the birds and deer he nursed back to health. She could sometimes hear his bears playing in their pens and an occasional lion growl because his place is less than a mile from hers as the crow flies. He knew so much about animals.
Maybe he could catch this one – whatever it was.
Stark set two traps – one with a live chicken that had a broken leg and another with raw meat, Armstrong recalled. But when he checked the traps days later, the bait was gone and the traps were empty.
After two weeks, Stark took his traps home, saying that whatever the animal was, it was too big for his traps, Armstrong remembered. She called an Indiana conservation officer. Something big was lurking in her woods, she told him, and it was killing her pets.
By then, three of her dogs – Tinkerbell, Scooby Doo and Caillou – had disappeared. When she heard Coco yelp, she knew she had to find the predator.
Then on a late June night, Armstrong and her boyfriend, Kurt McLeland, heard the beast knock over a bucket on her mother’s porch. By the time the couple reached the front of the house, the animal was pacing along the tree line 10 to 15 yards from the driveway. Armstrong shined a flashlight at the animal’s glowing eyes.
“Shoot it,” Armstrong remembered saying. “Whatever it is, shoot it.”
McLeland raised his 9 mm pistol and fired one shot, hitting the animal behind its ear. It flopped over, dead.
They crept close to see what it was.
“Oh my God,” Armstrong remembered thinking. “Who in the hell has a cheetah? I’ve never seen a cat that big.”
The killer wasn’t a cheetah. There, dead in her yard, lay a 48-pound leopard.
Armstrong called the conservation officer and Stark. Stark was agitated, angry that she’d called the law, she recalled.
Armstrong quizzed Stark. If the leopard wasn’t his, whose was it? And where did it come from? Maybe someone dropped it off on his property thinking he’d take care of it, he told her.
When Conservation Officer Bo Spainhour, of the DNR’s law enforcement division, arrived less than an hour later, he found several neighbors, including Stark, standing over the leopard in the driveway. He asked if any of Stark’s exotic animals had escaped.
“It isn’t my (expletive) leopard,” Stark told him.
Spainhour wrote it all down in his report: Stark said he had no idea where the animal came from. He wanted to know if he’d be investigated.
“I told him that he was probably smart enough to realize that since he was the only one into this kind of thing in Clark County that he was probably going to be questioned,” Spainhour wrote.
The day after the leopard’s death, an official from the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife sent an urgent e-mail to the USDA supervisor for Indiana, whose office is in Michigan: “I can’t get through on your land line; I’ve gotten a busy signal for about 30 minutes. Call me please! A leopard was shot in Clark County, and we believe it is an escape from Tim Stark’s facility.”
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which comprises 14 divisions including fish and wildlife, filed a formal complaint against Wildlife in Need on June 25, 2013, asking federal officials to look into Stark’s records. They wanted to know if it was Stark’s dead leopard.
Since Indiana law exempts USDA license holders like Stark from needing a state permit, state officials couldn’t determine for themselves if one of his animals had escaped because his big cats don’t fall under their jurisdiction.
On the same day of the state complaint, a USDA inspector found Stark’s records in disarray for a slew of exotic animals – foxes, ocelots, bobcats, tigers, hedgehogs. A report noted that several animals had no paperwork at all. For example, records showed Stark had acquired 15 tigers, maintained disposition records for 19 tigers, yet only had nine on his property.
Then federal inspectors found what the state was looking for: Stark had acquisition documents for two spotted leopards but no paperwork that showed what happened to them. There were no leopards on his property.
Stark told the inspector that one died, and he euthanized the other because of a bone disease. But there was no record of their deaths or the euthanasia, a clear violation of federal regulations.
Meanwhile, Doris Armstrong was trying to figure out how a leopard landed on her property.
Indiana DNR filed a federal open records request with the USDA. In February, the department received 57 pages, including inspection reports, photos and other documents.
On a complaint sheet included in that paperwork, an inspector wrote that the leopard killed in Charlestown was of similar age and size as the ones that came to Stark’s facility in October 2012, which he claimed died of metabolic bone disease. But because there were no disposition or veterinary records, only a DNA test, which could be compared to the leopard’s parents, would provide a definitive answer.
“But with the information that we have, we can conclude that there is a reasonable suspicion that this was one of the leopards of Mr. Stark,” the USDA inspector wrote.
On July 3, 2013, federal officials opened an investigation.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request for the USDA’s records. The agency refused to turn them over, saying the case was still open.
Meanwhile, the Indiana DNR declined to comment on the federal probe. “As for the time involved with investigations of this sort, we realize there is a process, and we understand it,” Phil Bloom, communications director for Indiana DNR, said in an email.
In an interview, Stark said he didn’t bother to keep records after five or six years in business because no USDA inspector ever asked to look at them. He said he’s “99.99 percent” sure the leopard killed in his neighbor’s yard wasn’t his. He has a different explanation.
“Chances are (someone) probably just dropped it off there around my house, hoping like hell… I would find it … and I would end up catching it and housing it and letting it live happily ever after. That ain’t how it worked out,” he said.
Stark insisted that both of his leopards were dead. Records show he got the cats from Living Treasures Animal Park in New Castle, Pa. They seemed healthy, he recalled, at four months old, but they were “mean as hell.”
Stark said he remembered the day he found one lying on its side, barely breathing. By the time he got to the leopard, it was allegedly dead.
He grabbed its back leg, and it snapped, Stark recalled. That’s when he came to the conclusion that metabolic bone disease had been what made them so mean. But no veterinarian ever examined the animals, USDA records show.
Three or four days after the first leopard died, Stark recalled, was when the second leopard squalled and screamed and darted at him. Stark said he hit it with a baseball bat.
The first hit was self-defense, but he had to put the leopard down, he said. He doesn’t like to euthanize an animal, but blunt force trauma was the quickest way, he explained.
“I hit it numerous times, over and over and over,” he said. “The last time I seen that cat it was (expletive) dead. I hit it with a ball bat numerous freaking times and hit it plenty hard enough to damn kill a full-grown leopard let alone a damn little leopard.”
So unless the leopard came back to life, he said, he doesn’t see how it could have landed in Doris Armstrong’s yard.
Still, Armstrong wants to know: Did that leopard belong to Tim Stark?
More than a year later, she has received no explanation.
Every state across the country has different regulations when it comes to owning big cats.
Thirty-one states have a ban on private ownership, said Kelly Donithan of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. But only three of those prohibit ownership even if someone has a USDA permit. Kentucky is one of them. Beyond that, 14 states require a permit, and five have no regulations at all. (See: Laws by state via the International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Ohio changed its regulations after the Zanesville incident, and now exotic animal owners are required to have a permit. They have to pass a background check, pay fees, and prove they can care for and contain their animals. They also must carry liability insurance.
Since 2005, Kentucky has had one of the most stringent laws in the country against the possession of exotic animals. And exemptions are hard to come by.
“We’ve had people ask before, ‘Oh, well, I have a USDA license. And I provide educational programs to schools, libraries,’” said Chad Soard, a wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “And, you know, what they’ve got is a backyard tiger or a capuchin monkey, things like that.”
U.S. Congressman Buck McKeon, a Republican who represents California’s 25th district, wants to unify state regulations by passing a federal law. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act would make it illegal for a person to possess, sell or breed lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars or any type of big cat hybrid. And sanctuaries would only be allowed to house these animals if they don’t commercially trade or breed them, or allow them to have contact with the public.
The legislation was introduced in May 2013 and now sits in a subcommittee.
McKeon said he isn’t against people making money; he’s concerned about public safety.
“It’s not like we’re trying to say you can never go to a zoo and see a wild animal,” he said. “If there’s a case where people aren’t smart enough, don’t know enough to protect themselves from possible death or injury because they just want to go pet an animal and we can preclude that, I think we should.”
Meanwhile, groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare are pushing for legislative change.
“Animals are often in most places viewed as property, and so there are a lot of bigger issues at play when you’re restricting the ability of someone to own property they feel they should be able to own,” Donithan said.
Tim Stark said he won’t abide by a law he doesn’t agree with. And he doesn’t agree with this legislation. He won’t shut down. He believes people have the right to own exotic animals and decide if they want to interact with a baby tiger without government intrusion.
“You’re going to see me in jail,” he said. “You’re going to see me on the damn world news because, will I ever quit what I’m doing? F— no, I won’t.”
The more the government intrudes, he said, the more he’ll breed.
“I’m not going to have the communistic bull—- government tell me what I can and cannot do,” he said.
The last Tiger Baby Playtime fundraiser event was held in early September because the cubs got too old to interact with the public. And the refuge is closed because Stark is in the process of rebuilding pens. Tiger enthusiasts may not have to wait long, though, for another playtime event. Stark has a breeding pair together now, he said, so it could be in eight months.
People in Charlestown want to know: What happened to that dead leopard? Who owned it? And if it happened before, could it happen again?
Linda Basham, who lives on Highway 3 in Charlestown, didn’t know what kind or how many animals Stark had until stories about the dead leopard circulated.
She worries about going to her garage to get ice cream. She won’t sit in her own backyard without a handgun. And she won’t let her 14-year-old nephew wander into the woods for fear of what might be lurking there. Basham wants personal ownership of exotic animals to be banned.
“I don’t want that in my backyard,” she said. “I’m afraid of it. I weigh 117 pounds, and I am 62 years old. There is absolutely no way I could hold a tiger off. I don’t know anybody that could.”
Armstrong said the last she heard, an Indiana conservation officer put the dead leopard in a freezer somewhere to be examined. Most of Charlestown thinks it was Stark’s, she said. State officials only know that Indiana DNR turned the carcass over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The leopard killed 12 of Armstrong’s animals – eight cats and four dogs – before McLeland shot it. If it wasn’t Stark’s leopard, she’d like to know who’s responsible. She plans to sue – $100,000 per dog.
“I’m not after the DNR,” she said. “I’m not after Tim Stark. I’m after whoever owns the animal.”
She’s frustrated by the lack of information and can’t help feeling troubled about what might have happened. Her two great-nephews, now seven and four years old, run in the yard.
“How many times have those kids went by there and that cat’s been watching them, thinking, ‘Hmm, should I go after that or not?’” she said.
Armstrong knows the story of the night a leopard was killed at her house will be one her family tells for years. She has pictures, but she’d love the pelt to prove it.
Armstrong doesn’t expect to ever get any money.
At this point, she’d settle for answers.
Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6546. WFPL News Reporter Erin Keane co-authored this article.