A federal administrative law judge has rejected the United States Department of Agriculture’s bid to revoke the exhibitor license of Timothy Stark, the operator of a controversial Southern Indiana wildlife attraction.
But a recent fire means federal regulators will continue scrutinizing Wildlife In Need, best known for its popular Tiger Baby Playtime fundraisers. The exhibit was the focus of a 2014 Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting series that exposed the nonprofit’s troubled record, a lack of state and federal oversight and potential public safety risks. (Read “Oversight of Indiana Tiger Exhibit Big on Growl, Light on Teeth”)
The USDA claimed in February that Stark’s license, issued under the Animal Welfare Act, should be revoked because he had pleaded guilty in 2007 to violating the Endangered Species Act. That case involved the 2004 transfer of an ocelot, which is an endangered species, according to the USDA’s court filing.
Stark argued that the ocelot incident shouldn’t have bearing on his exhibitor’s license because it happened before the license — issued in November 2007 — went into effect, according to the order from Judge Janice K. Bullard.
Stark also argued that the ocelot incident did not involve animal cruelty, and that the USDA agency that oversees animal protection has renewed his license on multiple occasions since 2007.
Bullard sided with Stark, writing that the “USDA has failed to establish that [Stark] is unfit to hold an AWA license for a conviction pertaining to the transfer of an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act more than 10 years ago.”
Stark’s exhibitor’s license is currently listed as active, but it’s unclear whether the agency has issued him a new license, USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in an email. Espinosa could not say Tuesday whether the USDA would take further action on this specific case against Stark.
Stark did not return a request for comment.
Bullard’s order was issued on Jan. 11, the day before a fire ravaged a barn on Stark’s property near Charlestown, Indiana. How that fire happened may never be known. But it may also have given another reason for federal regulators to investigate Wildlife In Need.
On Thursday, Charlestown Fire Chief John Heal said the structure was “too far gone” for firefighters to discover the cause of the blaze.
“It was so far gone, the building was. There really was no way of tracing anything back to any certain thing, so it was just ‘undetermined,'” Heal told WFPL News.
He said the department has no plans to refer the incident to other agencies, including law enforcement, and that its cause might ultimately be determined by an insurance adjuster or other outside agency.
Charlestown firefighters responded to a report of a gas leak on the same stretch of road, though some distance, from Wildlife In Need hours before the barn fire began. But Heal said that report was unfounded and unrelated.
The fire at a structure on the Wildlife In Need property on Jan. 12 led to the deaths of 41 animals, according to a Facebook post from the nonprofit. The dead animals included birds and reptiles.
“Some were scaly, some were feathered, others furry, but all were friends,” the statement read. “We have bonded with all of our animals here at WIN, and the hearts of our volunteers and staff are heavy tonight.”
The statement said Stark and another employee were able to rescue some animals near the fire. Wildlife In Need also stated that the property remained secure during the fire.
USDA’s Espinosa said the agency will look into the fire, but she added that the initial reports do not point to a violation of the law regulating the transfer of some animals for exhibition and other uses.
“Reptiles are not regulated by the Animal Welfare Act, and there are no standards in place for birds,” she said.
Wildlife In Need has been sanctioned as recently as last fall. In that instance, federal agriculture department inspectors witnessed tiger cubs biting Baby Tiger Playtime patrons.
Wildlife In Need is known in the Louisville area for its Baby Tiger Play Time events — fundraisers for the nonprofit in which paying patrons are permitted to play with tiger cubs. The refuge has been under the scrutiny of federal wildlife investigators for years.
The KyCIR investigation found no sanctions were levied against Wildlife In Need despite regular violations of federal regulations, including rules meant to protect people from dangerous animals.
In 2014, Stark described federal regulations of nonprofits like his as “a bunch of gray-area mumbo jumbo bull—- that nobody can understand.”
Wildlife In Need brought in $569,032 in in “contributions and grants” in 2014, according to a May filing with the IRS. The previous year, the nonprofit brought in just $184,267.
In its Facebook statement, Wildlife In Need alluded that Tiger Baby Playtime fundraisers are still being held.
The latest incident at the Charlestown compound drew the ire from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been critical of Wildlife In Need in recent years.
PETA Foundation Deputy Director Brittany Peet said Wildlife In Need is “known for its long history of callous abuse and neglect,” citing the most recent USDA sanctions.
“As the U.S. Department of Agriculture reportedly seeks to revoke this facility’s license, PETA hopes to see this new investigation handled swiftly, and we look forward to seeing this hellhole out of business for good and all the surviving animals relocated to reputable sanctuaries.”
This story was produced by Joseph Lord, an editor with 89.3 WFPL, our news partner.