Popular Tiger Petting Zoo Again Cited By Feds For Violations

Tiger playtime customers sprawl out on the floor with the baby tigers in 2014.

Kristina Goetz / KyCIR

Tiger playtime customers sprawl out on the floor with the baby tigers in 2014.

A troubled Louisville-area wildlife exhibit with a history of unsafe conditions for animals is the subject of another critical U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection, though consequences for the federal violations remain unclear.

The USDA’s most recent inspection of Wildlife In Need of Charlestown, Indiana, found dangerous shelters, animal deaths, inadequate care and a host of other issues, including a hostile owner.

Wildlife In Need LocatorWildlife In Need, a nonprofit that runs a popular tiger petting zoo among other events, was the subject of a 2014 series by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. The stories revealed the group’s troubling record, underscored lax state and federal oversight and raised questions about public safety issues.

The most recent violations are the latest in a lengthy battle between the Southern Indiana roadside zoo and the feds.

The last inspection, in January, started as a routine matter. Officials sought documents, but claimed owner Tim Stark became hostile, refused to hand over documents, and inspectors believed “the situation could possibly become unsafe.” They left without finishing their inquiry.

Reached Friday, Stark said he is completely in compliance with USDA regulations. He said investigators falsified the report, and said he plans to file suit against the federal agency.

“I am not doing nothing wrong here,” Stark said. “I have entertained hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. I take care of my animals, we love our animals here.”

Stark, who previously told KyCIR he did not need to follow laws he did not agree with, said the federal agency has a vendetta against him. (Read KyCIR’s coverage of Wildlife In Need)

The recent report highlighted the deaths of four animals: a kangaroo, an adult otter and two baby otters. Investigators said Stark failed to call a veterinarian, or provide adequate medical care, when the animals fell ill.

The report noted Stark never got necropsies for the animals, though inspectors previously told him that unexplained deaths require necropsies.

Inspectors also determined a tiger enclosure was deficient, too short to ensure the tigers can’t escape. Meanwhile, an adult lion and a dog continue to share a pen. Each slept on the snow-covered ground or dirt floor, inspectors found.

A dog and lion lounge together inside an enclosure in this photo taken by a USDA inspector in June 2013.


A dog and lion lounge together inside an enclosure in this photo taken by a USDA inspector in June 2013.

Nails protruded at eye level in a pen for a coyote and coydog. Also, inspectors discovered a Brown bear, Chloe, who appeared to be injured and bleeding from its elbow during the inspection.

Stark said the bear was not injured, and inspectors refused to come examine the bear when he told them it was not bleeding.

KyCIR reported on several of these same findings two years ago. Since then, Indiana legislators shot down a bill that would have required exhibitors and dealers of dangerous animals to apply for a state license and undergo more inspections.

Tim Stark

Laura Ellis / WFPL

Tim Stark

Stark has been cited with 13 repeat compliance violations since August 2014. The violations come with recommendations, however, not fines or legal ramifications.

USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency has an open investigation into Wildlife in Need, though she declined to provide details. Owners cannot be fined until the USDA completes an investigation, even if they are repeatedly in non-compliance.

In February, the USDA filed an appeal in a federal administrative court following an earlier judge’s ruling against the agency in its attempt to revoke Stark’s license. In January, the USDA argued in federal court that Stark violated the Endangered Species Act in 2004 during the transfer of an ocelot. Thus, Stark was unfit to hold an animal exhibitor license under the Animal Welfare Act, the feds argued.

Wildlife in Need is home to a vast collection of exotic animals, but is probably best known for its 15 tigers. The “Tiger Baby Playtime” exhibit allows adults and children to play with baby tigers. The event was previously cited by the USDA because the tigers were too large and possibly dangerous for children.

Earlier this week, People For Ethical Treatment of Animals publicized the USDA’s inspection report and harshly criticized Stark and his organization.

“When it seemed the situation couldn’t get any worse, the inspection report showed that it’s more of the same,” said Jenni James, an attorney for PETA. “Basically he treats animals like they’re disposable. Enough is enough, the USDA needs to shut down this hell-hole for good.”

A former Wildlife In Need employee and several volunteers have also expressed criticism and concerns.

Will Wright, KyCIR’s summer fellow, can be reached at wwright@kycir.org and (724) 344.6945. 

4 thoughts on “Popular Tiger Petting Zoo Again Cited By Feds For Violations

  1. It’s a bunch of animal pens, not a restaurant. The USDA doesn’t actually have the right to treat every little thing as a “violation.” We need to rid ourselves of these government agencies that cater to special interest groups to the detriment of good business owners.

    • You are kidding, right? Good business owners don’t endanger the animals they purport to provide sanctuary for and they certainly don’t put the public at risk by letting them play with wild animals. This man and his operation are a disgrace and a public menace, yet you have the nerve to call these ‘little things’.

  2. After reading the controversial articles, I visited this place personally. What I saw was people who no doubt love their animals, but were incapable of, or uneducated in the proper & healthy way to keep animals. The animals are “warehoused” instead of provided natural habitats. The majestic lions and tigers are kept in small pens with a constructed box to sleep in and to use in an attempt to try and escape the hot sun, nothing to do but sleep or pace in circles around the box. Huge turtles were kept in an extremely small circular pen, with nothing to but crawl round & round the small circle on hard gravel all day long. No grass to walk on, no vegetables to eat and nothing to do. The caged animals in one building were so hot they drooled, although there was an overhead fan on the temperature was scorching. The baby tigers were a joy and seemed to be healthy, and I have no doubt the owners loves them. However, he seems to have a big ego and bragged a lot about owning (and planning to buy more & more) exotic animals. They spoke a lot about “expansion” but not really to provide natural habitats for the animals, but just to make room for even more variety of animals to provide entertainment. I really felt sorry for the caged animals because it reminded me of what old-fashioned zoos used to look like back in olden days. Today’s modern animal enthusiasts realize it’s more beneficial to the animal to provide a natural setting and healthier to allow them homes similar to the ones they originally came from with grass, trees and stimulation. Animals cannot thrive walking on stone, or caged in a small enclosure, or kept in buildings over-heated by the sun. Modern zoos always provide natural habitats and stimulation for their animals and if they are not financially able to do so, they certainly don’t run out and buy even more animals. I got the feeling the owner has crowned himself the “King of the Jungle” and thumbs his nose at rules and authority governing the proper care of animals and plans to continue to purchase more & more creatures while unable to properly care for them. I admit interacting with the baby tigers and taking photos was enjoyable, but viewing the rest of the helpless inhabitants who were warehoused or incarcerated on the property made the visit very disturbing. Just because it’s legal to own animals and just because you have the cash to run out and buy them DOES NOT mean you have the proper qualifications and knowledge to properly care for such creatures. I won’t be going back for I saw for myself what all the controversy is about, hopefully authorities will step in and rescue these helpless creatures from their sad and depressing environment. The owner needs to be educated in modern animal care and shown he isn’t above the law.

    • A very sensible response. It gives me the information I need from a distance to know that there should be enforceable regulations about minimum standards for animals and this place is not providing adequately for the animals’ welfare. Whether the ignorance comes through stubbornness or whatever, the owner’s aggression is not a good sign that he really “cares” about providing the best, or even necessary, conditions he can for the animals’ welfare.