Wildlife in Need fire

Flames and smoke had engulfed a maintenance and shelter building when crews arrived. 

CHARLESTOWN — The federal agency tasked with upholding the Animal Welfare Act is looking into a Tuesday fire that killed 41 animals at the Wildlife in Need facility in Charlestown.

The fire engulfed a 40 to 60-foot barn structure at the shelter for exotic and endangered species around noon Tuesday, according to reports from newsgathering partner WAVE 3 NEWS. In a Facebook post confirming the fire, Wildlife in Need officials said all animals were "accounted for" and that there "was never any security risk or concern."

But in a follow-up post that has garnered over 650 comments and nearly 1,000 shares, Wildlife in Need officials said the facility lost 41 animals, mostly birds and reptiles, in the fire. Facility owner Tim Stark was reached by phone Wednesday but said he did not have time to answer questions and did not know when he would have time. According to the follow-up post, Stark and a park manager "bravely went into the fire to rescue animals and are fortunate to have had multiple lives saved due to their quick efforts."

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Charlestown Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Heal did not return multiple messages for comment.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokesperson for the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, said the agency is aware of the fire and will be investigating whether any noncompliances contributed to the fire.

" ... However, to our knowledge, there were no regulated animals that were harmed during this tragic incident," Espinosa said in an email. "Reptiles are not regulated by the Animal Welfare Act and there are no standards in place for birds."

FACILITY IN QUESTION

Wildlife in Need came under criticism in November after the USDA released two inspection reports inspired by a complaint filed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. The inspection reports detail concerns over the safety of visitors to the facility's well-known Tiger Baby Playtime where visitors can pay to interact with tiger cubs. At least two members were bitten during the inspection visit and cubs were swatted with riding whips that was sometimes "excessive in severity," according to the September inspection report.

An October report details issues with animal housing in disrepair and fencing that was too low to contain lions and tigers. Stark was ordered to comply with the inspectors' recommendations, but Espinosa previously told the News and Tribune there are no immediate consequences to noncompliance. A "particularly grievous" noncompliance or repeat noncompliances could, however, result in a USDA investigation that can lead to monetary penalties or a facility's license being suspend or revoked.

Stark is already facing a formal USDA investigation connected to Stark pleading guilty in U.S. District Court to selling an ocelot to a woman in Texas and in turn violating the Endangered Species Act. The USDA claims that the guilty plea is grounds for terminating Stark's license. The case is pending with the USDA Office of Administrative Law Judges.

In response to the fire that killed 41 animals at Wildlife in Need on Tuesday, PETA Foundation Deputy Director Brittany Peet said in a news release that the organization hopes to see a new investigation handled "swiftly." The organization also said it hopes the facility's license is revoked and that all animals are relocated to "reputable sanctuaries."

Elizabeth DePompei is the digital editor for The News and Tribune. She has degrees in journalism and film from the University of Cincinnati and CUNY's Hunter College and was previously the paper's criminal justice reporter.

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