CHARLESTOWN — Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is suing Wildlife in Need, claiming the nonprofit has a history of abusing animals.
Hill filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking for the animals to be transferred from the Charlestown wildlife center into court-approved animal sanctuaries. Wildlife in Need, which is owned by Tim Stark, provides close-up encounters with wildlife and claims to rescue and rehabilitate animals, but it has been the subject of controversy over the years with numerous allegations of abuse.
In the lawsuit against the nonprofit, Hill asks a court to dissolve Wildlife in Need and to provide other remedies under Indiana’s Nonprofit Corporation Act and Deceptive Consumer Sales Act. The lawsuit seeks the liquidation of the nonprofit’s assets and to prohibit operators Stark and Melisa Lane from possessing and exhibiting animals, according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.
The lawsuit alleges that Stark has a history of physical abuse and neglect towards animals, trafficking wildlife, hiding animals from government authorities, attempting to move its animals out of state and forcing animals to live in “deplorable conditions.” It also claims that the organization has failed to return animals to their native habitats and deceived the public by misapplying assets said to be collected for animal care.
The lawsuit claims that the “majority of animals at Wildlife in Need are neither rescued nor rehabilitated” and that “animals at WIN are abused and the majority are never returned to the wild.”
“This organization claims to promote the best interests of animals when evidence indicates the exact opposite is happening,” Hill said in the news release. “Generous Hoosiers who have contributed money to Wildlife in Need deserve to know the truth.”
The legal action comes several days after the U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked Wildlife in Need’s license to exhibit warm-blooded animals, including big cats, bears and monkeys. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service cited more then 120 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
The USDA ruling also orders the nonprofit to pay $340,000 in civil penalties, including $40,000 to be paid directly by Stark. The USDA’s decision becomes effective after 35 days unless Stark appeals.
Stark has operated Wildlife in Need since 1999. A 183-page report from the USDA claims that over the years, he has failed to provide adequate veterinary support to sick and dying animals, beat a leopard to death with a baseball bat, forged the signature of a veterinarian who had not been in practice for years and harassed government officials.
Hill also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which would ban the organization’s operators from transferring animals from the Wildlife in Need property pending the court’s final order. Under the injunction, Wildlife in Need would be ordered to maintain “proper and adequate care” to all of its animals, and it would allow for an expedited inspection of documents and sites where Stark keeps the animals.
“The State has reason to believe animals at WIN [Wildlife in Need] are living in deplorable conditions, and a prompt inspection of WIN’s facilities by an animal welfare expert is needed to determine whether the animals at WIN are in imminent danger of illness or death during the pendency of the lawsuit,” states the motion for a preliminary injunction.
Court documents allege that Stark has told multiple Wildlife in Need employees that he plans to shoot the animals if the government attempts to remove them from the premises, according the news release.
Stark has not responded the News and Tribune’s request for comment. On Saturday, he addressed the situation in a video posted to Wildlife in Need’s Facebook page.
“I can promise you one thing for sure — we will always continue to love the animals out here at Wildlife in Need, so you guys who have supported us over the years, hey, we appreciate you, we applaud you,” he said in the video. “Keep up the good work, because we will continue to do what we do and the truth will prevail.”
A Sunday blog post by Wildlife in Need said that the wildlife center remains open.
“It’s interesting that the media is saying we’re closed,” the blog said. “That’s just one of their mistruths we can counter quickly.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) praised the attorney general’s decision to file the lawsuit in a Tuesday news release. Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, said the lawsuit is “one more nail in the coffin” for Wildlife In Need.
“This new suit describes Tim Stark’s abusive acts, including punching a sloth in the face, throwing a monkey across a room, and kicking and stomping on a tiger cub who wouldn’t play with him during a public encounter,” Peet said in the news release. “Moreover, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office agrees with PETA and the USDA that declawing big cats is abuse. PETA has long called for all animals to be removed from this terrible place and sent to reputable facilities, and this complaint asks the court to do just that.”