CHARLESTOWN — A grateful Tim Stark called a judge's recent ruling that his license to run Wildlife in Need shouldn't be revoked "outstanding."
"I honestly couldn't believe it, " Stark said. "I'm glad to see there was a very intelligent judge."
The ruling came from U.S. Department of Agriculture Administrative Law Judge Janice Bullard after nearly a year of proceedings initiated by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.
APHIS filed a motion in February to terminate Stark's license, citing a 2008 U.S. District Court case in which Stark pleaded guilty to illegally selling an ocelot to a woman in Texas four years earlier. Stark was sentenced in 2008 to three years of supervised probation for violating the Endangered Species Act.
APHIS claimed the conviction was grounds for terminating Stark's Animal Welfare Act exhibitor's license.
Despite eventually pleading guilty, Stark said he didn't sell the ocelot and he didn't do anything wrong.
"What really happened was I had ocelots here and I bred them and a friend of mine in Kentucky wanted one," Stark explained.
When one of Stark's ocelots had a litter of two in 2004, he offered to give one to the woman in Kentucky as long as she found a home for the second ocelot. That home wound up being with a woman in Texas and Stark maintains that he did not sell the ocelot. Instead, he — under his own name — gave the ocelot to the woman who later made a donation to Wildlife in Need.
Stark said he even sought advice from the U.S. Department of Interior to make sure the exchange was on the up-and-up. The department never gave him a straight answer as to whether the exchange would be in violation, Stark said. He made the exchange, and when the woman in Texas came under fire during a multistate federal investigation, Stark was charged.
Stark's attorney in the U.S. District Court case and the recent USDA-APHIS case, David Mosley, said Stark had the option of either going in front of a jury or pleading guilty and being put on probation.
"He decided even though he didn't feel he had done anything wrong, he accepted the proposed deal and pleaded guilty," Mosley said.
Mosley said Stark paid his dues for being convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act in 2008 and said it would be inappropriate for the USDA to try to punish him again.
"I've only had one other case in my life that dealt with an ocelot before," Mosley said. "And it was funny to see another case, but unfortunately it was the same guy, Tim and the same ocelot litigated nearly a decade a part."
Bullard ruled APHIS failed to show that Stark's license should be revoked based on the 2008 conviction. In fact, APHIS continued to issue licenses to Stark since the conviction. Furthermore, the judge ruled, claims that Stark has harmed animals in his custody, including the ocelot, were not supported by evidence.
The most recent decision comes just one week after a fire at Wildlife in Need killed 41 reptiles and birds. Stark said USDA inspectors were back at the facility Wednesday, reportedly because of the fire, though Stark added that inspectors never asked specifically about the fire.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation.
"This is just, it's unreal," Stark said of the fire. "I mean, even with losing the 41 ambassadors that was hard enough yet, but then when you go down there and say hey go get me screwdriver ... we have nothing there."
As donations of materials pour into Wildlife in Need and supporters take to social media, Stark said the most recent USDA ruling shows the community can have faith in him.
"... Because we know with all the BS the media puts out there, all the crap they've print out about me ... that even a lot of our supporters probably had some back-of-the-mind questions," Stark said. "And so I'm glad the judge ruled it to give our supporters 100 percent belief and faith in us."
As for 2015 USDA inspection reports that cite violations ranging from allegations of animal abuse to structural deficiencies, Stark said inspectors have never been able to point out to him exactly how he is violating the Animal Welfare Act or how to come into compliance.
"Every lousy stinking time they've wrote me up, all I ever asked was, 'Can you show it to me in the book so I know what I'm looking at' and they have never once showed it to me," he said.
Stark said inspectors have never written him up for the barn where last week's fire began.
As to why APHIS continued to issue Stark licenses despite negative inspection reports, USDA-APHIS spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in email that APHIS is required to issue license renewals so long as the applications and fees are turned in on time.
"The administrative law judges are the only authority to revoke a license," she wrote.
APHIS has 30 days to file an appeal of the judge's decision, otherwise the ruling will be final and Stark can put the issue to rest.
"Regarding the decision that was made, we are currently reviewing the decision and determining our next steps," Espinosa said.
Stark said he isn't worried about an appeal and is confident the judge "has a good head on her shoulders."