Investigations

An animal rights group intends to file suit against the operators of a popular animal petting zoo in Charlestown, Indiana, for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Attorneys for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued notice on Thursday to Tim and Melissa Stark of nonprofit Wildlife In Need.

The animal rights group alleged widespread violations of law, including the premature removal of cubs from their birth mother and improper declawing.

Stark’s “Tiger Baby Playtime” events allow visitors, including children, to play with young tigers. PETA claims the events are unsafe.

Wildlife in Need was the focus of a 2014 Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting series, which found numerous safety lapses and a troubled history at the tiger petting zoo.

Travis Ellis said he was bit and scratched by a tiger at a playtime event at Wildlife in Need.

Stark has been under scrutiny and fighting abuse complaints in court for years.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a complaint citing dozens of violations at Wildlife In Need.

USDA inspectors alleged Stark euthanized a young female leopard by beating it to death with a baseball bat. Another leopard, investigators said, escaped and killed a neighbor’s pets before the neighbor shot it. Four animals — a kangaroo, an adult otter and two baby otters — died after Stark failed to call a veterinarian when they got sick, the complaint said.

Stark has successfully fought off the many legal complaints, winning appeals and maintaining his USDA license.

“If I had done even a tenth of what they said I did, they would have done revoked my license a long time ago,” Stark said Friday.

Stark called the abuse claims false and said he treats his animals with great care. He labeled PETA members “domestic terrorists” and noted that he uses a licensed veterinarian on his property.

Stark said his tiger playtime events are a safe form of entertainment.

“[The cubs] love the interaction with the public,” Stark said. “They look forward to it.”

A PETA spokeswoman said the group was concerned with the safety of the animals.

“There’s a very grave risk that these animals can become injured or ill, and that’s why there is a very high mortality rate for cubs that are used in public encounters,” said Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement.

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

Stark has 60 days to respond to the allegations before PETA can file a federal complaint alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act.

In January 2015, Indiana legislators shot down a bill that would have required exhibitors like Stark to get a state license and be subject to more inspections.

Summer Fellow June Leffler can be reached at jleffler@kycir.org