USDA Cites Controversial Southern Indiana Wildlife Refuge

Federal regulators have cited the operators of the Tiger Baby Playtime attraction in Southern Indiana after witnessing tiger cubs bite two people — including a young girl — in September, and watching workers swat the cubs with riding whips to keep them under control.

The citations were issued after two agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service visited the Charlestown, Ind., attraction on Sept. 13. They said 40 to 50 people attended the Sunday afternoon session, among them a newborn baby, a toddler and about 10 children under 10 years old.

People pay $25 for 30 minutes of “play time” with the cubs, another $20 for photo sessions. The attraction was the subject of a 2014 investigation by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that revealed casual oversight there and prompted calls for greater oversight of exotic animal exhibits.

According to the USDA report, four cubs were released into an open play area. They had no leashes and “would leap through the crowd” beyond their attendants’ control, only to be swatted on the nose, sometimes severely, “causing the cubs obvious discomfort.”

The agents wrote that an 8- or 9-year-old girl yelled “Ow” after one cub “crawled into her lap and grabbed her right lower bicep in its mouth.” In the same play session, a cub bit a woman on the forearm, prompting one attendant to tell another that there had been a “battle wound.” The attendants escorted the woman out of the room.

“These animals are too big, too fast and too dangerous to rely on a riding whip to control their actions,” the USDA report states. “These cubs could easily have pounced on a younger child in the audience and caused serious injury or even death to the babies. When tiger cubs reach this size, speed and strength, contact with the public is no longer safe.”

The agents wrote that, according to the attendants, the cubs were 16 weeks old and weighed 35 to 40 pounds.

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On a subsequent visit to Tiger Baby Playtime on Oct. 8, the USDA observed what appeared to be sick animals being denied adequate veterinary care, numerous animal enclosures in disrepair, animals unable to access food or water, and big-cat enclosures littered with bones and feces.

The operators of Tiger Baby Playtime, Tim and Melisa Stark, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The USDA reports appear to indicate that someone agreed to correct the cited shortcomings of animal treatment and facility conditions, but the signatures are blacked out. The citation issued in connection with the tiger biting incidents states “Remains Uncorrected.”

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation said it filed the complaint that prompted the USDA to take another look at Tiger Baby Playtime. Deputy Director Brittany Peet said the attraction should be shut down.

“These latest citations confirm what PETA has warned for years, which is that nobody with a lick of concern for their children’s safety or for animals should ever buy a ticket to Tim Stark’s roadside zoo,” Peet said in a statement. “This cruel and dangerous operations must be shut down and the animals retired to reputable sanctuaries where they won’t be used as playthings.”

Read the USDA reports: 

Featured image shows a tiger with a customer at Tiger Baby Playtime last summer. Photo by Kristina Goetz.

James McNair

James McNair is a veteran investigative reporter who specializes in business and finance issues.