A federal judge has ordered a controversial Southern Indiana zoo operator to stop declawing cubs, offering “tiger baby playtimes” or displaying any cubs under 18 months old, citing “irreparable harm” if the practices were to continue.
The injunction came as part of a federal lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), alleging the Wildlife in Need facility in Charlestown, Ind., has violated laws intended to protect endangered species. The facility run by Timothy and Melisa Stark has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than 50 times for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, according to the court ruling.
Melisa Stark said when reached by phone that she was unaware of the ruling. The injunction is the latest in a series of maneuvers by animal rights advocates and the USDA to shutter the zoo, where reports of mistreatment have been rampant for years.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard L. Young said in a ruling issued this week that the Starks provided virtually no defense in the case, and “constantly spurned” requests to provide discovery documents to PETA.
The USDA has ordered the Starks to stop declawing tiger cubs too, according to the court filing, but a veterinarian testified that he declawed five tigers for Stark in July 2017 alone.
Timothy Stark admitted declawing to make the tiger cubs easier to handle, not because it was medically necessary, according to the injunction. Two cubs died last year after suffering complications from declawing, the records showed.
The cubs are the main attraction at “Tiger Baby Playtimes,” where participants can hold and be photographed with cubs for $25 a person. That practice also must be put on hold under the judge’s order.
Experts testifying on behalf of PETA said that big cats normally spend their first two years with their mothers, and separating them too soon creates aggressive behavior. The cubs also were put into stressful playtime encounters without adequate rest, and were “dragged around because they were too tired,” according to the order.
PETA praised the decision in a press release Tuesday.
“The court has done the right thing in stopping Wildlife in Need from tearing cubs away from their mothers for use as public playthings and amputating their toes, which can leave them with lifelong lameness, pain, and psychological distress,” said Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement. “PETA looks forward to seeing the Starks permanently forbidden from mutilating, exploiting, and profiting off baby animals.”
Read our past coverage of Wildlife in Need here.