IN AG sues Charlestown nonprofit accused of abusing animals

Wildlife In Need's Tim Stark holds a capuchin monkey during Salem Walmart's grand opening celebration in November 16, 2016. He also brought a caged baby tiger to the grand opening. Stark and WIN is being sued by the Indiana attorney general and accused of abusing the animals in his care, along with not following through with the rehabilitation and release portions of what Hill said is the non-profit's promise to donors and visitors.

Following a months-long investigation, Attorney General Curtis Hill this week took legal action against a Charlestown-based nonprofit organization called Wildlife in Need (WIN), which claims to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife before returning animals to their native habitats.

Hill alleges, under WIN director Timothy Stark’s guidance, the nonprofit organization has a history of abusing animals, neglecting to provide basic necessities to animals, and forcing animals to live in deplorable conditions. Further, contrary to its stated purpose as a nonprofit corporation, WIN allegedly has failed to return animals to their native habitats and misapplied assets purportedly collected for animal care.

“This organization claims to promote the best interests of animals when evidence indicates the exact opposite is happening,” Hill said. “Generous Hoosiers who have contributed money to Wildlife in Need deserve to know the truth.”

In a lawsuit against WIN, Attorney General Hill asks a court to dissolve the nonprofit organization and to provide other remedies under Indiana’s Nonprofit Corporation Act and Deceptive Consumer Sales Act. Among other things, the lawsuit seeks to liquidate the organization’s assets, arrange placement of all its animals into court-approved animal sanctuaries, and enjoin WIN directors Stark and Melisa Lane from possessing and exhibiting animals in the future.

In addition to the lawsuit, Attorney General Hill also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction that would prohibit the operators of WIN from removing animals from its premises pending the court’s final order. The injunction would order WIN to ensure proper and adequate care to all animals currently in its control and allow an expedited inspection of documents and any locations where WIN keeps and/or exhibits animals.

According to court documents, Stark has a history of hoarding animals in deplorable living conditions, abusing and neglecting animals, trafficking animals, hiding animals from government authorities, and attempting to move WIN animals out of state. The state’s allegations include horrifying details related to Stark’s methods of “euthanasia” and his abuse of animals in his care.

“The state has reason to believe animals at WIN 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. The state is eager to obtain a preliminary injunction hearing date as soon as possible in order to permit the Court to hear evidence supporting the State’s requested remedies.

Stark has told multiple WIN employees that he intends to shoot WIN animals if the government attempts to remove them, according to court documents.

Between 2012 and 2018, WIN’s number of animals reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased from 43 to 293. On Feb. 3, 2020, that agency ordered Stark’s USDA exhibitor license revoked based on repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act and a history of willful non-compliance.

“WIN’s staff has not been able to keep up with the increasing number of animals,” the 20-page complaint, filed with the Marion County Superior Court, reads. “Hundreds of animals have been harmed, abused and died of disease at Stark and WIN’s hands … Hundreds of animals live in cages that are nearly impossible for staff members to properly clean. In many instances, one to three employees have been left to care for over 300 animals.”

The complaint continues to say that many animals, including different species of primates, have been forced to live in dog and bird cages, without sufficient space to move, inside a building that offers little to no access to sunlight and only minimal ventilation. Furthermore, the complaint accuses Stark of having numerous tigers declawed with no medical need to do so.

“In 2016 alone, Stark had approximately 12 tigers declawed,” the complaint reads. “Stark has stated, ‘declawing them just makes it easier to play with them,’ … [and] has no intentions of returning big cats to the wild as he stated ‘no cat in captivity needs their claws.’”

Not only does this go against the American Veterinary Medical Association’s best practices, but, Hill alleges, it constitutes a violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

The complaint also alleges Stark punched a sloth in the face when it didn’t want to come out for pictures with guests and when a monkey was not diapered and ready for the show, Stark threw the monkey across the room. When a camel fell ill and needed deworming medication, the complaint alleges Stark refused to provide the medication and had the camel living in an area of the property where it was always standing in mud up to its knees. These past three examples all occurred in 2017. The camel died in Dec. 2018. In spring 2018, the complaint alleges, Stark was playing with a tiger cub and when the teething cub bit Stark, “Stark threw the cub on the ground, kicked it, and repeatedly stomped on it.”

In June of last year, the complaint alleges Stark tried to transport nearly 100 animals to a zoo in Oklahoma in an attempt to enter a partnership to run a for-profit zoo.

“Stark placed approximately 100 animals in a 28-foot enclosed trailer with no water, no air conditioning, and no air circulation,” the complaint reads. “During the trip, Stark stopped overnight and left the animals in the trailer. The trip took approximately 36 hours, and by the time Stark arrived in Oklahoma, over 30 animals had died in the trailer and several others sustained heat-related injuries.”

The complaint also alleges Stark has euthanized animals by striking them with baseball bats, including a leopard because it was malnourished.

The complaint said Hill is seeking to prevent, not just Stark and Lane from acquiring, owning or exhibiting exotic or native animals, but also “their agents, employees, directors, officers and all other persons acting or purporting to act on their behalf.”

The complaint also said WIN does not release animals, most of which are native to Africa, Asia and South America, to those continents.

“While WIN may rehabilitate and release some native animals in Indiana, WIN implies in its purpose statement that it returns both native and exotic animals to the wild,” the complaint reads.

Some animals, the complaint said, release themselves. It cited numerous incidents of wolves escaping, including one time when a wolf got within 200 feet of a neighbor’s hosue. An employee of WIN was attacked by an escaped hyena in June 2019, and caused serious injuries. Furthermore, the complaint said WIN has no security systems in place to keep trespassers from being able to come onto the property and release animals.

The complaint also revealed Stark and Lane required all employees to sign a “trade secrets” agreement, requiring any employee who reported anything they saw or learned at WIN would be required to pay WIN $20,000.

“When WIN employee Steven Dufour was attacked by a tiger in 2016 and required 40 stitches, Stark told Dufour to lie and say he had a chainsaw accident if asked about what had happened,” the complaint reads. “When WIN employee Sara Fetz was attacked by a spider monkey and suffered nerve damage in her had, Lane ripped off Fetz’s WIN shirt, made Fetz drive herself to the hospital and told Fetz not to tell anyone that Fetz was injured at WIN … and told her ‘I know people.’”

You can read the complaint and the Motion for Preliminary Injunction here.

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