CHARLESTOWN, Ind. — For more than 20 years, the self-proclaimed animal refuge Wildlife in Need has offered the public unmatched access to exotic animals in Southern Indiana.
Wildlife in Need, and its owner Tim Stark, also come with controversy–lawsuits, failed inspections and allegations of animal abuse.
This week, the USDA revoked Tim Stark's animal exhibitor license after ruling he "willfully violated the AWA on multiple occasions." The facility has also been fined a civil penalty of $300,000 for the 120 violating listed in the lawsuit, and Stark was fined $40,000 for his violations.
For the first time, the FOCUS team has stories from seven whistleblowers who agreed to tell their stories. Our team requested and reviewed nearly 500 USDA documents that substantiated their claims.
FOCUS also sat down with founder and CEO Tim Stark for a 90-minute interview, in which he admits many of the accusations have validity but blames the whistleblowers and USDA inspectors for the failures.
Chapter 1: “It’s not what it claims to be.”
Founded in 1999, Wildlife in Need registered as a non-profit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating indigenous wildlife—but former staff tell a different story.
“It is not what it claims to be. It is not a rescue. It does not rehabilitate–it does not release," former volunteer Carly Brigaman said. "Animals that go there, they suffer a very terrible life."
The registered 501c3 is funded solely by the public, according to its website, and offers "shows" where people can learn about and interact with animals. While the website claims to provide a safe harbor to an array of exotic and endangered species, staff said animals are often neglected.
“It’s a harbor of abuse,” Brigaman said. “It’s a harbor of neglect where animals are starving.”
Records show allegations of neglect go back at least ten years.
One volunteer, Jordan Jones, claimed that during her two years at Wildlife in Need she never saw Stark, or any other staff rehabilitate and release an animal, but she did see them come into the facility.
“He’s been operating since 1999–this is always been something that’s been swept under the rug. It’s the norm,” Jones said. “Anytime somebody has dropped off an animal, 99% of the time that animal was fed to another animal.”
The FOCUS team asked Stark about this part of his organization.
McAlister: How many animals have you rehabilitated and released?
Stark: Over all the years?
Stark: Hell, thousands and thousands.
McAlister: And do you have any written proof? Documents of that?
Stark: Yeah. Yeah.
McAlister: Is it easy to see? Do you share it with people?
Stark: No. Ain't nobody's [expletive] business.
Stark refused to show records of any of those thousands of releases but claimed he “rescued five or six raptors in the last two months.”
Chapter 2: No paper trail
According to the USDA, Wildlife in Need housed just 43 animals in 2012. That number rose to nearly 300 only six years later.
“Every time I would be there, at least twice a week, five to ten more animals would arrive," Jones said. "It was a three-hour shift that turned into a nine-hour shift."
Former staff and volunteers who participated in this interview said they didn’t know where the animals came from and they didn’t know where animals would go.
“Every time we questioned, 'Where did an animal go?' or 'How did it die?,' we were told it was none of our business, and we need to shut up and go away,” Brigaman said.
A serval, ocelot and coatimundi died without explanation, USDA inspection records show. A kangaroo also died after Stark gave it medication without consultation from a veterinarian, according to USDA paperwork.
USDA records cite a lack of paperwork for at least 60 animals found at the facility in 2013. The USDA requires licensees to maintain accurate records of acquisition, disposition, deaths and births.
Stark claims to have the paperwork but refused to show it.
Stark: I have every lousy stinking thing documented.
McAlister: So that's a high priority for you?
Stark: Well it's required.
McAlister: And they're accessible? If people, ask to see them?
Stark: No. Unless the USDA decides they want to show them to somebody.
The USDA did not include any acquisition or disposition records as part of the nearly 500-page case file requested.
Chapter 3: “You don’t realize the red flags.”
“Now looking back at everything, you don’t realize the red flags that you’re seeing then. Now looking back, there were so many," former employee Lauren Crooks said.
Those we interviewed described an environment without enough help, and claimed animal care fell through the cracks.
“There is insufficient staff to handle the amount of animals we had onsite,” Brigaman said.
Inspectors have cited the facility at least twice for insufficient staff, resulting in a lapse of animal care.
"They didn't have knowledgeable people there and they didn't have enough people there, even with all of the volunteers," a volunteer that wanted to remain anonymous said.
Stark maintains he has enough staff.
"I still am the president, founder, owner all that kind of [expletive] but you have employees, you're supposed to be able to rely on your employees it’s that damn simple. If I'm going to have to do their jobs for them – what’s the [expletive] the point in having them?," Stark explained.
McAlister: How much staff do you have here?
Stark: I've only got two and a half staff members here.
McAlister: Any how many volunteers?
Stark: About 45.
McAlister: Is that a sufficient number to run the facility?
Stark: That's more than enough.
Chapter 4: Vet care: “I immediately wanted to throw up.”
The USDA cited facility owners at least three times for claims about their vet. Inspectors uncovered the vet facility owners listed the facility “did not agree to provide care for all animals at the facility.”
“There was never a vet that came to the property, there was never animals that left that property,” Brigaman said.
In March 2017, Stark told USDA inspectors his attending veterinarian "botched" a declaw procedure and two tiger cubs had "complications." The procedure was later ruled a violation of the Animal Welfare Act, according to USDA records.
“It was awful. I walked in and I immediately wanted to throw up,” Crooks said.
The cubs started losing weight, an inspector wrote that they had “dull eyes” and trouble walking. He gave them a 50% chance of survival.
Former staff also revealed Wildlife in Need owners refused to bring in an expert to administer care.
“I could not believe an animal that needed medical care and medical attention – he was refusing to give. Kaiki died within a week,” Brigaman said.
Stark told the FOCUS team he does have an attending veterinarian but that he has “always provided medical care for every animal on [the] property.”
Later that year, inspectors noted another suspicious death. USDA documents reveal Stark described euthanizing a leopard by hitting it with a baseball bat, according to a lawsuit against Wildlife in Need.
“He said the leopard...fell down and started having a seizure, and instead of waiting for the vet to get there, he said a proper form of euthanasia was blunt trauma to the head, repeatedly," Jones said.
Stark told inspectors about the leopard death while being questioned in connection to a nearby incident.
A neighbor reported to Indiana Department of Natural Resources, that her boyfriend shot and killed a leopard in her yard, protecting her property and pets. The shooting happened after several of her pets had gone missing, “dragged off the porch and into the woods.”
Stark denied the leopard was his, but according to USDA records, inspectors “conclude[d] that there is a reasonable suspicion that it was one of the leopards of Mr. Stark.”
Stark didn’t comment on how he euthanized the leopard, but he did say his more recent “humane kills” have been birds.
Stark: I know when a bird’s brought in, pretty much at that point, whether or not its salvageable or not. I don't need nobody else telling me that.
McAlister: How do you euthanize those birds?
Stark: Usually it’s just a humane euthanasia – it’s done quick, it’s done simple. Done and over with.
McAlister: Can you tell us what that is?
Stark: No. It’s nobody's business how I do things. Nobody's business. I do exactly what I'm required to do. What is humane about euthanasia? The final result is [expletive] death."
Conditions at Wildlife in Need
Chapter 5: The incidents
More than just a lack of proper medical attention, former staff described a lack of everyday necessities.
The inspection reports detail “enclosures without water," feeding animals “expired meat and roadkill," a food storage room with “an excessive accumulation of rodent feces on the floor” and lack of enrichment.
"We were taught to call their cages ‘enclosures’, but they are cages. They are not habitats, they're not the environment that that animal is supposed to be in," an anonymous volunteer said.
Former volunteers and staff provided pictures of animals living in makeshift cages, including a reptile in a plastic toolbox.
The USDA cited Stark for improper enclosures including cleaning and sanitation protocols that were deemed “inadequate” and cages that were too small for the animals they were housing.
Jones said she worked long hours to maintain animals in the "reptile barn."
"I stuck around for them. I didn’t stick around for him. No one there is sticking around for him. They're sticking around because they have to keep those animals alive,” she said.
Jones' time at Wildlife in Need came to an end after a devastating fire that started in the reptile barn killed at least 40 animals.
"I remember, I received a text message saying oh sorry Jordan I guess you don't get to work with the reptiles now because they all died and–,” Jones pauses, overcome with emotion. "I was made fun above by Tim and another staff member because I got upset that he died. They made fun of that."
Arson investigators never released the cause of that January 2016 fire.
"The fire was portrayed as a tragedy and accident, but from some of the things I've seen there I think that was also just neglect. Just being in over your head, not being able to maintain things, not being able to keep things safe. Not even understanding how to keep things safe in that situation," an anonymous volunteer said.
We asked Stark what happened.
Stark: That's the beginning of my PETA war.
McAlister: You think PETA started the fire?
Stark: Damn right I do, and we have proof that PETA started fires all over the country.
McAlister: Do you have any proof that they started the fire here?
Stark: No. Nope. But I don't have a problem accusing the [expletive] of it."
We reached out to PETA about the accusation. They sent us a statement which reads in part:
“His claims about PETA are, quite obviously, false.”
The former staff and volunteers we spoke with call what's happening at Wildlife in Need "hoarding" and say its lead to animal neglect, animal escapes and people have gotten hurt.
In June 2019, it was one of their own.
Employee attacked by hyena
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources provided graphic pictures from the scene that show the damage, including deep wounds to a man's arm and ankle. According the incident report, he was trying to get the escaped hyena back in a cage.
That man has since filed a lawsuit against Tim Stark and Wildlife in Need, demanding damages accrued through the treatment of the victim’s injuries.
Chapter 6: The agency in charge
The USDA, which grants Wildlife in Need a license, has previously tried to shut the operation down before for illegally selling exotic animals, but a judge ruled they didn't have enough evidence to take away Stark's license.
In 2016, the USDA filed a lawsuit, accusing facility owners of verbally abusing inspectors, physically abusing animals and violating the Animal Welfare Act. In 2017, the USDA suspended the facility's license.
"They didn't do their job- then they want to point the finger at me, because they're worthless pieces of [expletive] and they didn't do their job," Stark said. "They would come to me and an animal is already pretty much laying there on its deathbed and I’m like, 'What the hell? Why wasn't this reported to me two or three days ago?' Well we didn't look at it, we didn't see it. So, in other words- you didn't do your damn job."
While Stark blamed staff, USDA inspection reports support their claims. He claimed the inspection reports, however, are incorrect.
"Are the inspection reports wrong? Most of them, yes,” he said.
He also blames the failed inspection reports on one inspector.
"I couldn't understand half the [expletive] that came out of his mouth," Stark said. "The one thing I did understand was, 'This is a complaint, that is a complaint,' and I'm standing there like, 'What the [expletive] are you talking about? How do you go from a perfect record to all the sudden an 18-page write up?'"
Stark said it was difficult to get clarification from the government agency and he didn't always know what he needed to fix.
The USDA has ordered Tim Stark to "cease and desist," revoking his animal exhibitor license after ruling Stark "willfully violated the AWA on multiple occasions."
The judge said "the gravity of such violations was great," "there is a history of previous violations" and he "did not act in good faith."
The case had been pending since March 2017, the time of the last inspection, which means there has been no oversight at Wildlife in Need in nearly three years.
Tim Stark told FOCUS the license revocation is not permanent.
"It's just a decision, it's not a ruling," Stark said in a phone call Feb. 6. "Now we appeal, and we go from there."
Stark claims the judge's ruling was based on the inspector reports, which he said are lies. He also said Wildlife in Need will carry on as usual, and they have 35 days to appeal the decision.
"Our attorneys advised us that everything we do..is legal," Stark said. "All it is, is a matter of...appealing. Just because one judge ruled on that decision, that don't mean it's final."
"Right now, I am not in violation of anything. I'm not doing nothing wrong," Stark told FOCUS.
WHAS11 will continue to update this story with more information as it is made available.
Previous Wildlife in Need Stories on WHAS11
►Make it easy to keep up-to-date with more stories like this. Download the WHAS11 News app now. For Apple or Android users.
Have a news tip? Email email@example.com, visit our Facebook page or Twitter feed.