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Wildlife In Need Under Scrutiny For Alleged Animal Abuse

A tiger peers through a fence.

Wildlife in Need, a roadside zoo located in Charlestown, Ind., is facing scrutiny after two recent U.S. Department of Agriculture investigations revealed several animal rights violations.

The organization describes itself as a "nonprofit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of native species as well as the provision of safe harbor to an array of Ambassadors from exotic and endangered species."

The Sept. 13 investigation from the USDA cited Wildlife in Need with several violations, including using riding crops on tiger cubs. Timothy Stark, the zoo's owner, says he used riding crops but not to harm the tigers.

"We used those riding crops strictly as an extension of our arm," Stark says. "We are not hitting and swatting the tigers. We are not beating the tigers down."

In the investigation, the USDA stated Stark must correct the violation by "ceasing the use of physical abuse to handle animals." Stark, however, says he continues to use the riding crops on tiger cubs.

"[The tiger cubs] are just touched, nudged, guided a little bit, tapped a little bit," Stark says. "They are not hit. I walked in every one of my shows last night with a riding crop, and I would smack a woman with it. And harder than I do...with the tigers, and ask them if it hurts, and none of them says it hurts. It catches their attention; it makes them aware that I'm here."

Stark has faced previous legal trouble related to animals. He entered a guilty plea agreement in federal court in 2007 for the unlawful receipt, transport and shipment of an endangered species. Stark was fined $5,000 and given three years of probation.

"Mr. Stark pled guilty to one count of violating the Endangered Species Act and was convicted and sentenced," says USDA spokesperson Tanya Espinosa. "However, that is against the Animal Wealth Act. You can't violate the Endangered Species Act and maintain an Animal Welfare Act license. It's contrary to the act's purpose of insuring humane treatment of animals."

The USDA says it is attempting to terminate Stark's license to own exotic animals.

"We have in fact filed a motion to terminate Mr. Stark's license back in February, and then we filed a motion for a summary judgement in June," Espinosa says. "The respondent, Mr. Stark, has replied to that and currently the issue is pending the administrative law judge's office, so we are currently waiting on their determination on whether or not his license will be terminated."

According to the USDA database, Stark's zoo has been inspected 12 times and has been cited with 45 different noncompliance violations since 2013.

The two most recent investigations took place because of a request sent to the USDA from animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who said Wildlife in Need was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

"PETA's complaint both this year and last year to the USDA were sparked by visits to Wildlife in Need's tiger playtimes," says Brittany Peet, deputy director of captive animal law enforcement at PETA. "[The visits] were by concerned citizens who visited on behalf of PETA and who recorded these apparent violations of the Animal Welfare Act."

But Stark denies abusing his animals.

"I know, in my heart and in my mind, I know 100 percent we do not abuse animals on my property," he says. "We teach animals, we guide animals, we discipline animals. There is absolutely no abuse whatsoever."

Wildlife in Need posted a defense of the company on Facebook yesterday. The roadside zoo is still currently in possession of its exotic animal license.

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