‘PETA v. Wildlife in Need, et al.’ Case Summary

In July 2017, PETA provided notice of its intent to file suit against the now-defunct Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Need Inc. (WIN), a roadside zoo in Charlestown, Indiana, and its proprietors, Tim Stark and his then-wife, Melisa Stark (collectively, the WIN defendants), for violating the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The WIN defendants confined and exhibited several hundred animals of numerous species, including, during the relevant time, dozens of lions, tigers, and hybrids thereof (big cats) protected under the ESA.

At the time we provided notice, the WIN defendants had accumulated numerous citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including for rough and excessive handling during public-contact events, failing to obtain adequate veterinary care (resulting in numerous deaths), and beating a leopard to death with a baseball bat.

Our lawsuit, filed in September 2017 in the Southern District of Indiana, alleged that the WIN defendants had violated the ESA by unlawfully “taking” ESA-protected animals. Specifically, we alleged that the WIN defendants had “harmed” and “harassed” the subject animals by confining them to unsafe and inappropriate housing, denying them adequate environmental enrichment, and facilitating rough contact with the public at “Tiger Baby Playtime” events by prematurely separating cubs from their mothers and declawing them.

PETA Secures Denial of a Motion to Dismiss, Entry of a Preliminary Injunction, and a Protective Order

Before filing suit, we filed an action via a Rule 27 petition, ultimately securing a preservation order clarifying that the WIN defendants’ evidence preservation obligations extended to all animals at issue.

Shortly after we filed suit, the WIN defendants unsuccessfully tried to have the case dismissed by arguing, in part, that the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) supersedes an action under the ESA for captive animals. The court rejected the WIN defendants’ attempt to escape liability under the ESA, making clear that “[t]he AWA and ESA are complimentary statutes, but each has its own scope and purpose with different enforcement mechanisms.”

In February 2018, the court granted our motion for a preliminary injunction, barring the WIN defendants from declawing any big cats, conducting any more “Tiger Baby Playtime” events, and prematurely separating big-cat cubs from their mothers unless medically necessary while the case was pending. The decision followed our submission of expert evidence from Jennifer Conrad, D.V.M. (an internationally renowned expert on declawing) and Jay Pratte (the then-behavioral husbandry and welfare manager at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Nebraska). The decision also followed and acknowledged the recent tragic deaths of big-cat cubs following complications due to declawing.

PETA Secures Order Barring Horse Veterinarian From Conducting Further Declawing

In September 2018, we filed a separate suit against the WIN defendants’ attending veterinarian, Rick Pelphrey, for his illegal declawing of big-cat cubs and alleged misconduct, such as using inapposite treatment methods from his equine veterinary practice to improperly treat ultimately fatal complications due to his declawing procedures.

In October 2018, we secured a first-of-its-kind consent judgment against Pelphrey acknowledging that declawing big cats without medical necessity violates the ESA and barring him from declawing big cats or providing them with any other veterinary care.

PETA Takes Action in Response to Defendants’ Recurring Contempt

PETA’s prosecution of its case against the WIN defendants was complicated by numerous attempts at contempt and sabotage. In addition to granting multiple motions to compel discovery, the court found the WIN defendants in contempt of its preliminary injunction in March 2019 for separating a day-old cub from his mother.

The WIN defendants also engaged in numerous attempts to escape the court’s jurisdiction. In February 2019, Stark announced that he intended to transfer his animals to a new facility in Thackerville, Oklahoma—eventually named Tiger King Park—to be operated by him and Jeff Lowe, who was his friend and business partner at the time. In April 2019, after claiming to have experienced a heart attack, purportedly caused by his deposition earlier that day near Thackerville, Stark attempted to transfer legal title of the big cats to Lowe. This required us to seek and obtain an order reiterating that the WIN defendants could not transfer any big cats to Lowe. Nevertheless, later that summer Stark physically transferred four newborn lion cubs—also separated from their mother in apparent violation of the court’s preliminary injunction—to Lowe, eventually resulting in Lowe’s joinder as a codefendant.

The untimely deaths of multiple big cats under suspicious circumstances in May 2020 and the WIN defendants’ separation of yet another newborn big-cat cub from his mother in June 2020 necessitated further discovery and emergency motion practice.

PETA Prevails at Summary Judgment and Facilitates the Rescue of Surviving Big Cats

The court resolved the aforementioned emergency motions as well as the fate of all big cats at WIN by granting summary judgment in favor of PETA in August 2020, after reviewing additional expert evidence from Dr. Conrad and Pratte, stating that “the court has little difficulty concluding such conduct”—declawing, premature maternal separation, and “Tiger Baby Playtime” events—“constitutes a ‘taking’ and thus violates the ESA.” The court ultimately found the WIN defendants liable for “takes” of at least 53 big cats and permanently barred them from declawing, engaging in premature maternal separation, holding further encounters with the public, and possessing any big cats “without first demonstrating an ability to care for the animals and receiving court approval.”

In ensuing orders, the court clarified that its decision extended to all big cats at issue in both Indiana and Oklahoma—including hybrids—and ordered that the surviving 26 big cats be transferred to The Wild Animal Sanctuary and Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Both sanctuaries are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

In the midst of the transfer process, Stark published a 14-minute video in which he brandished a rifle and threatened both the federal judge overseeing the case and a PETA Foundation attorney of record by name. As a consequence, the court ordered extensive security measures. Dozens of federal marshals and state and local law-enforcement authorities accompanied our counsel and the sanctuary representatives during their rescue operation.

PETA Assists in the Indiana Attorney General’s Closure of WIN

While our federal case was pending, our counsel remained in regular contact with and submitted evidence to the Office of the Attorney General of Indiana, both before and after the state initiated its own litigation against the WIN defendants for violations of Indiana nonprofit law. As a result, the state eventually secured its own order facilitating the transfer of animals at WIN and the facility’s eventual closure.

PETA Works to Vindicate the Court’s Awards Granting It More Than $750,000

Under the ESA’s fee-shifting provision, PETA sought its attorneys’ fees and costs. The district court awarded us our  attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees, and costs in the amount of $733,997.70. Combined with additional sanctions, the WIN defendants ended the case in debt to PETA for more than $753,000.

After we domesticated our fee awards, the WIN defendants launched numerous schemes to transfer real and personal property associated with WIN as quickly as possible in order to evade creditors, including selling WIN at a hastily convened auction in July 2021. To date, we have successfully recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars that stemmed primarily from the sale of WIN and defeated an attempt by Stark to discharge his debt in bankruptcy. Specifically, we won a default judgment in May 2023 in our adversary proceeding against Stark, preventing him from discharging his debts to PETA in part due to his alleged efforts to conceal assets, including animals, from the state of Indiana.

PETA Wins a Decision at Trial Finding Lowe Liable for His Efforts to Undermine the Court’s Orders

As attested by Lowe, Stark brought him four newborn lion cubs—Amelia, Kahari, Leo, and Nala—in August 2019, “sat them on the ground, and [said,] ‘Here, take care of these.’” In January 2020, the Southern District of Indiana ordered Lowe to be added as a required defendant. Later that month, PETA filed an amended complaint, adding Lowe as a defendant and seeking relief for his “takes” against these four lions in connection with and following their transfer to him.

Lowe emulated many of his codefendants’ tactics. Both he and his wife stormed out of multiple depositions, resulting in court orders from both the Southern District of Indiana and the Western District of Oklahoma compelling their participation in discovery and awarding sanctions to PETA. Substantive rulings, including a first-of-its-kind holding that roadside zoo operators cannot use the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 to shield animals’ medical records.

In September 2020, when PETA counsel and the sanctuary representatives arrived at Lowe’s facility in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, to carry out the Southern District of Indiana’s transfer order—a week prior, his counsel had announced that one of the lions, Kahari, had died weeks earlier in mysterious circumstances—they discovered that the remaining lions were emaciated and near death. Nala was so lame that she could not take more than a few steps without falling over in pain. All of them were suffering from severe “flystrike,” a condition that caused flies to tear apart their ears and lay eggs in them, from which maggots hatched and further ate away at their skin. Leo, like his sisters, had been torn away from his mother at birth, and he exacerbated their wounds by compulsively attempting to suckle their ears.

PETA ultimately prevailed on all of our ESA claims against Lowe at trial in the Western District of Oklahoma. The February 2022 decision—the first court decision establishing that Lowe’s treatment of animals had been so deficient that it violated the law—found that he had “treated the four lions directly involved in this case … with appalling cruelty.” The court’s decision also included a first-of-its-kind ruling that failing to take adequate COVID-19 precautions, including failing to restrict access to animals, violates the ESA. The court also agreed that Lowe—whom evidence, including submissions from expert entomologists as well as Dr. Conrad and Pratte, showed had lied about the circumstances of Kahari’s death and left her body outside to decompose beyond the point at which a necropsy could determine its cause—was in fact responsible for Kahari’s death.

The Western District of Oklahoma ultimately ordered Lowe to pay PETA $183,557.90 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

PETA also has a separate case against Lowe:

Read About ‘PETA v. Lowe’

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind