INDIANAPOLIS – The owner of a defunct southern Indiana zoo featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King” documentary and its sequel is liable for money he took from his nonprofit for personal use, an appeals court ruled.
In 1999, Timothy Stark and his then-wife opened Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed Inc., also known as WIN. The Charlestown, Indiana-based group aimed to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife. Stark had an animal exhibitor license, although the nonprofit didn’t. The organization’s board rarely held formal meetings and didn’t prepare or review budgets or financial statements.
Stark’s then-wife served as secretary and treasurer. The two used WIN funds to pay for improvements to their property for housing the animals. Stark had a line of credit that was secured by improvements on the property; the nonprofit also paid for property taxes and utility bills, despite the fact there was no formal lease agreement between WIN and the couple.
For the first 15 years of its existence, WIN had annual revenue of less than $50,000. In late 2013, WIN began its “Tiger Baby Playtime” program, an attraction in which participants could pay to interact with tiger cubs.
In 2016 and 2017, WIN reported more than $1 million in annual revenue, a substantial increase from before. The nonprofit used the money to acquire additional animals. In 2014, WIN housed 43 animals; by February 2020, the property had nearly 300, including tigers, lions, dogs, monkeys and more.
Although Stark claimed he owned the animals, almost all of them were purchased with WIN funds.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) eventually sued Stark over the “Tiger Baby Playtime” program, a lawsuit that resulted in the program being shut down in 2018. The group argued Stark violated the Endangered Species Act by declawing tigers, lions and hybrid animals.
Stark left Indiana in 2019 and attempted to form a new zoo in Oklahoma with Jeff Lowe. It didn’t work out, however, and he returned to Indiana. Both Stark and Lowe were featured in 2020’s hit Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” and its follow-up.
In February 2020, a USDA administrative law judge revoked Stark’s license to exhibit animals after finding more than 100 violations of animal welfare regulations and standards; the action also resulted in substantial civil penalties against Stark and WIN.
Also in February 2020, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office filed a suit in state court seeking to have WIN dissolved, with Stark and his ex-wife removed from their positions. The lawsuit also sought to have misappropriated funds recovered and to have the animals placed elsewhere.
The state argued that Stark “discharged his duties as a director in bad faith, without reasonable care, and not in the best interests of the corporation.”
Months later, in September 2020, a trial court in Marion County appointed the Indianapolis Zoological Society as receiver to remove the animals. Before the group arrived, however, Stark and WIN had already removed more than $100,000 worth of animals from the property. Stark and WIN were found in contempt.
Authorities were unable to locate him in Indiana; he eventually went to New York, where he was arrested the next month.
WIN was eventually dissolved; the trial court entered a default judgment in November 2020 and appointed a corporate receiver to wind down WIN’s operations.
After an evidentiary hearing, the state dropped Stark’s ex-wife from the proceedings. In April 2021, the trial court ruled against Stark, saying he breached his fiduciary duties to WIN and failed to provide credible evidence of personal ownership of any of the animals.
The court ordered Stark to return all misappropriated funds and assets. It also permanently enjoined him from acquiring, owning or exhibiting “any exotic or native animals.”
Stark appealed the judgment, saying the court erroneously granted summary judgment against him. But the Indiana Court of Appeals said the lower court didn’t enter summary judgment and had instead “issued findings of fact and conclusions” after holding an evidentiary hearing.
The Court of Appeals found Stark personally liable, saying the state successfully argued that he used WIN’s funds to pay for personal expenses, including credit card debt.
“Stark routinely used WIN to pay his personal obligations, took WIN assets, and commingled WIN assets with his own. With Stark as president, WIN failed to maintain proper corporate records and failed to observe the required corporate formalities,” the Court of Appeals said in its Feb. 23 ruling. “Under these circumstances, the trial court’s conclusion that piercing the corporate veil was warranted is not clearly erroneous.”
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita hailed the ruling as a victory for his office.
“These majestic animals should be treated with respect and properly cared for, as they are all God’s creatures,” Rokita said.
“Despite his 15 minutes of fame in the Netflix documentary ‘Tiger King’ and ‘Tiger King 2,’ Stark was still required to abide by the law – just like any other citizen.”
A Marion County judge said the Attorney General’s Office, animal receiver and corporate receiver had gone to “extraordinary lengths” in the case.
“Due to their efforts, the animals rescued from the conditions at WIN that would have not survived and/or would have continued to be subject to abuse and neglect without the intervention of the Attorney General and Animal Receiver, are now living healthy and enriched lives,” wrote Judge David Dreyer in a May 2022 order.