Owner of defunct Charlestown zoo featured in ‘Tiger King’ loses liability appeal
The owner of a now-defunct southern Indiana roadside zoo featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King” is liable for the funds he misappropriated from the zoo’s underlying nonprofit, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed.
The zoo’s owner, Timothy Stark, opened Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed Inc. — also known as WIN — in 1999 with his ex-wife, Melisa Lane. By the time the instant case was filed in February 2020, the facility was home to nearly 300 animals including lions, tigers, bears, dogs, hyenas, monkeys and hybrid animals, among other species.
Perhaps the best known attraction at WIN was its Tiger Baby Playtime program, which allowed visitors to interact with tiger cubs who had been declawed and separated from their mothers.
While Stark had an animal exhibitor license through the United States Department of Agriculture, WIN did not. Although WIN was a nonprofit, its board rarely held formal meetings, did not take notes of meetings that did occur, and did not prepare or review budgets or financial statements.
The zoo was housed on property owned by Stark and Lane, who lived in a residence on the property. WIN didn’t have a formal agreement to lease the property, but it did pay for improvements needed to house the animals. The nonprofit also paid taxes and utility bills for the entire property, including the personal residence, and it frequently paid Stark’s personal credit card bills.
The zoo started bringing in more than $1 million in annual revenue in 2016 when it began advertising Tiger Baby Playtime. But the following year, animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Stark and WIN in federal court over the tiger cub program, which was shut down in 2018.
Stark left Indiana in 2019 to try to form a new zoo in Oklahoma, but after a “falling out” with his partner, Jeff Lowe, he returned to the Hoosier State. Both Stark and Lowe were featured in the hit Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” in 2020, as well as the 2021 sequel, “Tiger King 2.”
In February 2020, a USDA administrative law judge revoked Stark’s animal exhibitor license due to more than 100 violations of animal welfare regulations. The ALJ also assessed penalties against both Stark and WIN.
That same month, the Indiana attorney general filed the instant lawsuit in state court seeking to dissolve WIN, remove Stark and Lane from their director and officer positions, and require them to return misappropriated funds. The complaint alleged, among other things, that Stark had discharged his duties as a director in bad faith, without reasonable care and not in the best interests of the corporation.
The Marion Superior Court entered an injunction to prevent the removal of any of the animals from the property, then named the Indianapolis Zoological Society as the receiver to remove the animals. The trial court subsequently found Stark and WIN in contempt after $100,000 worth of animals were removed from the Charlestown property before the Indy Zoo could take custody of them.
The court also issued a writ of body attachment for Stark, who absconded. He was arrested three weeks later in upstate New York.
Meanwhile, WIN was dissolved and the trial court entered default judgment against the nonprofit in November 2020.
Lane was eventually dismissed from the proceedings, but the trial court entered judgment against Stark in April 2021, permanently enjoining him from “acquiring, owning, and exhibiting any exotic or native animals.” He was also ordered to “return to WIN all funds and assets misappropriated from WIN in an amount and inventory” determined by the corporate receiver.
Appealing that order, Stark, proceeding pro se, argued the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. But the Court of Appeals noted the lower court did not, in fact, enter summary judgment; rather, it issued findings of fact and conclusions on those findings after an evidentiary hearing.
Thus, the summary judgment argument was waived. But waiver notwithstanding, the COA reviewed the trial court’s findings and conclusions and ultimately upheld them.
“The trial court found that Stark was personally liable under three theories: (1) Stark breached his fiduciary duties to a nonprofit corporation and is liable under Indiana Code Section 23-17-13-1; (2) Stark breached his fiduciary duties to a nonprofit corporation by making unlawful distributions to himself in violation of Indiana Code Section 23-17-13-4; and (3) piercing of the corporate veil was appropriate under the circumstances,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote in Timothy Stark v. State of Indiana, 21A-PL-805. “… We hold that the trial court’s conclusions are not clearly erroneous under any of the three theories.”
Among other things, the COA pointed to a statement Stark made to support its ruling: “(F)or the last 21 years,” he testified, “I am Wildlife in Need.”
“Stark routinely used WIN to pay his personal obligations, took WIN assets, and commingled WIN assets with his own,” Tavitas wrote. “With Stark as president, WIN failed to maintain proper corporate records and failed to observe the required corporate formalities.
“… The trial court’s conclusion that Stark is personally liable for funds and assets misappropriated from WIN is not clearly erroneous,” she concluded.