INDIANAPOLIS—Indiana’s law prohibiting direct public contact with big cats and bears goes into effect on July 1. Implementation of this law brings much needed protection for some of the animals who have been subjected to public handling and forced to live in abysmal facilities in the state.
Operators of roadside zoos pull young animals away from their mothers at birth, pass them around to visitors for cub petting and bottle-feeding opportunities until they age out at a few months old, and discard them when they can no longer turn a profit for the zoo.
Over the last two decades, law enforcement authorities have stepped in to remove animals from facilities in Charlestown, Flat Rock, Idaville, Gary and other locations across Indiana. The new state ban on public contact with big cats and bears will help prevent situations like those from occurring in the first place.
When Tim Stark’s Wildlife in Need in Charlestown was shut down in November 2020, he had 16 tigers, six lions, seven tiger-lion hybrids, six cougars, two leopards and three bears on the property. Over the years Stark—who was featured in the Netflix series Tiger King—racked up dozens of citations for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. It was only after the Indiana Attorney General won a lawsuit in 2021 against Stark for abuse and neglect of animals, that the more than 200 animals at his facility at the time were confiscated, at a cost of $95,676 to the state.
Samantha Morton, Indiana state director for the Humane Society of the United States, who worked with lawmakers on this bill, said: “By passing this bill, Indiana has acknowledged that big cats and bears are not props or business commodities and should not be languishing at roadside zoos for the sake of a photo op by the paying public. Besides the cruelty to these wild animals, this is a risk to public safety. Several people, including children, were bitten and scratched by tigers at Stark’s Wildlife in Need between 2014 and 2015.”
In Flat Rock, authorities removed more than 30 big cats and bears from horrific living conditions in 2005. Two years after two tigers escaped from Great Cats of Indiana in Idaville in 2010, authorities seized six big cats from the facility. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture seized four tigers from a tattoo parlor in Gary in 2010. These facilities all had some involvement in the cub petting industry, either as big cat breeders, dumping grounds for unwanted big cats, or allowing public contact with the animals.
Indiana’s decision to ban direct contact with certain dangerous wild animals follows similar restrictions in Nevada, Virginia, Kansas, Connecticut, Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
State Rep. David Abbott, R-Rome City, Rep. Chris Campbell, D-West Lafayette and State Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Elkhart, were the primary sponsors of the legislation, which passed both the Indiana State Senate and House of Representatives with several bipartisan cosponsors, on March 11, 2022.
“Rep. Abbott, Rep. Campbell, Sen. Doriot and Gov. Holcomb did the right thing for animals and people alike in our state by supporting and signing this important bipartisan legislation,” said Morton.
Facilities like the ones in Indiana are found in other parts of the country, too. The Humane Society of the United States conducted undercover investigations at roadside zoos around the country including at Joe Exotic’s G.W. Exotics and Tiger Safari in Oklahoma, and Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia. The HSUS documented that cubs who are used for public interaction are torn from their mothers at birth and physically disciplined by being slapped, punched, dragged and choked. At just a few months old, the cubs are too large to handle and are discarded and replaced with new infants. The plethora of captive big cats in the U.S. is largely the result of this abusive industry.
At the federal level, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, H.R. 263 and S. 1210, is gaining momentum. This legislation would advance animal welfare and protect public safety by prohibiting public contact with big cats such as tigers, lions and leopards, and prohibit the possession of these species as pets.
- Rodi Rosensweig