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‘Tiger King’ zookeeper who had ‘falling out’ with ‘good friend’ Jeff Lowe found ‘personally liable’ for ‘unlawful’ acts

Tim Stark

Tim Stark (image via WTHR screengrab)

A zookeeper who appeared on Tiger King and once described himself as “good friends” with Jeff Lowe, one of the Netflix show’s more controversial figures, is in fact “personally liable” for misappropriation of funds from the group Wildlife in Need and Wildlife in Deed, Inc. or WIN.

Court documents described Tim Stark’s group as a “nonprofit corporation located in Charlestown, Indiana, which was incorporated in 1999, with the purpose of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife.” According to the Court of Appeals of Indiana issued Feb. 23, Stark started the group with his then-wife in the late ’90s and made less than $50,000 a year until 2014—which was when WIN “started advertising a ‘Tiger Baby Playtime’ program, which allowed paying participants to interact with tiger cubs.”

Over the next couple of years, court documents said, Stark’s annual revenue increased to more than $1 million per year and the number of his animals in his possession surged near 300. During that time period, the court said, Stark personally had an “animal exhibitor” license through the USDA but WIN as an organization did not.

“The WIN Board of Directors rarely held formal meetings, did not take minutes of meetings, and did not prepare or review budgets or financial statements,” the court said.

After People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., better known as PETA, sued Stark in federal court in 2017 and won an injunction barring the declawing of big cats, things continued to go downhill for the zookeeper—including a “falling out” with Jeff Lowe out West in Oklahoma. You may remember Lowe as the business partner-turned-adversary of Joseph Maldonado–Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic) on Tiger King:

In February 2019, Stark left Indiana and attempted to form a zoo in Oklahoma with Jeff Lowe. Stark’s goal was to transfer “assets from Indiana to Oklahoma . . . .” Tr. Vol. II p. 221. Stark took multiple animals with him, and fifteen to twenty of the animals died during transport. Stark also took heavy excavation equipment purchased by WIN to Oklahoma, and WIN paid to transport the equipment. WIN also paid to transport a bulldozer back to Indiana. Stark’s personal expenses during his time in Oklahoma were charged to his personal credit card, and WIN paid the monthly credit card debt. Stark did not seek approval from the Board of Directors to take the animals or equipment to Oklahoma or to pay his personal expenses. Eventually, Stark had a “falling out” with Lowe and returned to Indiana in August 2019.

The state appellate court noted that Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office thereafter moved to hold Stark accountable for allegedly breaching his fiduciary duties.

“These majestic animals should be treated with respect and properly cared for, as they are all God’s creatures,” Rokita said in a statement to Law&Crime, adding: “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.”

The appellate court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s findings 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. Stark does not specifically challenge any of the trial court’s findings of fact or the trial court’s conclusion that Stark was required to return the misappropriated WIN funds to the corporate receiver because he breached his fiduciary duty to WIN under Indiana Code Section 23-17-13-1 or Section 23-17-13-4; rather, Stark argues only that the State did not satisfy the legal requirements for piercing the corporate veil.

“We hold that the trial court’s conclusions are not clearly erroneous under any of the three theories,” the court found, noting that 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 ruling said. “Under these circumstances, the trial court’s conclusion that piercing the corporate veil was warranted is not clearly erroneous.”

In an interview with John Phillips, an attorney for Joe Exotic, Stark said that he and Jeff Lowe were once “good friends.”

“When I was out there in Oklahoma, me and Jeff Lowe were good friends,” Stark said, before claiming Jeff and Lauren Lowe laughed about setting Joe Exotic up. Stark said he remembered thinking, “If [Jeff Lowe] turned on Joe [Exotic], he’s going to turn on me.”

In another YouTube video, Stark spoke directly into the camera and claimed that USDA and PETA “targeted” him. He referenced the injunction PETA obtained against his tiger cub playtime business.

He claimed that he acted out of “desperation” and went to Oklahoma to team up with Jeff Lowe.

“Those animals would have never left Southern Indiana—never—had PETA not pushed their agenda to force me into doing this stuff,” Stark said. “PETA kills animals. They don’t care about the animals. All they care about is the almighty dollar.”

“If you’re too damn stupid to put yourself in someonby else’s shoes before you judge ’em, fuck you,” Stark said. “It’s that simple.”

As he said this, he put up both middle fingers. He later called Jeff Lowe a “pussy.”

Marty Irby, executive director at the group Animal Wellness Action, said in a statement to Law&Crime that the court’s ruling shows that zookeepers, particularly the ones who appeared on Tiger King, are “not above the law.”

“We applaud the court for upholding the ruling against Tim Stark and hope this signals to other violators and animal abusers that they are not above the law. The enactment of the Big Cat Public Safety Act in December was a major milestone for big cats in America, and we’re elated to see justice is finally being served,” Irby said. “Stark and cohorts like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle have exploited countless tigers, lions, and other animals, as well as consumers for far too long, and the court’s decision puts another nail in the coffin of these abusers.”

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.