41 Animals Die In Fire At Shady Wildlife Facility

Forty-one animals lost their lives after a fire swept through controversial animal attraction Wildlife In Need (WIN) on Tuesday.

The Charlestown, Indiana, center, which is known for its infamous Tiger Baby Playtime events that allow people to cuddle and take photos with young tiger cubs, lost a freezer as well as its bird and reptile area in the blaze, which reportedly escalated after a barn caught fire.

"Some were scaly, some feathered, others furry, but all were friends," WIN said of the lost animals in a Facebook post. "We have bonded with all our animals here at WIN and the hearts of our volunteers and staff are heavy tonight."

The loss of the animals is tragic. But many animal groups see the fire as the latest in a long string of animal and humane welfare incidents at the facility - and say the only reason it happened is because the the USDA allowed WIN to remain open despite repeated violations.

"Sadly, this shows how little the term 'USDA licensed' can mean for a facility," Wildcat Sanctuary, a Minnesota rescue, wrote in a Facebook post about the fire. "When you pay to play with a baby tiger or lion cub, this is the sort of collateral damage that thrill of a lifetime moment can result in."

WIN has been most strongly criticized for its lucrative Tiger Baby Playtime events. During the attraction, guests pay to enter the cubs' enclosure, where they are allowed to pet, hold and handle them. For an extra fee, visitors can even take photos.

So-called "tiger selfie" opportunities are roundly condemned by legitimate sanctuaries and zoo facilities, as the animals are often ripped away from their mothers as infants and disposed in unknown ways as soon as they outgrow their "cute" phase. And WIN's tiger cub events are particularly fraught with injuries, mishandling and miscommunication, according to USDA reports and several animal welfare groups.

One USDA inspection revealed that WIN workers regularly used riding crops to discipline tiger cubs when they "started to bite" visitors. It also noted that at least two visitors to Tiger Baby Playtime events, including one child, had been bitten by mishandled tiger cubs.

An investigation conducted by PETA also recorded Tim Stark, WIN's owner, telling guests to hit the young cubs in the face to control them. Stark could not be reached for comment.

And that's just the beginning. Between May 2014 and October 2015, the USDA cited WIN for 21 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including a failure to treat illnesses, dirty water in the animals' cages and too-short enclosures that could allow animals to escape.

One report describes a Great Dane with "thick green mucus" dripping from his eyes. No veterinarian had been summoned.

Inspectors also witnessed tiger cages and cougar cages that were covered in bones and, in the cougar's case, feces.

Stark was under investigation at the time of the fire for illegally selling an ocelot to a private owner in Texas, violating the Endangered Species Act. The USDA was in the process of attempting to remove his license.

So why was WIN allowed to operate this long?

Because the USDA is vastly overburdened, Susan Bass, PR director for the Florida sanctuary Big Cat Rescue (BCR), told The Dodo. Like Wildcat Sanctuary, BCR indicated that the USDA was partially at fault for the fire, writing in a highly shared Facebook post that the "USDA should have shut them down long ago."

"There are around 100 inspectors and between 9,000 and 11,000 facilities to check," Bass said of the USDA's outnumbered animal welfare department.

This makes catching every violation - and enforcing consequences - nearly impossible.

Combined with the USDA's loose requirements for licenses, it's a recipe for disaster. "It is illegal [in most states] to own a wild cat as a pet," Bass explained. "But groups get around the law by getting a USDA exhibitor's license."

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It's unclear what caused the fire, though Stark has said that it cost him the $30,000 worth of building materials he needed to bring his beleaguered attraction up to the USDA code, a last-minute effort to keep his license. The fire is currently under investigation by the USDA.

For now, animal lovers are just hoping that the latest incident is enough to finally take that license away - and allow WIN's animals to be relocated to proper sanctuaries.

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