Dade City’s Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns told veterinarian David Murphy there was an emergency at her zoo.
Stearns explained on that July day that the judge in a federal lawsuit had ordered all the tigers to be off her property within days, Murphy testified on Wednesday.
A veterinarian who has worked for Lowry Park Zoo and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Murphy arrived about 1 p.m. and began sedating tigers and helping Kenneth Stearns, Kathy’s husband, load them into a cattle trailer, he said.
Little did Murphy know, the exact opposite was occurring. That afternoon, Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone issued an order forbidding Stearns from removing any tigers, which were at the center of a lawsuit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had filed challenging the cub petting business.
But the day after the order was issued, 19 Wild Things tigers left the zoo’s gates for Oklahoma, a 1,200-mile journey during which a pregnant female gave birth and all three cubs died. On the way, Kenneth Stearns transferred a pair of tigers to a sanctuary near Ocala, where he also brought two other tigers two days prior.
"Even with all their money, and we’re broke, sometimes somebody outsmarts your a--," Kenneth Stearns declared later in a video posted to the zoo’s Facebook page. "With no tigers, how they gonna prove tiger abuse?"
In a two-day hearing last week, attorneys for PETA Marcos Hasbun and Justin Cochran used text messages, call logs and witness testimony to outline the elaborate and wide-ranging plan created by the Stearnses to sabatoge PETA’s court-sanctioned inspection and to defy the judge’s order by evacuating tigers. The plot included Kathy Stearns lying to her veterinarians, her attorney, the recipients of the tigers and the court, the attorneys alleged.
PETA is requesting that the judge hold the Stearnses in criminal contempt and issue a default judgment in PETA’s favor in the underlying lawsuit, which alleges the Wild Things tiger cub petting business violates the Endangered Species Act by pulling cubs prematurely from mothers, forcing them to interact with the public and confining them to barren cages when they outgrow the photo-op stage.
The Stearnses’ attorney, Brian Shrader, admitted his clients should have known better and "want to make things right" by paying PETA’s legal fees. But he argued a judgment from Sansone, which would bar the zoo from ever having tigers again, would be unfair.
He argued the judge could not say the couple destroyed evidence in the case because tigers cannot be considered evidence like "a bankers box of documents."
"It’s just not that bad," Shrader said of the Stearnses actions. "It’s not as bad as it seems."
Sansone said she would make a ruling "as soon as possible." PETA attorneys say events unfolded this way:
On June 26, the day PETA filed a request to inspect the zoo, Kathy Stearns called Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park director Joe Maldonado and asked him to take some tigers. She also texted a volunteer for Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary near Ocala and stated: "Trying to lower tiger inventory due to PETA lawsuit. .?.?. They might get (to come) tour my zoo. If so trying to limit what (they) see."
On July 12, the day Sansone granted the inspection and set it for July 20, Kathy Stearns called her then-attorney Bill Cook and asked him "hypothetically" what would happen if she moved the tigers, Cook testified.
She also asked Maldonado if he’d take 22 tigers. But in her videotaped deposition last month, Stearns testified Maldonado had called her "and asked if I had tigers available." She also said that because a tornado had "wiped out half the zoo" a month earlier, she was recovering from back surgery and struggling financially because of legal fees, "I made a business decision to move a lot of animals, including tigers."
On July 13, Kenneth Stearns transported the first tiger pair to EARS, the sanctuary near Ocala, founder Gail Bowen testified. Cook sent two emails that day warning Stearns she could be sanctioned if she disposed of evidence.
Shortly after Murphy arrived to sedate tigers on July 14, Cook emailed Stearns PETA’s emergency request for Sansone to prohibit the tigers from being moved. He wrote if the motion was granted and she moved tigers "you could be held in contempt of court." On this day, the zoo also sent one young tiger to handler Ann Kelly in state.
Sansone issued her order prohibiting Stearns from moving tigers that afternoon, which Cook emailed to Stearns.
On July 15, Kenneth Stearns dropped off the second pair of tigers to EARS and then met veterinarian Dawn Miller with the trailer of 19 tigers in a Gainesville shopping center for her to issue a health certificate needed to cross the state line. Miller testified Kathy Stearns had told her their situation was urgent, that "she lost the case with PETA" and the tigers had to be gone within days.
"I’m Pennsylvania Dutch," Miller testified. "Something you don’t do is lie to me."
Maldonado testified that when the 19 tigers arrived in Oklahoma, he "was pretty disgusted" at what he saw.
Along with three cubs that died en route, the Wild Things tigers had open sores, severe hide fungus and infected toe nails from a "bad declaw job," he testified.
"There was a lot of injuries on these cats," he said. "These cats were in bad shape."
Maldonado also said Stearns never told him about the court order preventing her from moving the tigers, which made him feel "pretty used."
Since the transfer, PETA successfully petitioned to get the 19 tigers re-homed to a 720-acre sanctuary in Colorado.
But when PETA’s team arrived at Wild Things July 20 to conduct the inspection, Stearns refused to let them in, locking the zoo’s gates.
That was after Cook called and emailed Stearns stating "Not allowing the inspection would be a violation of the judge’s orders, and I ask you to reconsider."
As the litigation continues, Wild Things has not kept its 22-acre zoo without tigers for long.
For Valentines Day, its Facebook page advertised a special encounter for two with a tiger cub.
"Little Noah says hi!" the page posted Feb. 17 with a picture of a cub being stroked by a customer.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.