DADE CITY — The United States Department of Agriculture has ordered Dade City's Wild Things to end its tiger cub swimming encounters and pay a $21,000 fine for exposing the animals to "rough or excessive public handling."
The order, issued Feb. 15 and effective March 22, found the zoo's swim program broke the law when it allowed tigers to be harmed during handling and exposed people to dangerous conditions four times between September 2011 and October 2012.
The decision follows a lawsuit the USDA filed in July 2015 citing Animal Welfare Act violations. A lawsuit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed in October, alleging the zoo's encounter program violates the Endangered Species Act, is still pending.
A bill called the Big Cats and Public Safety Act, which would ban the private possession of exotic cats as pets and use in public encounters, is also pending in Congress.
Dade City's Wild Things, owned by Kathy and Randy Stearns, has until March 17 to appeal. The order also requires they suspend exhibiting its animals to the public for 60 days. Kathy Stearns did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
"We're pleased that the USDA clamped down on this most egregious violator of animal-welfare law, knowing that Dade City's Wild Things has been making money by forcing distressed tiger cubs into swimming pools for customer photos," PETA's Brittany Peet said. "PETA looks forward to proving in court its allegations that Dade City's Wild Things is harming and harassing these endangered animals."