DADE CITY — A lifelong animal lover, Lisa Graham was intrigued when she saw photos on social media of friends cuddling and petting baby tigers at zoos.
So she made a trip from Lutz for her daughter's 11th birthday to Dade City's Wild Things, wondering what it would feel like that close to a tiger.
But when the Wild Things volunteer walked to their picnic table cradling a cub, barely old enough to stand, her excitement turned to pity.
The cub, she said, was lethargic, barely moved. She wondered if it was even old enough to be away from its mother.
As Graham and her daughter took turns stroking the cub's fuzzy coat, cupping its face, the volunteer repeatedly reminded them no personal pictures were allowed.
"I thought it was a little strange they were so adamant about no pictures being taken," Graham said. "When we started walking around, I knew immediately why. This is cruel."
In the forests and swamps of their native Asia, wild tigers are at extinction's doorstep.
Killed off by poachers for their bones and hide, and run out of habitats by human intruders, only an estimated 3,000 remain in nature.
But across the world from their native lands — in roadside zoos, suburban back yards, highway rest stops, and cement cages — an overpopulation of captive tigers is swelling in the United States.
More than 10,000 big cats are thought to be living in captivity in America, but exact numbers are impossible to know as some states have no laws on keeping tigers as pets. There is also no reliable reporting system for those who breed and ship cubs over state lines, hopelessly blurring inventory counts the federal government is supposed to take each year on licensed exhibitors.
No practice is fueling the overpopulation faster than the cottage industry of cub encounters, where tourists can shell out hundreds of dollars to cuddle and swim with weeks-old tigers at zoos.
The business model depends on having a steady stream of babies. But when cubs outgrow the photo-op stage by 40 pounds, the unwanted adults, with instincts to roam dozens of miles, often end up in the pet trade or languish in cages at roadside zoos, said Meredith Whitney, Animal Rescue Officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"There's a big picture problem here because they are creating animals with no place to go," Whitney said.
The practice prompted the United States Department of Agriculture to sue Dade City's Wild Things after repeated Animal Welfare Act violations. In February a judge ordered the facility to end its swim encounters, following USDA's warning that Wild Things "has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease and harm."
Wild Things was continuing its cub encounters while appealing the ruling until earlier this month, when owner Kathy Stearns shipped 19 tigers to a zoo in Oklahoma before a court-ordered site inspection. But legislation introduced for the fourth time in Congress aims to end the practice nationwide, citing the threat it poses to humans and abuse it inflicts on animals. The Big Cat Public Safety Act also aims to ban private ownership of exotic cats as pets, which has perpetuated the countless tigers living in unsuspecting neighborhoods and the captive overpopulation.
Tigers raised by humans generally cannot survive if released into the wild. And there is no evidence that breeding for captivity, and churning a profit from the cubs, is saving the species, said DJ Schubert, a biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute.
"Their range has declined by over 90 percent over the last 100 years,'' Schubert said. "They're still being killed for their parts, still captured for illegal wildlife trade. If having these up-close encounters with these endangered species made people care more about them, it's not evident by the state of tigers in the wild."
Stearns said as tigers die out in nature, breeding operations like hers are keeping the species from total extinction. She said her goal is education, but she refused to allow a Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer to tour her facility despite repeated requests.
"Anyone will tell you the first time that someone sees these animals that it is so much more impactful than a TV show," Stearns said in a phone interview. "If you put one in your hands, you never forget it."
But many places dealing tiger cubs for profit also have historically dismal welfare records.
Since October 2014, at least 28 tigers have been transferred to or from Dade City Wild Things and out-of-state facilities, according to veterinary certificates filed with the state Department of Agriculture. The certificates are not required for transfers within Florida, which breaks the paper trail for tracking cubs as they bounce between facilities.
Zootastic Park in North Carolina, where Wild Things shipped 9-week old Noah and 3-week-old Zeek in 2015, has had at least 25 Animal Welfare Act violations since 2014, according to USDA records.
On a single visit in July 2016 to Zootastic, which also sells cub encounters, a USDA inspector found a white tiger's tail bleeding with exposed tissue; a li-liger with hair loss over 40 percent of its body; a white tiger cub with hair loss and swollen eyes; and missing documentation for where several cubs had been transferred.
Opened to the public in 2007, Stearns and her son Randy house 128 animals, including two dozen tigers, on 22 acres, according to the most recent available USDA inspection report. The facility has had more than 40 Animal Welfare Act violations since 2010, ranging from forcing a panicked tiger cub to swim in a pool to having loose electric wire hanging in a lion enclosure.
A 30-minute swim session with a cub costs $200 per person, and a 10-minute land encounter runs $20, according to its website.
After the USDA sued Wild Things in July 2015 — a rare action taken by the agency — a judge ruled Wild Things' swim encounters failed to provide safe barriers between the tigers and the public and exposed young animals to rough handling for excessive periods.
During a hearing, veterinarian Laurie Gage testified that video footage showed a cub handled by a Good Morning America reporter was trying to get out of the pool despite Stearns' testimony that he "just wanted to play." While one cub was young enough to be in a nursery and at risk of infection from viruses, another was at least 60 pounds and "should not be anywhere close to a member of the public."
Stearns said she is being unfairly targeted and is accumulating violations for minor infractions like having a nail sticking out of a piece of wood.
"I've got nice tiger exhibits in the plans but I'm spending on attorneys fees," Stearns said.
In October, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also sued Wild Things, alleging the zoo's practice of prematurely taking cubs away from mothers, forcing them to interact with the public and housing them in inadequate cages violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
Tiger cubs in the wild wean after about six months but remain with their mothers until they are around 2. Their immune systems are too weak to protect against communicable diseases until 8 weeks old.
"They will force the cubs to engage in as many encounters as they can be paid for," said PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet. "That's why we see cubs at (Wild Things) and other exhibitors around the country literally falling over and falling asleep from exhaustion because they're forced to engage."
Stearns said she separates cubs from their mothers at 4 weeks old for her encounter business, mostly to acclimate them to humans so they are manageable as adults. However health certificates filed with the state show Stearns shipped two 5-day-old bengal tigers to Safari Adventures in Ohio in 2016.
Undercover video footage PETA posted on its website also shows a Wild Things worker pulling newborn cubs from their mother through metal wires of a cage. Another undercover video shows a white tiger cub, Luna, planting its feet, pulling against a leash to get away, and getting dragged on its back by the handler toward a group of customers for an encounter.
Stearns sued two former employees in October, claiming they broke a non-disclosure agreement and gave the undercover footage to PETA. The suit was dropped in February.
The challenge when roadside zoos are shuttered, when animals are released from the circus, when law enforcement agencies raid abuse cases, is the animals have few quality places to go.
Of the roughly 2,800 exhibitors licensed by USDA across the country, less than 10 percent are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has strict requirements for enriched housing, social groupings and conservation plans.
But even some AZA members, like Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, have drawn criticism for breeding cubs and contributing to captive overpopulation, even though their programs are monitored by the accrediting agency. Lowry Park officials declined to comment on their own practices for this article.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, the international gold standard, accredits only sanctuaries that do not breed, do not offer the public direct contact with animals, and far surpass what is required by law for enclosures.
In nature, tigers can roam miles a day. But the federal Animal Welfare Act sets only minimum standards, and most captive animals are legally required only to be given enough room to stand up and turn around.
There are only 135 GFAS accredited sanctuaries in the U.S.
One of those, Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, has taken in hundreds of large cats from hellish conditions since it opened in 1992.
Founder Carole Baskin has rescued a serval that lived in an apartment in the Florida Keys, more than 20 big cats forced to perform in circuses, and tigers that have never lived in anything but a cage.
"People are just dumbfounded about the stories the cats have and wonder how is this even legal in America," Baskin said.
As a true sanctuary with 80 animals on 67 acres, Baskin said her cats are never bred, live in stimulating environments and are fed a species-appropriate diet of raw meat.
Her smallest tiger enclosure measures 1,800 square feet, and the animals get rotated into a 2.5 acre "vacation area" of grass and climbing structures every two weeks.
Big Cat Rescue is one of a handful of animal welfare organizations that helped craft the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban possession and breeding of large cats as pets and prohibit licensed exhibitors from running cub encounters.
The bill was first introduced in Congress in 2012 and has stalled in committees despite bipartisan support. It was sponsored this year by U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif).
"The only way we'll save the tiger in the wild is by ending the private possession of them because it creates that legal smokescreen to hide the illegal activity that's causing the tiger to go extinct in the wild," Baskin said. "With 3,000 in the wild, we don't have time to screw around. We have to stop this now."
Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said legitimate zoos and sanctuaries have a duty to facilitate an awareness between the public and animals. But that must also include a tangible connection to the wild.
Accredited facilities provide financial support to missions to conserve habitats, prevent trafficking and expand range states of endangered species in India, Malaysia and other target regions. Zoo Boise, a small, municipally owned facility, for example, has contributed $200,000 a year for the past four years to expand the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.
"What we have is a world that is shrinking day by day," Ashe said. "That means there is less and less space in the world for things like tigers or leopards or jaguars or cheetahs. We believe it's important for people to experience these animals... but people caring for animals should be held to a very high standard."
On July 14, a federal judge ordered Stearns not to move any tigers pending an upcoming site inspection by PETA experts. On the same day, Newberry, Fla., veterinarian Dawn Miller signed a Florida Department of Agriculture health certificate for 21 tigers to ship from Wild Things to a zoo in Oklahoma.
Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park entertainment director Joe Maldonado said 19 tigers arrived at his facility on July 16. He said Stearns told him she had to evacuate them there until "she figured something out."
Stearns blocked the PETA team from entering the zoo for the court-ordered inspection July 20, stating in an email through her attorney that there were no tigers there, thus, nothing for them to inspect.
But on Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone said it was clear the inspection was to collect evidence on the tigers' health, care and living enclosures and should have taken place. She set a new inspection for next week, this time ordering federal marshals chaperone the PETA team and use "any reasonable means" to gain access to the property.
"No amount of trickery is going to get around that requirement," Sansone said.
Staff writer Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.