A zoo in Pasco County has mishandled animals, carelessly forcing tiger cubs to swim in a pool and pose for cameras, according to an administrative complaint filed by inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Officials said in a filing against Dade City's Wild Things that the company "has not shown good faith," failing to get in line even after an official warning in 2012 detailed years of missteps. It alleges that zoo employees have painted young tigers' fur and forced them to endure stressful and harmful situations.
The zoo's director, reached Thursday, denied the claims.
"On principle I won't settle this," said Wild Things director Kathy Stearns. "I'm going to take it all the way because I know for a fact that I have not done these things."
The legal filing was publicized by the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says its members have complained about Wild Things to the USDA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"For years, Dade City's Wild Things has forced young tigers to swim while the cubs have struggled, cried and fought to escape from the water and unwanted human contact," said Brittany Peet, a deputy director at the PETA Foundation.
Stearns said PETA has targeted her organization, repeatedly filing complaints about pictures she posts to Facebook, and that the activist group has pressured the USDA into acting against Wild Things. She said she cares about animals and that human encroachments through habitat destruction are edging vulnerable creatures out of existence.
"We're looking at protecting the captive environment of the animals because that's probably all we're going to have left," Stearns said.
In 2012, according to the complaint, USDA inspectors flagged Wild Things for having a perimeter fence that was too low, for failing to provide adequate veterinary care for a black panther and for forcing a tiger cub to stay in the water even as it showed signs that it wanted to get out, among other things.
"Any further violation of these federal regulations may result in the assessment of a civil penalty, criminal prosecution or other sanctions," inspectors wrote.
Yet the zoo "has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease and harm," according to the latest USDA filing.
Stearns countered: "I've been in the zookeeping business for 20 years. I've never had an animal get sick or injured and I've never had the public get sick or injured."
In October of 2012, inspectors allege, an employee abusively "lowered a young tiger into a pool by the tiger's tail, pulled the tiger's tail in order to restrain it while it was in the pool, and pulled the young tiger out of the pool by the tiger's right front leg," according to the complaint.
Wild Things employees have also handled animals in rough ways that led to "behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort," inspectors said.
On the same day as the pool incident, according to the complaint, the zoo allowed a reporter from Good Morning America to handle a tiger in a way that made the animal stressed. Inspectors said the reporter pulled the young tiger, named Tony, back into the pool even as it tried to get out.
Stearns said the allegations are nonsense. She said any cat makes some noise when it is picked up, but Wild Things employees quickly soothe and comfort their animals. The so-called painting of the tigers? She said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco was on site for a summer camp, and they dabbed a paint-soaked sponge on the tiger's paws to make prints on paper.
"And then the kids got to keep the paw prints," Stearns said.
Viewing and even touching animals, she said, is crucial to developing a real connection. "Our future conservationists all came from people who handled animals," Stearns said.
The next step, she said, is appearing before a USDA judge, though she does not know when. The complaint was filed with the secretary of Agriculture in mid July. It states that Wild Things reported having 139 animals in 2015. Stearns said she could have settled for a small financial penalty before, but now she is paying more money for lawyers. "I'm paying thousands of dollars just to put the USDA on trial," she said.
On the zoo's Facebook account Thursday, Wild Things advertised a "Win a Swim with a Tiger" contest and also posted a video of a swimming tiger with the caption: "Luna loves to swim!"
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.