Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

USDA complaint alleges Dade City zoo offering 'Swim with Tigers' mistreated animals

Dade City’s Wild Things zoo offers chances to swim with the young tigers it houses. A complaint from the USDA says such situations put stress on the animals.

Dade City’s Wild Things Facebook photo

Dade City’s Wild Things zoo offers chances to swim with the young tigers it houses. A complaint from the USDA says such situations put stress on the animals.

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.

USDA complaint alleges Dade City zoo offering 'Swim with Tigers' mistreated animals 08/20/15 [Last modified: Thursday, August 20, 2015 10:22pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa tax shelter schemer too fat for his prison term, attorney says


    TAMPA — A federal judge sentenced two Bay area men to prison terms last week for peddling an offshore tax shelter scheme that cost the IRS an estimated $10 million.

    Duane Crithfield and Stephen Donaldson Sr. were sentenced to prison after marketing a fraudulent offshore tax strategy known as a "Business Protection Plan" to medical practices, offering doctors and others coverage against unlikely events such as a kidnapping.

  2. Weinstein Co., overwhelmed by backlash, may be up for sale


    NEW YORK — The Weinstein Co., besieged by sexual harassment allegations against its namesake and co-founder, may be putting itself up for sale.

  3. Trial begins in 2014 death of 19-month-old Tampa girl


    TAMPA — Even before his trial officially began, Deandre Gilmore had planted his gaze on the floor of Judge Samantha Ward's courtroom Monday, taking a deep breath and shifting in his seat as a pool of 60 potential jurors learned of his charges.

  4. Rick Pitino officially fired by Louisville amid federal corruption probe


    In an expected move, the University of Louisville Athletic Association's Board of Directors on Monday voted unanimously to fire men's basketball coach Rick Pitino. The decision came 19 days after Louisville acknowledged that its men's basketball program was being investigated as part of a federal corruption probe and …

    In this Oct. 20, 2016, file photo, Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino reacts to a question during a press conference in Louisville, Ky. Louisville's Athletic Association on Monday officially fired Pitino, nearly three weeks after the school acknowledged that its men's basketball program is being investigated as part of a federal corruption probe. [AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File]
  5. Editorial: Trump uses Americans' health care as bargaining chip


    Unable to persuade Congress to kill the Affordable Care Act, President Donald Trump appears determined to do the dirty work himself. The president's unilateral actions are aimed at driving up premiums, steering healthy people away from the federal marketplace and ensuring his inaccurate description of the law as a …

    Unable to persuade Congress to kill the Affordable Care Act, President Donald Trump appears determined to do the dirty work himself.