DADE CITY — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission a letter Thursday asking for an investigation into Dade City's Wild Things attraction. PETA alleged "egregious violations" involved with allowing people to have close encounters with the animals.
Randy Stearns, president and animal trainer at the 22-acre zoo and animal rescue, said PETA has a vendetta against the zoo and its philosophy.
"They spend more on postage stamps," he said, "than we do on our entire budget."
Animal encounters are part of the attraction at Dade City's Wild Things, which boasts these types of activities as well as having more than 200 animals on exhibit and more than 100 species. It's home to Cornelius, better known as the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay.
At the zoo on Thursday, Stearns and his mother, Kathy, the zoo's director, explained their philosophy. They said Wild Things is nonprofit and exists on donations and revenue. They do not get any grants, they said.
They said they started the zoo as a rescue 20 years ago, and they think education about these types of animals is important. They house animals for the duration of their lives and allow people access to species they'd otherwise never get a chance to see.
Kathy Stearns said she understands why some people think these animals should only be in the wild. But the wild is disappearing, she said, and it's important to make sure the animals are taken care of and happy. As for the investigations, she said, she has nothing to hide.
"I get inspected every other month," she said, "and most of the complaints are anonymous."
A primary part of PETA's complaint is that the attraction allows swimming with animals; patrons can pay to swim with baby tigers and small alligators.
"The bottom line is Dade City Wild Things is either ignorant or just doesn't care," said Brittany Peet, a lawyer who represents PETA from Washington, D.C. "We're just asking the FWC to investigate our claim."
Gary Morse, a spokesman for the FWC, said PETA's complaints are "old news," and there are no violations at the zoo. Everything there is within state and federal rules. Morse said the zoo provides a public service by housing and caring for the animals.
"When we seize animals, they help us out," he said. "Without these facilities the wildlife would perish."
PETA may take issue with how the zoo is run ethically, he said, but there are no legal issues. Morse agrees that moving the animals would be more detrimental to them than letting them stay.
"Where would they go?" he said.
Jon Silman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229. Follow @Jonsilman1 on Twitter.