A federal judge this week brought Dade City's Wild Things another step closer to being banned from owning tigers, the latest move in a legal battle that has dragged on for nearly three years and been prolonged by what the judge called the zoo's "outrageous conduct."
Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone on Tuesday ordered a default judgment in favor of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in the lawsuit it filed against Wild Things in October 2016. The welfare group alleged Wild Things' cub petting business violates the Endangered Species Act by pulling cubs prematurely from mothers, forcing them to interact with the public and confining them to tiny cages when they outgrow the photo-op stage.
Sansone had already issued a default judgment in PETA's favor in March 2018: PETA's complaint requests that the courts ban Wild Things from owning tigers and declare that its treatment of the animals violates federal law. But magistrate rulings are not final and require U.S. district judge approval.
In March 2018 U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell ruled she would wait to decide on Sansone's order because PETA asked to amend its lawsuit to include evidence that arose since the lawsuit was filed. In July 2017, Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns and son Randall Stearns violated a court order by transporting 19 tigers to Oklahoma to avoid a site inspection, a 1,200-mile haul where one female gave birth and all three cubs died.
Sansone's order Tuesday ruled in favor of PETA's updated complaint and condemned the Stearnses' "outrageous conduct," which was exposed in a two-day hearing in February 2018.
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"The Stearns lied to the veterinarians caring for their animals, lied to their attorney, lied to the recipients of the tigers, and lied to the court," Sansone wrote. "The breadth of the defendants' deceit is confounding and, thankfully, this brazen misconduct is rare in the judicial system."
Honeywell could now adopt the magistrate's decision in full, amend portions or reject it entirely. Gus Centrone, an attorney representing the Stearnses, on Thursday said that he will "vigorously object to the the erroneous rulings before Judge Honeywell."
Jenni James, legal counsel for PETA, said this ruling underscores the inherent abuses of animal photo ops.
"Those are the beginning of a lifetime of cruelty for baby tigers stolen from mothers from birth just to be passed around for creepy photo ops and to be tossed into a pool from which they cannot escape," James said.
While litigation drags out, Wild Things has continued its encounters and swim business with lion cubs, otters, monkeys and other animals, and has had least one new tiger cub, according to posts on its Facebook page. The lawsuit applies only to tigers.
Encounters are considered by welfare groups to be one of the top causes of captive tiger overpopulation because the business requires a steady stream of babies that outgrow the photo-op stage when they reach 40 pounds and are often confined to barren cages for the rest of their lives.
The Stearnses' "calculated and deliberately deceptive" plot to destroy evidence in their case was put in action on July 12, 2017, the day Sansone granted PETA's request to inspect Wild Things. Kathy Stearns called her then-attorney Bill Cook and asked him "hypothetically" what would happen if she moved the tigers, Cook testified.
The next day, Stearns' husband, Kenneth Stearns, transported the first tiger pair to a sanctuary near Ocala. Cook sent two emails that day warning Stearns she could be sanctioned if she disposed of evidence.
On July 14, Kathy Stearns transferred the zoo's only cub, Shiva, to a zoo in Brooksville. Veterinarian David Murphy arrived that afternoon, greeted by Randall Stearns, to sedate and help load the rest of the 21 Wild Things tigers. He said Stearns told him it was an emergency because she was "under a court order" to move the tigers within days, Murphy testified.
Cook sent an email to Stearns with Sansone's order that afternoon explaining she was prohibited from moving the tigers.
The next day, Kenneth Stearns arrived at the Ocala sanctuary with 21 overheated tigers with no water in an aluminum trailer, founder Gail Bowen testified. Stearns dropped two tigers there but did not have time to unload them and left them in a trailer until returning the following day.
When the remaining 19 arrived at the zoo in Oklahoma, Greater Winnewood Animal Park's then-entertainment director Joe Maldonado testified he "was pretty disgusted" at what he saw.
Along with three cubs that died en route, the Wild Things cats had open sores, severe hide fungus and infected toe nails from a "bad declaw job," he testified.
When PETA arrived at the Wild Things to conduct the court-ordered inspection July 20, they were blocked at the gates. Sansone rescheduled the inspection for a few days later and assigned federal marshals to accompany the PETA team.
In November 2017, all 19 tigers were relocated to a 720-acre sanctuary in Colorado after a judge approved an agreement reached between PETA and Maldonado's zoo.
In an unrelated case, Maldonado was convicted in April on two counts of hiring someone to murder Tampa Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin, 17 counts related to wildlife trafficking and violating the Endangered Species Act when he shot five tigers in 2017 to make room for other big cats to be boarded at his zoo for a fee.
Because the lawsuit challenged the Stearnses' treatment and housing of tigers, Sansone ruled that the Stearnses destroyed critical evidence by removing the animals. The judge ended her order with a quote from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to illustrate the Stearnses' "complete disregard for the rule of law."
"What above all else is eroding public confidence in the Nation's judicial system is the perception that litigation is just a game," Sansone wrote, quoting Scalia.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.