The last six tigers remaining at Dade City’s Wild Things left their cages for good on Tuesday, marking the shuttering of a zoo with a reputation around the country for poor treatment of animals.
By Wednesday afternoon, the tigers arrived at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, a 789-acre natural haven for animals rescued from roadside zoos, private basements and other hellish places.
The transfer is the culmination of a lawsuit that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals brought against Wild Things in October 2016 over the zoo’s encounter business, which pulled tiger cubs prematurely from mothers, forced them to interact with the public and confined them to dismal cages when they outgrew the photo op stage.
A federal judge last week issued a final judgement in favor of PETA, ruling Wild Things’ treatment of its tigers violated the federal Endangered Species Act. The order bans Wild Things owners Kathy and Randall Stearns from ever owning tigers again.
Jenni James, litigation manager for PETA foundation, said the shuttering of Dade City’s Wild Things is a step towards ending cub petting nationwide, an industry that has fueled the overpopulation and widespread suffering of captive tigers in the U.S.
“With this lawsuit, PETA has taken out a major player in the cruel tiger cub photo op industry, and this ruling signals to those other players that what they are doing is unlawful,” James said. “This victory will spare countless tigers from lives languishing in tiny cages.”
The judgement applies only to tigers, but Gus Centrone, an attorney representing Wild Things, wrote in a court filing last week that Kathy Stearns has surrendered her federal and state licenses, transferred out all other animals and officially closed the zoo’s doors.
Wild Things had 71 animals as of January, according to a United States Department of Agriculture inspection report. But it is unclear where the Stearnses relocated the remaining animals. Kathy and Randall Stearns did not respond to two phone calls requesting comment or an email sent to Centrone.
The order also requires Wild Things to pay PETA’s attorney’s fees, but the judge has not yet ruled on the amount. PETA is requesting $814,232 for costs accumulated over three and a half years of litigation prolonged by what the judge called the Stearnses’ “outrageous conduct."
“This litigation has financially ruined the Stearnses,” Centrone wrote in a recent court filing. The Stearnses intend to appeal the judgement.
In a separate case, Kathy Stearns was arrested in August and charged with three felonies related to her alleged misuse of Wild Things’ funds.
Kathy Stearns opened Dade City’s Wild Things in 2007 and over the years has housed more than 100 animals at a time — from monkeys, sloths and bears to tigers and lions.
The Stearnses built their business around selling encounters with baby tigers, sessions where visitors paid between $20 and $200 to cuddle or swim with cubs.
The business model requires zoos to constantly breed so they have a steady stream of babies. But, by the time they get to be about 40 pounds, cubs age out of the stage where they can be handled by the public. The practice has created an overpopulation of adolescent and adult tigers in the highly unregulated world of private ownership, relegating many to barren cages at roadside zoos, gas station parking lots, even private homes.
While there are fewer than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, more than 10,000 big cats are thought to be living in captivity in America. 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.
But the world of exotic cat ownership is deeply interconnected, and many roadside zoos have equally dismal welfare records.
Since 2010, the Agriculture department cited Wild Things with more than 40 Animal Welfare Act violations, ranging from forcing a panicked tiger cub to swim in a pool to having loose electric wire in a lion enclosure.
Stearns also had a working relationship with Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic," the flamboyant Oklahoma zookeeper featured in the Netflix series Tiger King. Maldonado-Passage was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison for charges related to a murder-for-hire plot against Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin, who was unharmed.
Maldonado-Passage over the years also received more than 200 Animal Welfare Act violations at his zoo. His 22-year sentence included charges related to killing five tigers, selling tiger cubs and falsifying wildlife records.
In July 2017, in the midst of PETA’s lawsuit, the Stearnses transported 19 tigers to Maldonado-Passage’s zoo, a 1,200-mile haul where a female gave birth and all three cubs died. The evacuation occurred after the judge granted PETA’s request to inspect Wild Things and after the judge ordered the Stearnses not to remove any animals from the premises.
Kathy Stearns also purchased at least two tigers from Maldonado-Passage over the years, Nikita and Luna, according to James, the PETA Foundation litigation manger.
In an undercover investigation PETA released in 2016, video footage showed a Wild Things worker pulling newborn cubs from Nikita through the metal wires of a cage. Another video showed Luna as a cub planting her feet, pulling against a leash to get away, and getting dragged on her back by a handler toward a group of customers for an encounter.
In November 2017, PETA successfully petitioned the court to transfer the 19 Wild Things tigers from Maldonado-Passage’s zoo to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. That rescue included Nikita.
In addition to the 19 tigers Stearns shipped to Oklahoma in July 2017, she also sent four tigers to the Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary near Ocala to avoid PETA’s site inspection.
In April 2019, two of those tigers, Rory and Rajah, were shot and killed by Endangered Animal Rescue owner Gail Bowen after they escaped their enclosures. In January, PETA successfully petitioned the court to transfer the surviving two, Luna and Remington, to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.
On Wednesday, the six remaining Wild Things tigers — Noah, Harley, Shiva, Sheila, Camelia and Admiral — arrived at The Wild Animal Sanctuary after a 26-hour drive. Pat Craig founded the sanctuary in 1980, around when zoos began the trend of using cubs to attract visitors, sparking the breeding epidemic.
Today he houses 550 large carnivores between two facilities in Colorado: 789 acres in Keenesburg and 9,684 acres in Springfield. Single enclosures range from 5 acres to 243 acres, putting herds of animals that Craig has rescued from basements, zoos and cement cages into havens of natural terrain.
Craig said when he and his three staff members arrived at Wild Things on Tuesday, he found the tigers in dirt-floor cages just big enough for them to pace back and forth.
But with the closure of Wild Things for good, Craig said he is optimistic the public is better understanding the suffering behind the photo ops.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and if the cubs were not being bred to make money over and over and over again to take selfies and hold, there would be no tigers in the private sector today,” Craig said. “They were a big player in that,” he said of Wild Things. “They were one of the main ones promoting this.”