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Dade City's Wild Things owner tests limits of federal court in PETA lawsuit

Kathy Stearns, director of Dade City's Wild Things, holds a 2-week-old baby tiger while bottle feeding in 2015. Stearns and her zoo have since been sued in federal court by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, over treatment of tiger cubs. Recently, Stearns has been testing a judge's patience by defying orders, missing deadlines and, last week, not showing up for a court date. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jan. 29, 2018

The federal judge looked out at the empty chairs Wednesday, 20 minutes after the hearing was supposed to begin, and asked her clerk to get the missing defendants on the phone.

It was only the latest twist in a case that has grown more unusual with each passing month, the owners of Dade City's Wild Things showing flashes of defiance and disregard for the rules amid a lawsuit challenging their respect for animal welfare laws.

Attorneys James Wardell and Chip Purcell Jr. were asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone to be taken off the Wild Things case, six months after the zoo's first attorney also quit over irreconcilable differences.

It began in October 2016 when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Kathy Stearns, her son Randall, and their zoo, alleging its tiger cub petting business violated the Endangered Species Act by pulling cubs prematurely from mothers, forcing them to interact with the public and confining them to barren cages when they outgrow the photo-op stage.

IN-DEPTH REPORT: Is cuddling tiger cubs conservation? Experts warn it leads to too many tigers languishing in cages

But since then, according to PETA's attorneys, the family has missed deadlines, refused to hand over evidence, violated judges' orders by evacuating tigers from the property and blocked PETA from conducting a court-ordered inspection of Wild Things.

And last week, for the hearing on her attorneys' request to quit, Stearns, her son, and husband Kenneth, also ordered to appear, were no-shows.

Stearns had given Wardell a doctor's note stating she had pneumonia and told Sansone on the phone she figured the hearing would be rescheduled. That's not how federal court works, the judge explained, giving Stearns a clear warning to appear the following morning:

"You're already in violation of a federal court order. If you do not show up in person, I will issue a warrant for your arrest."

After they hung up, Sansone said: "I feel like I'm the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off … getting a note from someone's mom … I don't find any of this to be compelling."

Stearns declined to comment for this story.

The next morning in court, Sansone told the three Stearnses they could now navigate the lawsuit alone as individual defendants, but rules require the zoo corporation to have an attorney. If they don't secure one by Feb. 9, PETA could file a motion for a default judgment in their favor.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 21 on PETA's request for criminal sanctions against the Stearnses after they "intentionally delayed, lied, obstructed, disobeyed and intentionally (destroyed) the evidence central to this case" by moving the tigers in July.

On July 12, Sansone granted PETA's request to enter the zoo to observe the 22 tigers, and she set an inspection for the following week. The next day, Oklahoma's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park owner Joe Maldonado posted a plea for donations on social media to fund a rescue mission from "another private zoo forced to give up 22 tigers."

Sansone on July 14 ordered Wild Things not to remove or relocate any of the tigers pending the ongoing lawsuit. Two days later, 19 of the Wild Things tigers arrived at Maldonado's zoo after a 1,200-mile journey on a cattle truck, where one female gave birth and all three cubs died.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Dade City's Wild Things moves tigers to Oklahoma during court battle with PETA

When a team of PETA experts arrived to inspect the zoo without the tigers on July 20, Stearns blocked them at the property gates and refused to let them in. Sansone rescheduled the site inspection for August, and this time she assigned federal marshals to accompany the PETA team.

In November, Sansone ordered the Stearnses to provide PETA attorneys with the evidence they had been asking for repeatedly since July 24. PETA was requesting text messages, phone logs, videos, toll and hotel receipts, and other documents to piece together the transfer of tigers to Oklahoma.

But by mid-December, despite the court order, Wild Things "has not produced a single document," attorney for PETA Marcos Hasbun wrote in a motion.

"This is nothing short of stunning" he wrote. "That defiance must come to an end."

At the last hearing before Sansone relieved him of the case, Stearns attorney Wardell said his client was not technologically savvy, explaining she runs a small country zoo that's "not real sophisticated." Yet over the past several months, the Stearnses have posted a series of videos on social media, calling PETA a terrorist group, declaring they are under attack by the court and the media, and inviting followers to reserve an encounter with the animals.

Over the last few weeks, Kathy Stearns has provided only 33 pages of documents, most of them photos of a computer screen with unreadable images or information irrelevant to the case, like pictures of medical information about her husband, said attorney Justin Cochran, also representing PETA.

In court last week, Cochran called the information "laughable," adding: "We have great concern of significant (destruction)" of documents.

The Stearnses have until Wednesday to provide PETA with texts and phone logs from July 12 through July 18, which covered the period between Sansone's scheduling of the site inspection, her order to not move the tigers and the animals' arrival in Oklahoma.

PETA is also requesting the court allow its experts observe Noah, Wild Things' newest tiger cub, during a session where customers pay up to $200 to swim with him in a pool. Because federal regulations allow only cubs under 40 pounds be used for public interactions, time is of the essence for PETA to be granted access to observe him with customers, Hasbun stated.

Kathy Stearns announced on Facebook that Noah would be ready for swim sessions Feb. 1, and PETA has asked for its team of veterinarians, an animal behaviorist and videographer to observe a session Feb. 3.

But in discussing the request at the hearing last week, Stearns revealed a new roadblock:

PETA would not be able to observe Noah swimming with the public, she said. Reservations are now on hold.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus

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