After a "calculated and deliberately deceptive" plot to evacuate tigers from their zoo in the middle of an animal welfare lawsuit, a federal judge on Friday ruled Dade City's Wild Things should never be allowed to possess tigers again.
The ruling confirms that Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns, her husband, Kenneth, and son, Randall, violated a court order in July by transporting 19 tigers to Oklahoma to avoid a site inspection by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a 1,200-mile haul where one female gave birth and all three cubs died.
PETA sued Wild Things in October 2016, alleging its tiger 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.
Because of the Stearnses' "flagrant disregard" for the court, Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone ordered a default judgment in PETA's favor in the underlying lawsuit, that the Stearnses pay PETA's legal fees and dismiss Wild Things' counter claims. Sansone stopped short of imposing criminal sanctions on the Stearnses, stating there was "no need to pile on contempt proceedings."
The ruling is not final because a U.S. district judge must now decide whether to adopt the magistrate's decision.
Although the ruling brings sanctions against the Stearnses for their actions and destruction of evidence, PETA Foundation's director of litigation, Caitlin Hawks, said the default judgment establishes the facts in the case as violations of the federal Endangered Species Act.
"A permanent end is in sight to Dade City's Wild Things cruel photo stunts with tiger cubs," Hawks said.
Wild Things attorney Gus Centrone said Friday that his clients will appeal "to the full extent of the law" on grounds that PETA should not have standing under ESA.
The Wild Things cub encounters and swim program is the central attraction at the 22-acre zoo that also features bears, lemurs, monkeys and other animals.
Encounters are considered by welfare groups to be one of the biggest causes in the overpopulation of captive tigers because the business requires a steady stream of babies that outgrow the photo-op stage when they reach 40 pounds.
The scheme began in June, when Kathy Stearns' then-attorney Bill Cook emailed her PETA's request to conduct a site inspection to observe conditions of the 24 tigers and watch a cub encounter.
That day, Stearns called Oklahoma's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park director Joe Maldonado and asked him to take some tigers. She also texted a volunteer for Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary near Ocala and stated: "Trying to lower tiger inventory due to PETA lawsuit. ... They might get (to come) tour my zoo. If so trying to limit what (they) see."
On July 12, the day Sansone granted the inspection and set it for July 20, Kathy Stearns called Cook and asked him "hypothetically" what would happen if she moved the tigers, Cook testified.
The next day, Kenneth Stearns transported the first tiger pair to EARS, the sanctuary near Ocala, founder Gail Bowen testified. Cook sent two emails that day warning Stearns she could be sanctioned if she disposed of evidence.
EARS volunteer Sue Nassivera testified Kenneth Stearns told her that he and Kathy Stearns were "ready to go to jail" and "aren't backing down."
On July 14, Kathy Stearns transferred the zoo's only tiger 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. Kenneth Stearns began the transport the following day.
He arrived at EARS with 21 overheated tigers with no water in an aluminum trailer, founder Gail Bowen testified. Stearns dropped two tigers at EARS but did not have time to unload them and left them in the trailer until returning the following day.
He then drove the remaining 19 to a parking lot in Gainesville where veterinarian Dawn Miller issued a health certificate needed to leave the state.
Maldonado testified that when the 19 tigers arrived in Oklahoma, 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.
"There was a lot of injuries on these cats," he said.
He testified he did not learn of the court order barring the transfer until July 17. Maldonado said he called Stearns, who falsely told him the order was issued after the tigers were on the road.
When PETA arrived at the zoo to conduct the court-ordered inspection July 20, they were blocked at the gates covered in a sign stating it was closed "due to PETA death threats."
Sansone rescheduled the inspection for a few days later and assigned federal marshals to accompany the PETA team.
In her ruling, Sansone noted the brazenness of the Stearnses' deceit, which included Kenneth Stearns bragging in a Facebook video: "Even with all their money, and we're broke, sometimes somebody outsmarts your a--. With no tigers, how they gonna prove tiger abuse?"
Because the lawsuit challenged the Stearnses' treatment and housing of tigers, Sansone ruled the site inspection and tigers themselves were central evidence to the case. She said PETA also incurred unnecessary costs due to the deception, given the extensive filings related to the transfer and the costs of bringing in a nationwide team of experts for an initial inspection that was blocked.
Sansone said any lesser sanctions would be impractical, since the tigers had been moved and evidence related to their treatment would now have been changed.
The Stearnses legal troubles do not end here. Randall Stearns pleaded guilty on Feb. 5 to two charges of sexual misconduct related to a 2016 incident where he showed his genitals on an elevator in Missouri. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
And in October, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services sued the three Stearnses, alleging they funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the nonprofit zoo into their personal business account, paying for Randall's wedding and other private expenses with donations raised in the name of saving animals.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.