From barren cages in Dade City to a troubled roadside zoo in Oklahoma, 19 tigers at the center of a federal animal welfare lawsuit have been permanently placed in a 720-acre wildlife sanctuary in Colorado.
The tigers arrived at The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Boulder on Nov. 12 after a judge approved the agreement reached between People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
Dade City's Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns, who shipped the tigers to Oklahoma days before PETA was to conduct a court-ordered site inspection, stated in court filings she did not object to the transfer and had "no legal interest in these tigers." Stearns declined to comment further on Wednesday and hung up on a reporter.
Despite the relocation of the tigers, the legal battle between PETA and Dade City's Wild Things continues.
PETA sued Wild Things in 2016, alleging the zoo's practice of prematurely taking cubs away from mothers, forcing them to interact with the public in encounters and housing them in inadequate cages violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
Although tigers are nearing extinction 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 and there is no reliable reporting system for those who breed and ship cubs over state lines.
Welfare experts say cub petting programs, like the one Wild Things offers, contributes to the massive overpopulation of captive tigers in the U.S. by breeding for a steady stream of cubs to cuddle, leaving adults to languish in cages.
After Stearns shipped the tigers to Oklahoma on July 14, a 1,200-mile haul where a pregnant female gave birth and all three cubs died, she blocked a team of PETA experts from inspecting the zoo July 20. A hearing set for Wednesday on PETA's motion for the court to hold Stearns in criminal contempt was postponed while the welfare group deposes Wild Things' former attorney Bill Cook.
PETA spokesperson Megan Wiltsie declined to comment on the transfer agreement Wednesday. Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park entertainment director Joe Maldonado, also a 2018 Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate, said he was under a gag order and could not comment on terms.
PETA had objected to the tigers waiting at Greater Wynnewood during the legal case because Maldonado has a history of Animal Welfare Act violations and mistreatment of animals, including an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the deaths of 23 tiger cubs in 2010.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary has about 450 animals on its 720 acres of rural grasslands, and the 84 tigers roam enclosures of 15 to 25 acres, according to founder Pat Craig.
Most of the rescued animals were confiscated from roadside zoos or surrendered by individuals who got an exotic animal as a baby and then could not care for it.
He said programs that breed tigers and sell interactions with them are the largest contributor to the overpopulation of captive animals, leaving his facility to have to turn away 50 percent of the animals he's asked to take.
On Monday, Dade City's Wild Things posted a photo to its Facebook page of Stearns cuddling the zoo's newest attraction for public encounters.
Noah the tiger cub.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.