DADE CITY — On Friday, a federal judge ordered Dade City's Wild Things not to remove or relocate any of its 22 tigers pending an ongoing legal battle with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
By Sunday, 19 of the Dade City tigers pulled into the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma after a 1,200-mile journey on a cattle truck.
The move appears to be a reaction to a July 12 ruling by a judge allowing PETA officials to inspect the facility, owned by Kathy Stearns, and observe the tigers' care and housing. The judge scheduled the site inspection for Thursday.
PETA sued Wild Things in October, alleging its tiger cub encounter program, in which visitors can pay to cuddle or swim with weeks-old cubs, violates the Endangered Species Act.
The judge granted an emergency injunction Friday, ordering Stearns not to move the animals after PETA learned about the relocation plan.
G.W. Exotic Animal Park entertainment director Joe Maldonado confirmed 19 of Stearns' tigers arrived at his facility Sunday. He said a pregnant tiger gave birth during the haul, and all three cubs died. He did not know the whereabouts of the other three tigers cited in the court order.
"All I know is (Stearns) called me and asked if I could take the cats until she figured something out," Maldonado said. "Something to do with a lawsuit and PETA, and she needed to get rid of her tigers."
On Monday, Stearns denied sending her tigers to Maldonado. When asked if she transported any tigers out of her zoo to other facilities over the past several days, she said, "I don't know, I just got back into town today."
Maldonado, who holds the facility's U.S. Department of Agriculture license under the name Joe Schreibvogel, has a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations and mistreatment of animals. In 2006, the USDA suspended G.W. Exotic's exhibitor's license and ordered a $25,000 fine to settle repeated violations, including failure to provide animals clean water, failure to provide structurally sound facilities and not having trained employees. The federal agency in 2010 opened an investigation into the deaths of 23 tiger cubs over a seven-month period under Maldonado's care, and in 2013 investigated the deaths of two others. That investigation is still open.
Maldonado said he has 246 tigers on his 54-acre property. Last week he posted a plea for donations on his website and Facebook page, stating he had only holding cages for the incoming shipment of 22 tigers. A GoFundMe page was posted July 13, one day after the judge scheduled PETA's upcoming inspection of Dade City's Wild Things.
In nature, tigers can roam roughly 18 miles a day. But the federal Animal Welfare Act sets only minimum standards for care and housing, and most captive animals are legally required only to be given enough room to stand up and turn around.
Stearns' zoo, which has operated northeast of Tampa since 2007, also has a history of animal welfare violations. The USDA has cited Dade City's Wild Things more than 40 times since 2010 for violations ranging from exposing young tigers to rough and excessive handling, not providing safe barriers between the public and the animals, and having unsafe enclosures.
In February, an administrative judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by the USDA, unrelated to PETA's lawsuit, for Dade City's Wild Things to end its swim program, stating it is dangerous to people and the animals. Stearns has continued her swim program while she appeals the ruling, advertising a "buy-one-get-one-free" deal good through July 31.
On Monday, she called the USDA lawsuit unfounded and said the agency has piled on violations for minor infractions like having a nail sticking out of a wood plank.
"They are throwing the book at me," Stearns said. "I have some of the fattest and healthiest tigers people have seen, so tell me I'm doing something wrong."
Jenni James, legal counsel for PETA, said the organization will still execute its inspection of Dade City's Wild Things on Thursday.
PETA's lawsuit contends Wild Things' practice of breeding tigers and removing cubs from their mothers prematurely to be used in the encounter business is abusive and harmful. The Endangered Species Act prohibits people from preventing endangered animals from carrying out natural behaviors and exposing them to risk of illness and injury.
Once they reach 40 pounds and outgrow the encounters stage, the adults are housed in "unnatural, concrete surfaces" without "species-appropriate psychological and environmental enhancement," the lawsuit alleges.
"Shipping tigers more than 18 hours in what was a cattle trailer in the heat of summer was not just a violation of the court's order, it was dangerous and cruel," James said. "This stunt shows the little regard Dade City has for its animals."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.