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State: Dade City's Wild Things diverted zoo donations for personal use

[STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON, Times]
Dade City's Wild Things Director Kathy Stearns is shown giving a demonstration with a tiger cub to campers in 2011. A lawsuit filed by the Florida Department of Agriculture Consumer Services Oct. 2 alleges Kathy and Kenneth Stearns funneled at least $212,000 from the nonprofit zoo to its private, for-profit turf business and paid for their son's wedding and other personal expenses.
Published Oct. 10, 2017

DADE CITY — The owners of Dade City's Wild Things have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the nonprofit zoo into their personal business account, paying for their son's wedding and other private expenses with donations raised in the name of saving animals, according to a lawsuit filed by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The civil suit alleges proceeds from ticket sales and animal encounters were collected under the guise of caring for animals and assisting conservation efforts but at least $212,000 was transferred to Kathy and Kenneth Stearns' turf business since March 2016.

The zoo money was then used to pay $10,000 in wedding expenses for son Randall Stearns and $24,143 in delinquent payments to Kathy Stearns' 2013 personal bankruptcy case, according to Chase Bank statements the state obtained through a subpoena.

In addition to transferring funds from the zoo to her for-profit business, the lawsuit alleges Kathy Stearns paid $8,000 in 2015 and $7,350 in 2016 to her personal bankruptcy case directly from zoo accounts.

The state is asking the court to fine the Stearns and bar them permanently from ever soliciting donations in Florida. It comes on top of separate, ongoing lawsuits from the United States Department of Agriculture and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, each alleging the zoo's encounters with tiger cubs are a threat to public safety and abusive to the endangered animals.

The Stearns did not respond to calls or email requesting comment Monday.

"The writing is really on the wall for Dade City's Wild Things," said Jenni James, legal counsel for PETA "It's time for them to move these animals to reputable sanctuaries now."

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

PETA has asked the court to impose criminal sanctions on the Stearns after they evacuated 19 tigers to a zoo in Oklahoma days before a July 20 court-ordered site inspection to collect evidence about the animals' care.

Federal Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone on July 14 ordered the Stearns not to remove or relocate any of its tigers ahead of the inspection,

but the animals arrived in Oklahoma two days later, after a 1,200-mile haul where three cubs born on the trailer died.

In a Sept. 29 response to the request for criminal sanctions, the Stearns said they did not learn about the order barring them from moving the tigers until after the animals had arrived in Oklahoma.

The response states hospital stays and trouble with their former attorney has overwhelmed them and kept them from being able to properly address the allegations in PETA's lawsuit.

"They are rural citizens, dealing with substantial health issues, trying to understand a federal judicial system that, at least initially, allows an out-of-state, private corporation with at least four lawyers who is openly antagonistic to their lawful business and occupation to proceed at a very fast pace to spend them to the brink of bankruptcy and limit their ability to earn a lawful living," the motion states.

Not only did the Stearns allegedly transfer nonprofit funds to their private business, but the Department of Agriculture's lawsuit also states the nonprofit Dade City's Wild Things has solicited donations without ever being registered with the state as a charitable organization, which is required in order to ask the public for money.

Stearns Zoological Rescue and Rehab Center was registered as a charitable organization from 2007 until 2016, but the registration expired and was not renewed after the agriculture department asked the Stearns for more financial documentation.

The state fined Stearns Zoological $500 in September 2016 for soliciting donations without being registered to do so. Despite the order to cease and desist, the zoo has repeatedly asked the public for money through social media postings.

On Monday, its website stated "all proceeds go to support the animals."

On Sept. 12, a video posted to Dade City's Wild Things Facebook page shows Kathy Stearns tearfully asking for donations to repair damage from Hurricane Irma.

In a Facebook video on Aug. 11, Kenneth Stearns also falsely states the zoo is a 501(c)(3) — Dade City's Wild Things was never registered with the IRS while Stearns Zoological's status was revoked in 2013 for failing to file disclosure forms.

"Since we are closed to the public until we make all necessary repairs and cleanup, our finances are almost out," another post from Sept. 11 states. "If you could donate any amount regardless how small it all adds."

And because Kathy Stearns pleaded no contest in 2011 on a charge of writing worthless checks, the department states she is not legally permitted to solicit contributions in the first place on behalf of the nonprofit. Nevertheless, she has continuously been involved in raising money, signing checks and accepting donations at the gift shop, according to the lawsuit.

"If you can help us, because I just don't know how much more we can do ourselves," Kathy Stearns says in the Sept. 12 video while crying in front of a tree that has toppled onto an animal enclosure.

"We have other businesses the zoo counts on... I don't know if we're going to make it."

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

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