DADE CITY — Dade City's Wild Things founder Kathy Stearns held federal marshals at the gates of her zoo for 30 minutes on Friday, delaying a court-ordered inspection by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Law enforcement was accompanying PETA at the instruction of a federal judge after Stearns prevented the group from entering her facility for the original court-mandated inspection July 20. The investigation is part of a lawsuit PETA filed in October, alleging Stearns' tiger cub petting business violates the federal Endangered Species Act by pulling cubs prematurely from mothers, forcing them to interact with the public and confining them to inadequate cages when they outgrow the photo-op stage.
Once Stearns and about 20 Wild Things supporters in shirts reading "PETA kills" moved aside, the group followed PETA experts throughout the two-hour inspection, "making abusive remarks" and doing "everything they could kind of physically getting in our way," said PETA legal counsel Jenni James.
Stearns' husband, Kenneth, and son, Randy, were also armed, "touching their holsters and posturing, following us every step of the way," James said.
Kathy Stearns did not respond to a request for comment, and her attorney, William J. Cook, declined to comment.
The inspection team of an animal behavioralist, a videographer, a private investigator, and two PETA lawyers collected evidence on the enclosures, nursery and living conditions of the animals.
"The lives those tigers lived in those enclosures were of deprivation and torture," James said. "Those enclosures denied the tigers everything they need, everything that would be natural for them. Many were concrete ... virtually barren. None of the enclosures were large enough for tigers to get adequate exercise."
The intent of the inspection was also to observe how Wild Things staff interacted with the animals, but it went on without tigers present.
On July 14, Stearns shipped 19 tigers to a zoo in Oklahoma in an apparent move to avoid the inspection, according to court documents.
The tigers left the facility the same day a federal judge issued an injunction ordering Stearns not to remove any of the animals.
PETA filed a motion for criminal charges against Stearns for apparently violating two court orders by blocking the July 20 inspection and moving the tigers. But on July 26, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone said she would not rule until Stearns secures a new attorney after Cook asked to withdraw over disagreements with his client.
Stearns has until Aug. 25 to secure a new lawyer and until Sept. 15 to respond to PETA's motion for criminal charges.
But PETA's motion reveals new details about the 1,200-mile journey the tigers took to Oklahoma in a cattle trailer.
In a sworn affidavit, St. Augustine Wild Reserve founder Deborah Warrick stated Stearns emailed her on July 13 asking her to take two 7-year-old brothers.
Warrick committed to take the tigers, but said they were dropped off instead at Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary in Citra.
According to Warrick's affidavit, EARS founder Gail Bowen told her that on July 14, Kenneth Stearns pulled into her property with the two brothers in one trailer and 19 in another.
"The 19 tigers in the larger cow trailer were foaming at the mouth, urinating on each other," Warrick stated. "Bowen asked if she could hose off the tigers and provide them with drinking water as the trailer did not have any water and it was very hot outside. ... (Bowen) used approximately 1,000 gallons of water to wash down the tigers and provide them with drinking water."
Stearns stopped in Newberry to get a health certificate required to transport the 19 tigers over state lines. A Florida Department of Agriculture health certificate shows veterinarian Dawn Miller signed off on the animals July 14.
Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park entertainment director Joe Maldonado posted footage on social media of the tigers arriving on July 16. In an affidavit, an animal behavioralist hired by PETA, Jay Pratte, testified the videos show the tigers were transported in an uninsulated trailer with no climate control in areas reaching more than 100 degrees, no water, and arrived severely dehydrated.
Wynnewood staff tranquilized the tigers with unsterilized needles through slats in the trailer "completely from the hip," not adjusting for gender or weight of the animal, with one worker shouting: "This is gonna be a drug party!" according to the court record.
The tranquilized tigers were dragged out of the trailer by their feet and tails, putting "the cats at a high risk of injury through muscle, ligament, tendon bruising strains or tears," Pratte said.
"The unloading process is literally being handled like a rodeo," Pratte said. "People with firearms manhandling large carnivores. ... The cacophonous sideshow is highly stressful to the animals.
Maldonado confirmed a female gave birth to three cubs during the haul and all three died. Pratte said the stress of transportation, noise and heat, and the proximity of a male in the confinement of the trailer pushed the tiger to give birth.
Pratte said the cubs may have died from the mother being too stressed to clear the amniotic sacs, from heat or dehydration, or being crushed.
"The tiger cubs died as a direct result of the inhumane transport decisions," Pratte stated.
Because of concerns about Maldonado's zoo, PETA is now trying to relocate them to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a 720-acre facility in Colorado.
Maldonado has a history of Animal Welfare Act violations and mistreatment of animals, including an ongoing investigation by the United States Department of Agriculture for the deaths of 23 tiger cubs in 2010.
Wild Animal Sanctuary founder Pat Craig said his facility houses tigers in natural terrain with dens, lakes and climbing structures that allow for species-typical behaviors.
Maldonado said Friday that he does not want to be involved in the dispute. He said Stearns relinquished ownership to him and he is willing for PETA to take the animals.
But he said he would "euthanize them before they go to Pat Craig," because of objections to his work with PETA and conditions of his facility.
James said PETA is in negotiations with Maldonado.
"Right now those tigers are in as much danger as they've ever been, and this lawsuit was brought to protect those tigers," she said.
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.