A federal judge will allow two Florida tigers to live out their lives at an accredited sanctuary in Arkansas, the latest development in a three-year legal battle between People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Dade City’s Wild Things.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell granted PETA’s request to transfer Wild Things’ former tigers Luna and Remington to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Ark. The tigers are the only two surviving cats out of four that Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns moved to the Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary near Ocala in July 2017 to avoid a court-ordered site inspection by PETA.
The other two, Rory and Rajah, were shot and killed by Endangered Animal Rescue owner Gail Bowen after they escaped their enclosures in April, according to court filings. Attorneys for PETA asked the court to rescue the remaining two after being informed of the deaths in October by a former employee of the Ocala facility.
"This worst-case scenario would not have happened if (Wild Things) had not hastily disposed of all its tigers to prevent PETA’s site inspection," Marcos Hasbun, an attorney for PETA, wrote in his Oct. 11 motion for the transfer.
The tigers’ deaths are the latest revelations in the ongoing federal case where PETA is attempting to show that roadside zoos like Wild Things, and the encounter businesses they run, abuse and exploit animals for profit. The animal welfare group sued Wild Things in October 2016, alleging its 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 tiny cages when they outgrow the photo-op stage.
Stearns did not immediately respond to two phone calls and a text message Thursday.
Once the court granted PETA’s request to inspect Wild Things in July 2017, Stearns launched a “calculated and deliberately deceptive” plot to destroy evidence in the case, Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone wrote in a later filing.
Over the next few days, Stearns, her husband Kenneth and son Randall transferred four tigers to Bowen’s facility near Ocala and one cub to a zoo in Brooksville. They transported 19 remaining tigers to Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, a 1,200-mile haul in which a female gave birth and all three cubs died.
Because of Wynnewood’s extensive record of animal welfare violations, PETA successfully asked the court to transfer the 19 tigers to an accredited facility. In November 2017, all 19 tigers were relocated to a 720-acre sanctuary in Colorado.
Because of the Stearnses’ “flagrant disregard” for the court, Sansone in March 2018, and again in August 2019, ordered a default judgment in the underlying lawsuit, granting PETA’s request that the court ban Wild Things from owning tigers and declare its treatment of the animals violates federal law.
But magistrate rulings are not final. The district judge has not yet ruled on a final order.
Jenni James, PETA Foundation litigation manager, said the group does not yet have a date finalized for the transfer of Luna and Remington to Turpentine Creek. The Arkansas sanctuary is a globally accredited facility that houses animals in natural environments, does not breed and does not allow animals to be handled by the public.
In a separate case, Kathy Stearns was arrested in August and charged with three felonies related to her alleged misuse of Wild Things’ funds. The criminal charges follow the Florida Department of Agriculture’s 2017 civil lawsuit against Stearns, her husband, Kenneth, and son Randall, alleging the family funneled hundreds of thousands of zoo donations into their private business account to pay for a family wedding and personal bankruptcy expenses.
(Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct destination for the two tigers, Luna and Remington. A judge has approved their relocation to Arkansas. A previous version named another state.)