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Tiger encounters at Dade City’s Wild Things should end, judge says

A federal judge rules in favor of the animal rights group PETA, citing the zoo owner’s disregard for the law. Wild Things will appeal.
Kathy Stearns, owner of Dade City's Wild Things, holds a 2-week-old baby tiger after bottle feeding.
Kathy Stearns, owner of Dade City's Wild Things, holds a 2-week-old baby tiger after bottle feeding. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2015) ]
Published Feb. 27, 2020

When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Dade City’s Wild Things in 2016, it asked the court to end the zoo’s tiger cub petting business, which pulls cubs prematurely from mothers, forces them to interact with the public and confines them to dismal cages when they outgrow the photo op stage.

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

On Tuesday, a federal district judge granted PETA’s request, saying Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns’ has shown “complete disregard for the rule of law” during the course of the lawsuit.

Attorneys for PETA and Wild Things confirmed Wednesday that the ruling, which adopted an earlier recommendation by a lower judge, would ban the zoo and Stearns from ever owning tigers again.

“It’s huge,” said Jenni James, litigation manager for PETA Foundation. “This ruling could signal an end to Dade City’s Wild Things’ so-called tiger cub encounters, which cause immense suffering."

U.S. District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell ordered a default judgment in favor of PETA, stating a permanent injunction is forthcoming. In its complaint, PETA requested the court appoint a guardian ad litem to oversee the re-homing of Wild Things’ tigers to a reputable facility with multi-acre naturalistic habitats. It is unclear how many tigers or cubs the zoo currently possesses.

RELATED: Two more Dade City’s Wild Things tigers may soon move to forever sanctuary

In a statement provided through her attorney, Gus Centrone, Stearns said she will appeal.

“We are standing up for our property and constitutional rights and values and give it to God,” the statement said. “Our property will be taken based on an extreme animal activist agenda, not on anything we did wrong. We remain committed to standing up for our rights and protecting our home from PETA’s extremist activities.”

Honeywell stated Stearns made “a deliberate choice to conceal, alter and destroy evidence” in the case through a “calculated and deliberately deceptive process” that began in summer 2017.

Over three days in July 2017, Stearns removed two dozen tigers from her property to avoid a court-mandated site inspection by PETA, even after her attorney notified her removing tigers would violate the judge’s order, according to court records. The evacuation included sending 19 tigers on a trailer to a zoo in Oklahoma, a 1,200-mile haul where a female gave birth and all three cubs died.

During a two-day hearing in 2018, attorneys for PETA used text messages, call logs and witness testimony to outline the elaborate plot, where attorneys argued Stearns lied to her veterinarian, her attorney, the recipients of the tigers and the court.

RELATED: Dade City’s Wild Things owner plotted tiger removal to defy judge, PETA claims

In her ruling Tuesday, Honeywell confirmed Stearns acted in bad faith to destroy evidence and cited a Facebook video posted after the evacuation by Stearns’ husband, Kenneth, where he bragged: “With no tigers, how they gonna prove tiger abuse?”

Honeywell also dismissed counterclaims Wild Things filed against PETA and ordered the zoo to pay the welfare group’s attorney’s fees incurred as a result of the evacuations.

Although the 22-acre zoo sells encounters with various animals like sloths, lion cubs and monkeys, PETA’s lawsuit specifically targeted tigers. Wild Things is thought to be one of the only facilities in the U.S. that offers tiger cub encounters where customers can swim with, not just pet, the animals.

Encounters are considered by welfare groups to be a top cause of captive tiger overpopulation because the business requires a steady stream of babies that quickly outgrow the photo-op stage and are confined to cages for the rest of their lives. Although only about 3,000 tigers remain in the wild, an estimated 10,000 are living in roadside zoos, cement cages and private backyards.

Exact numbers are impossible to know as some states have no laws on keeping tigers as pets. There is also no reliable reporting system for those who breed and ship cubs over state lines, hopelessly blurring inventory counts the federal government is supposed to take each year on licensed exhibitors.

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.

Stearns has pleaded not guilty.