1. News
  2. /
  3. Pasco

Dade City’s Wild Things owner arrested on fraud charges

The criminal charges come amid an ongoing civil lawsuit with PETA, which alleges Wild Things’ cub petting business is abusive for pulling cubs from mothers and confining adults to barren cages.
Kathy Stearns, Dade City’s Wild Things owner, was arrested on fraud charges [Pasco County Sheriff's Office]
Published Aug. 26
Updated Aug. 27

DADE CITY — Dade City’s Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns is facing three criminal charges related to her alleged misuse of the zoo’s funds. The charges come on top of an ongoing civil lawsuit brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleging she exploits tigers for profit,

Stearns, 59, was arrested Friday and charged with organized scheme to defraud, fraudulent solicitation of funds and charitable organization fraud, all felonies. She was released on bail the same day.

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.

Kathy Stearns was the only member of the family charged Friday. The Department of Agriculture’s investigations were prompted by a 2016 complaint by PETA alleging Stearns was misusing donations.

PETA also filed its lawsuit against Stearns in 2016, which is still ongoing, alleging Wild Things' cub petting business violates the 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.

RELATED STORY: Judge’s ruling brings Dade City’s Wild Things closer to losing tigers and cub encounters

Stearns did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

“Kathryn Stearns has long acted as if she was above the law, but her troubles are catching up with her, and Dade City’s Wild Things’ house of cards is crumbling,” said Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation’s director of captive animal law enforcement.

Between May 2015 and February 2017, a total of $297,275 was transferred from the Stearns Zoological and Wild Things bank accounts into the for-profit Stearns Peat C Inc. business account, according to an affidavit filed this month by Department of Agriculture investigator Corey Kissinger.

Over seven installments during those years, Stearns paid a total of $59,450 from her Peat business account to her personal bankruptcy case. The payments came on the same day money was transferred from the zoo’s accounts into the Peat business account, according to Kissinger.

The affidavit also states Stearns made an $8,000 payment in 2015 and a $7,350 payment in 2016 to her bankruptcy case using cashier’s checks directly from the zoo’s accounts.

State officials found “numerous occasions” of Stearns soliciting donations for the zoo while not registered to do so.

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. However state investigators found the entity Dade City’s Wild Things has never registered as a charitable organization.

In his affidavit, Kissinger also included a link to a September 2017 Facebook video where Stearns tearfully solicited donations to repair damage from Hurricane Irma – a time when the zoo was not registered as a charitable organization.

Because 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.

The criminal charges come one month after federal Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone ordered a default judgment in favor of PETA in its lawsuit against Wild Things. The welfare group is requesting that the court ban Wild Things from owning tigers and declare that its treatment of the animals violates federal law.

Director of Dade City Wild Things Kathy Stearns holds a 2 week-old baby tiger after bottle feeding Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. Stearns was arrested Friday on fraud charges. [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]

But Sansone’s judgment is not final and a district judge must now decide on the ruling. Sansone’s order condemned the Stearnses’ “outrageous conduct,” during the course of the litigation.

In July 2017, Stearns and son Randall Stearns violated a court order by transporting 19 tigers to Oklahoma to avoid a site inspection, a 1,200-mile haul where one female gave birth and all three cubs died.

Because the lawsuit challenged the Stearnses’ treatment and housing of tigers, Sansone ruled that the Stearnses destroyed critical evidence by removing the animals.

Stearns is also facing a separate lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015 for a number of Animal Welfare Act violations. That lawsuit is still pending.


  1. Robert "Bobby" Mavis, 40, top left, is shown in this family photo with his wife Elizabeth and their children, from left, Evan, Kendall and Kyle. The father of three died in the Nov. 13 chain-reaction crash on northbound Interstate 75 in Hillsborough County. Courtesy Elizabeth Mavis
    Robert “Bobby” Mavis, 40, was on his way home from work last week when a semi-trailer truck crashed into his Mercedes.
  2. Emergency personnel work to extinguish a fire after a horrific collision in the northbound lanes of Interstate 75 bridging Hillsborough and Pasco counties on Nov. 13. Two people died, and their names have now been released by the Florida Highway Patrol. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    Days after the massive pile-up on Interstate 75, the Florida Highway Patrol has released the names of those who died.
  3. Hacienda Hotel in New Port Richey.    (ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times) Special to the Times
    Overhaul of the Gloria Swanson parking lot will expanding parking options downton.
  4. A federal jury in Tampa found Christopher Brian Cosimano, left, and Michael Dominick Mencher guilty in the Pasco County shooting death of a motorcycle club leader. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Christopher “Durty” Cosimano and Michael “Pumpkin” Mencher were members of the 69′ers Motorcycle Club. Prosecutors said they were responsible for the rush-hour assassination of Paul Anderson, a...
  5. Bob Larson, 81, from St. Petersburg, raises his hand to indicate he has a match while playing Bingo during a meal with fellow seniors in Langer Hall at the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg. Also present (but not pictured) is his wife, Janet Larson, 74. The Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas funds 15 congregate dining sites in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The sites offer hot meals and socialization for 6,000 seniors. The Sunshine Center is one of those sites. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Seniors are happy in their communities, but have concerns about health care, housing, transportation and support for caregivers
  6. Pasco County School Buses. Times (2018)
    The School Board also approved a student calendar for 2020-21, with Aug. 10 as the first day of classes.
  7. Pasco County is spending $21.9 million to preserve 843 acres in central Pasco though its environmental lands program. Pasco County
    The county will preserve 843 acres within the Project Arthur development.
  8. Colleen Beaudoin is selected Pasco County School Board chairwoman for 2020, and Allen Altman is named vice chairman. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff
    Altman chosen as vice chairman.
  9. In December 2017, two masked motorcycle gang members were accused of assassinating Paul Anderson, 44,  president of the Cross Bayou chapter of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club while his pickup was stopped at a traffic light in Pasco County. [Pasco County Sheriffs Office]
    Evidence from the federal trial of two members of the 69′ers Motorcycle Club offers a rare glimpse of the world of outlaw biker gangs.
  10. Deputies were able to extricate the person with the aid of a Taser.