Dade City’s Wild Things must pay PETA $399,000, judge rules

After the animal welfare group won its lawsuit in March, a judge has ruled Kathy and Randall Stearns must pay $399,000 of PETA’s attorneys fees.
Dade City's Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns holds a 2 week-old baby tiger after bottle feeding in 2015. The zoo shuttered in April 2020 following PETA's successful lawsuit challenging its cub petting business.
Dade City's Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns holds a 2 week-old baby tiger after bottle feeding in 2015. The zoo shuttered in April 2020 following PETA's successful lawsuit challenging its cub petting business. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2015) ]
Published Dec. 1, 2020|Updated Dec. 1, 2020

It has been eight months since the owners of Dade City’s Wild Things lost their court battle over mistreatment of tigers and shuttered their zoo for good.

But the consequences continue for Kathy Stearns and her son, Randall Stearns.

A federal judge last week ordered the Stearnses to pay $399,000 to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for attorneys fees and expenses incurred as a result of the Stearnses evacuating tigers amid the lawsuit and then lying about the plot.

The animal welfare group sued the zoo in October 2016 over its encounter business, which pulled tiger cubs prematurely from mothers, forced them to interact with the public and confined them to dismal cages when they outgrew the photo-op stage.

Days before a court-ordered inspection of Wild Things in July 2017, the Stearnses transported 19 tigers to a zoo in Oklahoma, a 1,200-mile haul where a tiger gave birth and all three cubs died. They sent four other tigers that week to a facility in Ocala, two of which were shot and killed in 2019 when they escaped their enclosures.

U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell ordered a judgement in favor of PETA on Feb. 25, noting Kathy Stearns’ “complete disregard for the rule of law.” She issued a final judgement March 23, but until last week had not specified the amount the Stearnses owed PETA.

“PETA and the courts have hammered the final nail into Dade City’s Wild Things’ coffin,” PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Brittany Peet said in a statement.

Gus Centrone, the Stearnses’ attorney, declined to comment. Kathy Stearns did not respond to an email requesting comment and her cell phone was disconnected on Tuesday.

In an April court filing opposing PETA’s request for attorneys fees, Centrone said the final judgement had already destroyed the Stearnses’ lives by forcing them to shutter their zoo, which will “ultimately force them from their family home.”

Further monetary punishment “would financially cripple the Stearns family for the rest of their lives,” Centrone wrote.

In response to a question about why PETA sought fees on top of their successful lawsuit that shuttered the zoo, Peet said PETA’s legal costs rose as the family violated court orders and evacuated its tigers

“The court agreed that going out of business doesn’t absolve the Stearns of their wrongdoings, and this award will ensure that their ill-gotten gains go to shut down the cruel cub-petting industry rather than into their pockets,” Peet said.

In a separate case, Kathy Stearns was charged in 2019 with three felonies related to her alleged misuse of the zoo’s funds. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and a trial date has not yet been set.

In November 2017, PETA successfully petitioned the court to transfer the 19 Wild Things tigers that Stearns had evacuated to the Oklahoma zoo to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, a 789-acre natural haven for animals rescued from roadside zoos and other abusive owners.

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In January, the two surviving tigers Stearns had sent to the Ocala facility during her 2017 evacuation were sent to a sanctuary in Arizona.

The last six tigers remaining at Wild Things arrived at the Colorado sanctuary on April 1.

PETA’s lawsuit only affected tigers, but the Stearnses got rid of all their animals following the lawsuit. Wild Things had 71 animals as of January, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report. But it is unclear where the Stearnses relocated the remaining animals.

Kathy Stearns opened Wild Things in 2007 and built a business around encounters, where paying customers could cuddle baby monkeys, sloths, tigers and other animals. The tiger cub business was the main attraction, and Wild Things was one of the only facilities in the U.S. that allowed customers to swim with, not just pet, the animals.

According to animal welfare organizations, the business model requires zoos to constantly breed so they have a steady stream of babies. The practice has fueled an overpopulation of captive tigers in the U.S., where private owners relegate them to barren cages at roadside zoos, gas station parking lots, even private homes.

While there are fewer than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, more than 10,000 big cats are thought to be living in captivity in the U.S. Exact numbers are impossible to know, as some states have no laws regulating the possession of tigers as pets. There is also no reliable reporting system for those who breed and ship cubs over state lines, blurring inventory counts the federal government is supposed to take each year on licensed exhibitors.

“The days of exploiting vulnerable tiger cubs and making a sleazy business out of fueling the captive-tiger overpopulation crisis are nearly over,” Peet said.