Kathy Stearns, who founded Dade City’s now-shuttered Wild Things, will serve five years of probation and pay $5,000 in fines as part of a plea deal reached this week on charges she used zoo donations to pay personal bankruptcy expenses.
Stearns pled not guilty in 2019 to three felonies. On Monday, she changed her plea to guilty on charges of fraudulent solicitation and fraudulently obtaining property less than $20,000, both third degree felonies.
As part of the plea agreement, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kemba Johnson Lewis witheld adjudication of guilt, meaning Stearns will not be convicted of a crime.
Stearns could not immediately be reached for comment.
The charges stemmed from a Florida Department of Agriculture investigation into Stearns’ misuse of zoo funds. The state’s investigation, which also includes an ongoing civil lawsuit against Stearns, was triggered by a 2016 complaint from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
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 in 2019 by Department of Agriculture investigator Corey Kissinger.
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.
She wrote another $15,350 in cashier’s checks from the zoo’s accounts directly to the bankruptcy case, according to Kissinger.
State officials found “numerous occasions” of Stearns soliciting donations for the zoo while not registered as a charity.
The Department of Agriculture’s ongoing civil lawsuit against Stearns filed in 2017 also alleged Stearns used $10,000 in zoo donations to pay for wedding expenses of son Randall Stearns.
Dade City’s Wild Things opened in 2007 and became known for its encounter business, where customers paid to cuddle and swim with baby tigers, otters and other young animals.
PETA sued the zoo in October 2016, alleging its tiger cub petting business violated 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.
A judge ruled in favor of PETA in March 2020, a decision that banned the Stearnses from ever owning tigers again. The ruling also confirmed that Kathy Stearns, her husband, Kenneth, and son, Randall, violated a court order in July 2019 by transporting 19 tigers to Oklahoma to avoid a court-ordered site inspection by PETA, a 1,200-mile haul where one female gave birth and all three cubs died.
The Stearnses’ last six tigers were relocated to a sanctuary in Colorado in April 2020, shuttering the Dade City zoo for good. PETA had also petitioned the court to transfer 19 Wild Things tigers to the Colorado sanctuary in 2017. Another two tigers were previously sent to a sanctuary in Arkansas.
There were 71 animals at the zoo in January 2020, according to state records, but it is unclear where the other species went as lax reporting requirements have left no paper trail.
In December, the judge ordered the Stearnses to pay PETA $399,000 for attorneys fees and expenses incurred as a result of their evacuating tigers amid the lawsuit and then lying about the plot.
Seven months later, the Stearnses have not paid PETA any of the money, according to Jenni James, litigation manager for PETA Foundation. The zoo on Blanton Road went into foreclosure last year.
In response to the outcome of Kathy Stearns’ fraud case, James said the guilty plea was appropriate.
“We’re just glad that Kathy Stearns has admitted to being a fraud,” James said. “It’s something that PETA knew all along ... Cub encounters, they thrive on deceiving the public into thinking they are happy.”