Report Says Wag-n-Bietjie Farm Boils Lions for Asian Markets
Conservationists up in arms over government’s lion skeleton export policy
01 May 2018 – 12:12 By Aron Hyman
The killing of more than 50 lions on a Free State farm last week has conservationists in an uproar over the government’s lion skeleton export policy.
Bloemfontein SPCA senior inspector Reinet Meyer said that last week they had received a complaint that two lions were being kept in temporary containers for three days on the Wag-‘n-Bietjie farm outside Bloemfontein. What they and nature conservation authorities had discovered was a “deplorable” scene‚ which she described as a “lion slaughterhouse”.
“It was terrible. For me a lion is a stately animal‚ a kingly animal. Here he is butchered for people just to make money‚ it’s absolutely disgusting‚” said Meyer.
The SPCA was busy finalising charges of animal abuse against the farm’s owner‚ Andre Steyn‚ and his foreman‚ Johan van Dyk‚ on Monday. The Beeld newspaper reported on Saturday that lions from other provinces were also being transported to the “slaughterhouse” without permits as required by law.
A roaring trade: 6‚000 SA lion skeletons shipped to Asia
More than 6‚000 lion skeletons have been exported from South Africa to south-east Asia in the last decade.
It reported that a taxidermist in Bloemfontein prepares the skeletons for export to China and the Far East after the animals’ flesh is boiled from the bone.
Animal rights activists at the Blood Lions Campaign said that the department of environmental affairs’ new policy permitting the export of 800 lion skeletons every year was partly to blame.
“The sale of lions’ bones‚ for medicine to Asia‚ should be a major concern for South Africans. Currently‚ there are approximately 8‚000 captive-bred lions on farms across the country‚ all of which could be shot and processed in a similar manner‚ for export to Asia‚” read a Blood Lions Campaign statement.
“The reality is that this is part of a cycle of commercial exploitation on South African farms which involves breeding‚ cub petting‚ walking with lions‚ canned/captive hunting and the trade in bones from lions and other predators‚” it said.
Meyer said 26 lions were killed on Monday last week and another 28 the following day.
“To see 28 dead lions is not nice. These are the animals we should be preserving‚ so why are we preserving the animal but on the other hand we give licences and quotas to kill the animals and export them? It doesn’t make sense to me‚” she said.
She said the two lions which were kept in transport cages could not move around and were depressed.
“You could see they were depressed. When the lions were released from the cages the first thing they did was urinate and released their bowels. It was totally disgusting that they were kept like this. A lion is a wild animal‚ it wants its freedom but now it’s kept in a small cage
for three days. It’s absolutely deplorable‚” said Meyer.
Despite numerous attempts to contact Steyn and Van Dyk‚ TimesLIVE was unable to reach them for comment.
(also known as Toucan’s Exotic Animals) is a traveling fairground exhibit and pseudo-sanctuary based in Canby, Oregon. It is owned and operated by Steve Higgs and Cheryl Jones. Although they are licensed as a nonprofit organization, claim to be a “rescue”, and are legally permitted to house exotic animals confiscated by the state, they have admitted that they are not a sanctuary and do many things that responsible rescues would never do. These include exploiting tiger cubs for $30 photo-ops; breeding and buying animals for display at fairs; threatening and insulting those who criticize them; renting out animals for parties and commercials; and advocating for the “right” of circuses, roadside zoos, and private owners to own, breed, and exploit endangered species.
A Walk on the Wild Side has had multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and in 2015 public visits to their facility were shut down by Clackamas County officials who found “too many violations to list” of zoning and building codes. Inspectors found that trailers were being used as “nurseries” for baby animals, that other animal enclosures consisted of small chain-link pens covered with tents, and that the zoning under which the property was registered prohibits the facility from being open to the public. When ordered by county officials to build permanent structures to house their animals, A Walk on the Wild Side claimed that they had “no funding” to do so, even though they lamented to a local news station that they made over $50,000 a month from facility tours alone. The organization also does not own any land and is currently in the process of relocating to an equestrian center in Hillsboro, Oregon, creating an unstable situation for their animals.
From June through September, A Walk on the Wild Side visits fairs and festivals throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, where they display big cats in chain-link cages and sell $30 photos with tiny cubs. The “sanctuary” is a paying member of the Western Fairs Association and the Oregon Fairs Association, where their listing promises fairs “the ultimate feature attraction, education program and crowd pleaser. Exotic animals from all over the world. Lions & tigers, adults & babies.”
A Walk on the Wild Side estimates that over 2 million people visit their exhibit each year, and have no qualms about renting out animals for private parties or displaying them at large festivals featuring fireworks and blaring rock music. They try to justify this by claiming that their rescued animals are never taken to fairs and that their “ambassador animals” were all hand-raised, but no reputable sanctuary would subject any big cat to the noise and stress of a county fair, or rescue some animals while exploiting others.
The above photos were taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s fairground exhibit.
This young Geoffrey’s Cat was being displayed at a fair in a baby stroller.
Selling Photos with Cubs:
During the fair season, A Walk on the Wild Side has a seemingly constant supply of baby big cats, to the point that their staff are expected to work “solely with big cats between the ages of six and 16 weeks.” These cubs are used as photo props in A Walk on the Wild Side’s jungle-themed photo booth, which charges fairgoers $30 to pet and take a photo with a baby tiger, lion, cougar, bobcat, serval, or lynx. Cub-petting is an extremely irresponsible and inhumane practice which no true sanctuary condones.
A screenshot from A Walk on the Wild Side’s website. Legitimate sanctuaries do not provide animals for events, breed cubs, or allow the public to handle animals.
In an industry newsletter, A Walk on the Wild Side writes that their exhibit cubs “are usually given anywhere from 10-12 hours of hands-on, daily interaction by our handlers.” That’s virtually constant handling of a baby that needs to rest, roam, and play to develop properly. Pictures taken at their photo booth show cubs with open sores on their noses from rubbing their faces on the bars of their travel crates, and although the exhibit claims that the cubs “only work when they want to,” a local news segment filmed at the Oregon State Fair shows a growling, squirming 12-week-old tiger cub named Siri desperately struggling to escape from the arms of a newscaster while Steve Higgs encourages viewers to pay to hold the cub, too. The cub is so visibly distressed that the news station’s description for the footage admits that “[the] baby tiger wasn’t happy at all about being held.” In 2015, A Walk on the Wild Side encouraged people to visit their farm to pet a tiger cub that was 15 weeks old, past the 12-week age limit established by federal USDA guidelines.
Photos of A Walk on the Wild Side’s fair exhibit cubs show visible wounds on the animals’ noses.
Photos of A Walk on the Wild Side’s fair exhibit cubs show visible wounds on the animals’ noses.
A very tiny lynx kitten being exploited by A Walk on the Wild Side at a fair.
Occasionally, baby bobcats, servals, and cougars are also used as photo props.
Occasionally, baby bobcats, servals, and cougars are also used as photo props.
Occasionally, baby bobcats, servals, and cougars are also used as photo props.
This extremely stressed tiger cub was filmed at a fair by a local news outlet.
Although A Walk on the Wild Side tells patrons and the media that their cubs were “rescued”, many are bred on-site (the facility brags about having “breeding programs with other places”) or are purchased from disreputable private breeders and roadside zoos, including Dade City’s Wild Things and Living Treasures Wild Animal Park. And while signs posted at the cub photo booth claim that the money raised by selling photos “benefits the animals”, A Walk on the Wild Side’s promotional video informs fairs that “the point of all this is to have a fun and profitable experience,” and exhibit staff have been caught boasting in profanity-laced Facebook posts about how “exploiting their animals” has made them “so rich” — even as their facility claims to not have enough money to build permanent enclosures for their animals.
Would an employee of a responsible sanctuary ever post something like this?
Once the cubs are too large to use for photo-ops, A Walk on the Wild Side sometimes sells them to other private owners and backyard zoos. In an industry newsletter, an employee of A Walk on the Wild Side admits: “We often agree to take in cubs, feed, house, love, and raise them temporarily, so that they can properly and safely be placed with another accredited facility to live out their lives. We have donated many cubs to smaller zoos throughout the Northwest.” This directly contradicts the feel-good claims made on their website that A Walk on the Wild Side “provides a home for life” for their animals, and perpetuates the cruel cycle of “breed, exploit, and dump” that true sanctuaries are trying to end.
Deliberately misleading “education”:
Like most exhibitors, A Walk on the Wild Side claims that they exist to educate people about wildlife. But instead of teaching patrons about the role that their animals play in the wild, explaining that wild animals make poor pets, or that the private trade in big cats is harmful, they’ve stated that their primary goal is to “educate the public about responsible animal ownership.” Their exhibit is designed to “teach” people that their big cats don’t belong in the wild, and that the breeding, exploitation, and trade of endangered animals by private owners is a form of “conservation,” even though virtually all reputable conservation groups warn that it’s not.
At their exhibit, A Walk on the Wild Side displays a large “educational” poster that says “So You Think They Belong in the Wild…” The poster was written by a group which lobbies for the private ownership and trade of big cats, and makes the inaccurate claims that “the wild” no longer exists, that accredited zoos “aren’t doing enough” to save species, and that the only way to save tigers from extinction is with the “help” of private owners, breeders, and exhibitors. Another sign, posted on the cage of what A Walk on the Wild Side claims is a Barbary Lion, includes virtually no information about the species, and instead features a generic message “informing” readers that “legislation trends which threaten to ban private ownership of endangered species” would “speed their extinction.” These claims have been debunked by real conservationists, who warn that the private trade in endangered species is harmful, not helpful.
And what about the cub interactions? A Walk on the Wild Side claims that allowing the public to physically handle an animal increases the public’s knowledge and support of the species. But in a video advertising their cub photo booth, A Walk on the Wild Side mentions that “many people ask us if they can take the tiger home” — not the kind of “educational message” a sanctuary should be sending.
Animal Welfare Concerns:
When not being exhibited at fairs, A Walk on the Wild Sides’ 174+ exotic animals live at a farm in Canby, Oregon that is being leased from a local concrete company. The big cats appear to be housed in rows of tiny, gravel-floored chain link dog runs with no natural vegetation and poor drainage. In some cases, enclosures are held together with plastic zip-ties and rope. These enclosures are perfectly legal under USDA regulations, which is why having USDA “accreditation” is nothing for a facility to brag about.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
Photo taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s pseudo sanctuary in Canby, Oregon.
A Walk on the Wild Side has racked up at least 8 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act since 2009, including failure to provide inspectors with animal transfer records; inexperienced staff; failure to maintain adequate barriers between the public and tigers; and failure to provide animals with adequate veterinary care and housing.
According to USDA inspection records, one of the staff, as of December 2009, only had 3 months of on the job experience working with big cats, and liked to let the cats “comb his hair.” In 2014, an inspector found that an enclosure holding a pig, a red fox and two young tigers contained excessive water after an overnight rainstorm, leaving the animals without adequate dry space (she noted that plans were in place to remedy the problem later that day). In September of 2012, A Walk on the Wild Side was written up for failing to maintain adequate separation between animals and the public after a spectator at an expo approached a transport cage holding an adult tiger and touched the animal’s face. Multiple pictures taken behind-the-scenes at the “sanctuary” and posted online show staff members holding metal pipes, wooden canes, and broom handles while “walking” an adolescent tiger on multiple leashes and chains. Another photo, taken from A Walk on the Wild Side’s promotional video, shows an adolescent lion that appears to have an abrasion on its nose being walked on a rope.
Handlers with chain and metal pipe A Walk On The Wild Side
Cheryl Jones walking tiger A Walk On The Wild Side
A Walk On The Wild Side Weapons
Injured lion on leash A Walk On The Wild Side
A Walk on the Wild Side’s Canby facility was open to the public until county officials closed it in spring 2015 due to multiple code violations. Visitors who went there have left near-unanimous negative reviews, to the point where the organization has only one star on Google. There, reviewers have referred to it as a “roadside circus attraction” and complained that the cats “are kept in cages far too small for the animal in question,” while Yelp reviews of the farm detail horrific neglect, as evidenced by these excerpts:
“I felt sorry for these animals and wonder how they got a license to keep them. The animals were dirty and some had very little shelter from the rain and cold. ”
“There are no words. This place is absolutely disgusting, and I’m not even sure that it’s actually legal. The exotic tigers are in Huge dog kennels, it was really frightening. The poor exotic cats were in smaller dog kennel cages and their cages were filthy!!! The place smelled sooo horrible as well.”
“[The animals] were in small dirty cages and seemed distressed. One rabbit we saw had a vicious infection in it’s ears. It was quite disturbing. My girlfriend and I were debating making a call to some agency to investigate their operation.”
“I visited here last October and it made me sick to my stomach. They have a “farm” aka huge amount of animals there being horribly neglected. They have Lions, a Tiger, and a camel, all kept outdoors in Oregon cold and rain. They also have caged housecats, bobcats, and tons of wild animals that… …shouldn’t be living in small chicken wire cages in the rain and cold.”
One of the most recent animal welfare complaints against A Walk on the Wild Side comes from a nearby donkey rescue, which in January 2016 received multiple concerned calls about over 25 donkeys (including pregnant females and foals) which were being kept by Steve Higgs out in the winter elements with no shelter and little food and water. When confronted by the sanctuary, Higgs stated that he had “rescued” the donkeys from several surrounding states and planned to use them for breeding and moneymaking schemes. Attempts by the donkey rescue to help the animals by offering water and hay were rejected by Higgs, who insisted that donkeys “do not need shelter” and warned that any further attempts to help his animals would be considered trespassing. When the donkey sanctuary updated their Facebook followers on the situation, A Walk on the Wild Side threatened to sue for “slander.”
Hostility towards critics:
While genuine sanctuaries protect animals from exploitation and welcome questions about their animals, A Walk on the Wild Side advocates for the use of big cats in entertainment and is extremely hostile and rude towards anyone who has concerns about their animals’ welfare. Facebook postings by the “sanctuary” openly support the use of elephants and big cats in circus acts, accuse all responsible sanctuaries and animal welfare groups of being “PETA” and “killing animals,” and mock those who disagree with them, stating that “we welcome positive comments and opinions, not those from uneducated people!” This is not the behavior of a professional organization.
Negative comments left on A Walk on the Wild Side’s Facebook page are removed and the original poster blocked, while negative reviews are “responded to” by staff taking a screenshot of the review and posting it on the page with insults. Here are some screenshots from their Facebook page. None of them are things that professional animal rescue organizations would ever post:
Here, A Walk on the Wild Side accuses The Elephant Sanctuary, a legitimate, GFAS-accredited sanctuary for retired performing elephants, of being “PETA/HSUS”, even though it has no affiliation with either group. The poster’s suggestion that A Walk on the Wild Side model their responsible behavior by not exploiting animals is dismissed as an “uneducated opinion.”
This person posted a link to a news article about A Walk on the Wild Side’s Canby location being shut down due to multiple code violations and urged the Portland Rose Festival to reconsider hosting their exhibit. A Walk on the Wild Side rejected the contents of the article as another “opinion” and mocked the poster, calling her an “uneducated hateful person.”
Here, A Walk on the Wild Side admits that they are not a sanctuary, while shaming and threatening the original reviewer for “online bullying” and leaving a “false review”.
Unfortunately, A Walk on the Wild Side’s online hostility often extends to the real world. There have been multiple reports of A Walk on the Wild Side staff responding to fairgoers’ honest questions and concerns with rude and threatening language that occasionally turns into physical violence. Google reviewers frequently mention that the staff are “mean“, and one mother who visited the exhibit at a festival complained that she was “screamed at by the most repulsive, delusional, and disgusting woman I have ever met.” Another reviewer states that they “happily berate anyone who might disagree or ask a question about the morality of what they do… …they support animals in the circus, and only laugh when you ask about their stance on the abuse those animals go through.” A patron who tried to film the conditions the animals were living in reports being forcibly “escorted out” of the exhibit, and one of A Walk on the Wild Side’s staff recently bragged on Facebook about telling a concerned patron “that he sounds like a PETA freak who needs to be kicked in the nuts!”
When a group of animal welfare activists asked Cheryl Jones and Steve Higgs some honest questions about the living conditions of their animals at a 2009 fair, “the only answer they could give was attempting to shout us down and threats of calling 911. Cheryl Jones then struck me and could only respond to us by calling us “PETA lovers” and claiming they were “educating children about animals.” When Canby police arrived Cheryl and Steve demanded we be arrested. Canby police politely upheld our first amendment rights.”
Connections with roadside zoos and the pet trade:
Responsible sanctuaries do not breed more animals for a lifetime of captivity or support the underregulated private trade which is driving the captive big cat crisis. But in a newsletter published by the deceptively-named Feline Conservation Federation; a group which advocates for the “right” of private individuals to breed, own, and use exotic cats for entertainment; an employee of Walk on the Wild Side states that their facility’s goal is to “…advocate for private ownership and continue our mission of healthy captive breeding.”
A Walk on the Wild Side is very connected with private breeders and roadside zoos, including the notorious Joe Schreibvogel, and have bragged about their “breeding program” with unspecified overseas facilities. Its staff have directed prospective “pet” owners looking for a specific cat to their network of wild and exotic animal breeders, and A Walk on the Wild Side’s Facebook page has encouraged people to visit disreputable private zoos such as the Zoological Wildlife Foundation and Dade City Wild Things, calling them “great facilities.” Criticism of any of these “friends” is not tolerated. When a family member of A Walk on the Wild Side employee posted a Facebook comment concerned about screaming tiger cubs being forced to “swim” with tourists at Dade City Wild Things, the employee explained that the abusive attraction “is a friend” of their facility and responded with this rant:
“Do you support our allowing the public to get a picture with a lion/tiger cub? And these people paying? And often [our cubs] cry…it’s not “crying” it’s literally the form of communication. And have you not seen the “negative” comments our fB page had received lately? Lots of negatives. And no they don’t list themselves as “PETA” but clearly they are uneducated individuals who are following along like sheep. Leaving bogus, false, comments/accusations on individuals Business pages, should be illegal! FYI I picked up Kira [a tiger cub], at the age of 4 weeks [from Dade City’s Wild Things]. Along with her sibling who went to West Coast Game Park. If your post such comments on my page, about fellow animal facilities that we support then I’m deleting you. Cause frankly, Cheryl would not approve of such things being posted either. You saying/posting what you are makes us look bad as well. And FYI we ourselves plan (in the future) tiger swims. I hope you or none of your family ask for one, as I will remind you of your comments.”
To sum it up, this “sanctuary” openly advocates for the private breeding and exploitation of exotic animals, houses them in substandard conditions, and bullies anyone who questions their practices or their industry. Events that host them are supporting the private ownership and trade of endangered big cats, and NOT a responsible rescue.
A Walk on the Wild Side in the News
A Defiant Couple Is Caging Big Cats in the Portland Suburbs. Should Anybody Stop Them?
The animal lovers behind this nonprofit say they are farmers. What kind of farmers? Tiger farmers.
Customers, like these Jackson County fairgoers, can pay $30 to pose for photos holding tiger cub Zarah. Higgs says the photo ops help condition the cat to enjoy interacting with humans, and they help pay for the cub’s expensive formula. (Shelby Snow)
By Katie Shepherd |
Published July 26 at 5:34 AM Updated July 26 at 5:34 AM
Two months ago, Jones and her partner, Steve Higgs, moved much of their family business to an old horse farm outside Hillsboro. Parts of the 80-acre property can be seen just south of Highway 26, but most of the land is tucked behind the tree line.
“No Trespassing” signs line the half-mile gravel driveway. A metal security gate flanked by two stone lions blocks visitors from the farmhouse where Jones and Higgs have set up shop.
Jones and Higgs run one of Oregon’s odder nonprofits: A Walk on the Wild Side, a charity whose purpose, according to tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, is “educational.” Its mission: to house exotic animals and transport them in a fifth-wheeler up and down the West Coast to county fairs and birthday parties. Higgs manages the business of the nonprofit. Jones is the self-taught animal handler.
Since their move to Hillsboro in May, Jones and Higgs have stirred up the largely rural neighborhood. A Walk on the Wild Side’s new home sits among properties that are typically more than 80 acres in size, and are home to blueberry fields and horse stables. But it’s also less than a four-minute drive to a McDonald’s and a Subway. In other words, it sits at the edge of regional planning agency Metro’s urban growth boundary.
A number of neighbors say Jones is a menace. Former neighbors say she keeps her animals in cages too small. Washington County planning officers say she’s flouting regulations. Her landlord, on the other hand, calls her a freedom fighter.
Jones herself? She says she and her husband are misunderstood. “Come and see us at a fair,” she says. “Come and talk to us. Don’t just think that we’re the most terrible people who walk this earth.”
Just don’t ask to visit their new home.
This much is certain: At dusk in Washington County, the roar of lions can be heard from more than a mile away.
That’s because Jones and Higgs are assembling one of the largest collections of big cats in the state. Their farm, a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland, holds nearly twice as many lions and tigers as the Oregon Zoo.
No government official has inspected the property since they moved the cats in. Jones and Higgs declined to allow WW to see the animals, saying the publicity could embolden regulators trying to shut them down.
For two decades, allegations of animal neglect and insufficient safeguards have dogged the couple—part of the reason they left their previous location, in Canby, 26 miles south of Portland along 1-5. But those complaints, often filed by neighbors, have almost never been substantiated. In fact, the couple have only once been cited for criminal animal neglect, in 2002, and the charges were later dropped.
Yet their new home could be short-lived, for reasons that stem not from animal welfare protections but land-use laws. In June, Washington County officials sent Jones and Higgs notice that the property they are now renting for A Walk on the Wild Side isn’t zoned for exotic animal exhibits. It can only be used as a farm.
Jones and Higgs, who have several decades’ experience dealing with adversaries, say—with completely straight faces—that’s exactly what it is. A farm.
And what are they farming? Tiger poop.
Zarah, a 3-month-old Bengal tiger cub, has spent most of her short life on the road: the Stockton County Fair in California, the Jackson County Fair in Southern Oregon, and Portland’s own Rose Festival.
Because she’s still so small—45 pounds, about twice the size of a housecat—she gets to sit in the cab of Jones and Higgs’ van and sleep with them in hotel rooms. Jones feeds her formula from a bottle.
At each stop, A Walk on the Wild Side charges fairgoers $30 to pick Zarah up from behind and hoist her into the air, like Simba being offered to the sun in The Lion King.
Jones and Higgs also take cubs to birthday parties and other private events, charging $200 to add a tiger to elaborate photo ops with partygoers dressed as Aladdin and Jasmine.
On occasion, they waive the fee. Mindy Hegstad’s son Jay is terminally ill with a rare genetic condition. Hegstad, who lives in Longview, Wash., called Higgs recently and asked if he would bring one of his big cats to Jay’s 11th birthday party on July 1. Higgs brought Zarah for free.
“This birthday was a miracle. We didn’t think he was going to make it,” Hegstad says. “Jay got to hold the tiger and feed the tiger its bottle. The tiger was just freaking adorable and so well-behaved.”
Cheryl Jones rescued her first animal when she was 12 years old and living on a Portland houseboat with her family, which had moved there from Pasadena, Calif. It was a seagull with a fishhook in its beak.
Ever since then, she’s been in love with wild animals.
Jones and Higgs look as if they could be twins: straw blond-haired, tanned and clad in matching black polo shirts with a lion and tiger embroidered on the breast pocket.
The pair met 37 years ago at a Portland riding stable. She had worked as an operations manager at horse and greyhound racetracks. He had studied to become a physician’s assistant but dropped out of school to take care of his kids when his first marriage fell apart.
When they moved in together in Sandy, people started bringing them farm animals. At first, it was donkeys, horses and goats that had been abandoned by their owners.
But in 1987, they took in a cougar from the litter of a friend’s cat.
“A friend of ours asked us if we would bottle-raise one of her cougars,” Higgs recalls. “It took off from there.”
Keeping a big cat is perfectly legal.
There are more tigers in American backyards than in the jungles of Asia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses about 2,600 animal exhibitors nationally, including roadside zoos, circuses and private rescue organizations. A Walk on the Wild Side is one of them—and has been since the early 1990s.
In 2011, Oregon lawmakers stopped issuing permits to people who wanted to own exotic animals as pets, after a number of high-profile escapes and maulings nationwide. But because Jones and Higgs were already licensed by the USDA, they were grandfathered in. Not only could they keep their animals, they could take in new ones.
By then, Jones and Higgs had settled in Canby, on 72 leased acres. They began taking in strays in earnest—both animals and people.
Jennifer McCall Ricke, a Clackamas County medical assistant, volunteered at A Walk on the Wild Side when she was a teenager in the early 2000s. She says Jones and Higgs would often provide lodging for their volunteers, many of whom were otherwise homeless.
“They’re good people,” she says. “Some people think that they’re not because of what they do, but you just have to get to know them.”
In 2002, Jones and Higgs brought home their first tiger, Shere Khan. And in 2009, A Walk on the Wild Side registered as a nonprofit. According to the nonprofit’s tax returns, no one takes a salary or stipend from the organization’s revenues, including Jones and Higgs.
The money that A Walk on the Wild Side brings in from fairs, parties and photo ops—between $250,000 and $350,000 a year in recent years—helps pay for care of the animals, Higgs says.
“These animals are like our kids,” says Higgs, who manages the nonprofit’s business side. “We’re not making money off these guys. All the money that we earn, that’s keeping these guys alive.”
Anna Frostic, an attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, questions whether A Walk on the Wild Side is a charity or just a hobby.
Frostic helped author a 2012 petition to the USDA asking for tighter restrictions on who may own exotic animals. She says A Walk on the Wild Side was mentioned twice in that petition for allowing thousands of strangers to hold, bottle-feed and pose for photos with baby tigers.
Frostic says A Walk on the Wild Side’s justifications—that it is educating the public and training cubs to embrace human interaction—was “a common song we hear from unaccredited roadside zoos across the country.”
Since 2009, Higgs and Jones have been dogged by complaint calls, often from neighbors going to the Clackamas County sheriff about undernourished horses and dirty cages. The sheriff’s office and Canby police say they have responded to 83 calls regarding the property during the past nine years.
“It is an unusually high number of calls for a single property,” says Deputy Brian Jensen.
In August 2009, Joanna Derungs, who lived nearby, called to report eight horses that looked too thin.
“I drove by there every day and saw the horses’ health deteriorate,” Derungs recalls. “I finally decided to do something about it. This was so obvious because the horses were getting sick and laying down and probably dying.”
Jones acknowledges that inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture came out to look at their horses several times after calls like that—but she was never cited for neglect. (She says sometimes she’d take in sick, undernourished horses to treat and fatten them up.)
In fact, records show Jones and Higgs have actually been cited only a handful of times by the USDA, for insufficient fencing, dirty cages and improper paperwork. Jones says all of those problems were minor and fixed.
By 2012, Jones and Higgs had accumulated several lions and tigers, letting the public come and view the animals in their cages for $5 per person. Many of their early visitors also came for an annual pumpkin patch.
One of those visitors was John Robinson, who came to the property in October 2013. He told WW he was so shocked by the conditions he witnessed—specifically, small, filthy cages—that he called the sheriff. So did another visitor, Christine Smith.
“The last Halloween trip we took the kids there, it wasn’t very clean,” Smith says. “There was a lion, I think, or a cougar, a bunch of different rodent-type things, birds, chickens, skunks, different types of wild animals. They were stinky and nasty-looking. I’m never going back there again.”
Clackamas County never found much to support the claims of animal neglect. But officials did start bugging Jones and Higgs about code violations.
In 2014, Andrea Hall and Kim Priest, code enforcement coordinators for Clackamas County, inspected the property. She found piles of garbage leaning against animal cages. The fencing around the bear’s cage had been built without a permit. A barn had been converted into a reptile house, but the electrical work for lamps that kept the cold-blooded animals alive was installed without a permit, had not been inspected and left wires exposed. People were living in two unlicensed RVs that the county deemed illegally occupied.
“I don’t think I’ve run into a case with such a variety of animals,” Hall now says.
Higgs says the violations were nitpicky and designed to unfairly target A Walk on the Wild Side. “She was just like a pit bull going after us,” he says. “If one thing didn’t work, then she would just come up with another thing.”
For more than a year, Clackamas County sent letters to Jones and Higgs about the zoning violations, which were upheld. By November 2014, the couple decided to shut down their public zoo and started traveling more often to county fairs, typically bringing tiger cubs and cougars.
About a year later, the Canby property they were renting was sold to a new owner. Fortunately, a wealthy patron had already invited them to Hillsboro.
He met Jones and Higgs at a local fair. When he heard they needed to move, he offered them a lease. And he says their battles with regulators in Canby motivated him to help.
“No matter what you’re trying to do, whether you’re trying to help kids or help animals, there’s always someone who is going to try to stop you these days,” Emmert says, sitting behind a conference table at his Clackamas hauling company, Emmert International. “No man’s life, property or liberty is safe while we have unrealistic regulations.”
In March 2015, a full year before Higgs and Jones began their move, Washington County officials say they informed their real estate agent that the land wasn’t zoned for wild animals—it could only be used as a farm.
Rita Howard, who has lived nearby on her family farm in rural Hillsboro since 1966, was aware of the restriction. Which is why she was surprised in May when she heard lions roaring.
“It almost sounded like a cow calling its calf,” Howard recalls, “but no, that’s not a cow.”
Standing on a neighbor’s truck bed, she realized it was the sound of big cats. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding me?'” Howard says. “They were told they couldn’t move in there. How could that be?”
In early June, Tom Harry, a code enforcer for Washington County, got the first call about lions roaring nightly. He sent a cease-and-desist letter June 23 informing A Walk on the Wild Side that it could not keep wild animals.
Jones and Higgs’ attorney, Geordie Duckler, doesn’t dispute that the couple is keeping exotic animals in Hillsboro. But he argued to Washington County in a June 28 letter that the nonprofit may keep big cats on the property because A Walk on the Wild Side meets the legal definition of a farm.
“They’ve got livestock,” Duckler tells WW. “They’re raising poultry. They’re selling other animal products. They’re not operating like an attraction.”
To be considered a farm under Oregon law, A Walk on the Wild Side must produce an agricultural product. Duckler and his clients say they have one: tiger and lion dung.
“By raising these tigers, they of course have poop that [we] extract,” Higgs says. “That is being used by farmers to keep the coyotes out and the cougars out. They smell that scent, and they don’t want anything to do with a tiger.”
Higgs says he has a dozen clients buying tiger dung. Among them are cattle and sheep ranchers—but he says the biggest market is cannabis growers who want to keep pests out of their crop.
Steve Pedery, who studies native predators as conservation director for the environmental nonprofit Oregon Wild, doesn’t think tiger poop would help ranchers much. “I am dubious that exotic cat dung would do much to deter wolves or coyotes,” he wrote in an email. “In the case of wolves, I’d fear it might actually serve as an attractant.”
Washington County officials don’t have a ready answer for Jones and Higgs’ argument.
“This is the first we’ve heard about them selling manure,” says county land-use spokeswoman Melissa DeLyser. She says the county’s lawyer “would have to do some legal research to determine whether manure from an exotic animal is a farm use.”
In 2013, Jones told Clackamas County officials that A Walk on the Wild Side owned sheep, goats, miniature cows, alpacas, pigs, horses, donkeys, rabbits, cavies (a large rodent), birds, kinkajous, lemurs, monkeys, bobcats, servals, caracals, a lynx, a fox, tigers, lions, a leopard, and hundreds of reptiles.
Jones and Higgs tells WW that most of these animals have been moved to Hillsboro—including the big cats: seven tigers and five lions. (The Oregon Zoo has six lions and one tiger.)
They are seeking more.
Jones claims to have one of the world’s few purebred Barbary lionesses and and has partnered her with a mate, hoping for cubs. She says she’s talking with zoos that aim to preserve the species, including the San Diego Zoo. (Neither the San Diego Zoo nor the Association of Zoos and Aquariums had any recollection of Jones.)
Jones also says she is successfully breeding smaller cats like servals and Canada lynx, and other animals like cavies and wallabies.
“Sometimes we feel like, ‘God, we’re the only ones out there trying to do anything and help with this,'” Higgs says. “We’re working hard to make sure that our children’s children’s children are going to be able to see these cats.”
The couple is adamant that they are an open book. For almost two weeks, Higgs told WW that a reporter would be welcome to tour the farm, to see how carefully it’s being run. But last week, Duckler said abruptly that WW would not be allowed on the property.
When WW traveled to Jones and Higgs’ property this week to ask follow-up questions, a reporter was not allowed to view the animals.
Jones says that’s because they’re gearing up for a battle with Washington County and don’t want to give their opponents any ammunition.
“We’d love to have you,” she says. “I have nothing whatsoever to hide, but we’ve kind of got a gun to our head.”
Howard, their Hillsboro neighbor, remains worried.
“I’m an animal lover,” she says. “I’m just opposed to the sneakiness. To me, that means they’re hiding something.”
Jones and Higgs laugh at the idea that neighbors should be alarmed at the prospect of their tigers escaping.
“If they got out, they’re not going to go far,” Jones says. “They’re going to come to us. Tigers are the biggest chicken animals you’ve ever seen in your life.”
“We have Chihuahuas that will chase our tigers away,” Higgs adds.
A Walk on the Wild Side’s next exhibit starts July 26 at the Hood River County Fair. Next month, it’ll be a featured attraction at the Clark County Fair in Ridgefield, Wash.
Washington County planning officials say they still don’t know their next move.
This story is published in the July 26 print edition of WW with the headline, “The Tiger Farmer.”
and why can’t he be found under any of these names he uses in USDA’s records?
He is licensed in Florida to operate out of a Sarasota P.O. Box under ESA # 16769 which was issued on 10/2/11 with his location listed as P.O. Box 1418 Sarasota, FL 34230-1418 and a phone number of 941.938.2138. His Florida state license states that he and Georgina Donoho are at 14969 Beckett Road in Seagoville, TX 75159. His email address is listed as firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2004 he reportedly had a USDA license issued to Clyde Bros Johnson Circus Seagoville TX using that same email address above but there is no current USDA license number in that name or any of his other names listed here. He was said by USDA to have had 6 tigers back in 2004.
Despite having a traveling show that appears at second rate fairs there is no explanation for how he is displaying tigers legally. None of the reporters who have covered his appearances have done their homework to find out who he is, whether or not he is actually licensed to be taking tigers out in public and if so, under what name.
On a circus site I was able to discern that Georgina Donoho AKA Pom Pom Donoho was a circus performer and upon searching her name discovered this little old lady has a USDA license in her name 58-C-0788 and, low and behold, it is registered to the same P.O. Box 1418 Sarasota, FL 34230-1418.
In Nov 2011 Vincent Von Dukes AKA Georgina Donoho cited for an inadequate perimeter fence at their P.O. Box (no location given) and the report said they had just acquired new lion and tiger cubs and did not have vet care guidance for them. The report gave them until December 2011 to correct the dilapidated fence, but there was no follow up inspection or report. The inspection said that they should send in photos of their traveling act cage, but compliance is unknown.
In the following video you can see the cats shying away from him and skulking away in fear. How can anyone clap or call this entertainment?
This act features one male and one female African lion, two female tigers and one white female tiger.
Vince Von Duke’s wife, Pom Pom Donoho, can be seen to the left of the screen. She conducts various duties during the performance to include hooking up the 20 lb. propane tank for the FLAMING HOOP portion of the act. This was shot in Canton, Ohio on March 24, 2018 at the 7:30 show. This circus was produced by HAMID CIRCUS for TADMOR SHRINE of Canton. VINCENT VON DUKE performed in Dayton, Ohio in February, 2018 with a circus produced by TARZAN ZERBINI for Shriners. Please tell the Shriners that you won’t support them as long as they promote abuse in the name of family fun.
In Vincent Von Dukes April 2011 inspection report there was no adult available to allow an inspection and apparently no itinerary filed with USDA. Traveling acts are supposed to file an itinerary with USDA so that USDA can send an inspector to the location where the animals will be performing if there are complaints. Most traveling acts only send these right before traveling because they do not want animal protection groups to know where they will be exploiting animals.
A woman was killed by one of the lions that Kevin Richardson was walking. The lioness ran away from Richardson and two miles down the road came across a woman who was leaving an interview to get in her car and killed her. Some of the better articles on this tragedy:
Can we now stop hearing people talk about how he has a special bond with lions? Sheesh.
This article did a good job on the subject of how showing off with big cats is not conservation: https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/close-interaction-with-captive-lions-is-not-conservation-13980900
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Kevin Richardson says he loves his cats however, we feel that what he does is not only dangerous but is incredibly irresponsible and selfish. What he does sets a horrible example.
With his WORDS he says big cats are not pets but with his ACTIONS he makes people want to touch and play with big cats, and their babies. People pay more attention to actions than they do words.
When people see facilities or exhibits that pimp cubs out for petting and photo schemes they will pay to participate in those because people like Kevin Richardson make it look like so much fun. They want people to think they are a “Lion Whisperer” too.
Facilities in Africa that pimp cubs for petting and photos like that sell them to canned hunts when they are too big to be used that way. That means many of those cubs end up suffering the same fate that Cecil Lion did.
In America, and other countries, the bad guys breed a steady stream of big cat cubs to be pimped out for the public to pay to play with. When those cubs get too big to be used like that their futures are pretty bleak.
The cub pay to play and photo schemes are at the very root of so many big cats suffering. Learn more at CubTruth.com
Another point to consider is petting big cats and their babies can result in the cats’ death. A tragic story unfolded that is the perfect example of that:
In Springfield, Missouri a three week old bobcat kitten was found. The man took her to a rehabber there. The man who brought her to the rehabber ignorantly stuck his hand in her crate. The terrified little bobcat kitten bit him. Six days later, the Missouri Greene County Health Dept. stepped in, took the kitten, killed her, cut off her head, and sent her brain out to be rabies tested. The kitten did not have rabies.
Big Cat Rescue did everything they could to prevent it and many of their fans spoke out in an effort to save the healthy bobcat kitten. BCR offered to pay for the thousands of dollars in rabies shots, if the man would take them instead of having the kitten killed. Sadly in the end, the precious little kitten lost her life because a human just had to stick his hand in with her because the law stated that ANY time an exotic animal was involved in a bite, they must be killed and tested for rabies. There is no quarantine time, like in dogs and cats, because no one has ever studied the incubation time of rabies in exotics.
Big Cat Rescue will not risk the lives of the cats there for a selfish desire to touch them. They are also are committed to ending the suffering of big cats and their babies and believe firmly that setting an example by actions, not just by words is important to achieve that goal.
3/2/18 Magistrate Judge Amanda Sandone ruled; After a “calculated and deliberately deceptive” plot to evacuate tigers from their zoo in the middle of an animal welfare lawsuit, a federal judge on Friday ruled Dade City’s Wild Things should never be allowed to possess tigers again. The ruling confirms that Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns, her husband, Kenneth, and son, Randall, violated a court order in July by transporting 19 tigers to Oklahoma to avoid a site inspection by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a 1,200-mile haul where one female gave birth and all three cubs died.
Oct 5, 2017 Today, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced it has filed suit against Dade City’s Wild Things, a zoo in Dade City, and three of its corporate officers. The department seeks to shut down fundraising efforts by Dade City’s Wild Things based on the department’s investigation involving illicit fundraising and financial issues.
Based on the department’s investigation, Stearns Zoological Rescue and Rehab Center Inc. and Dade City’s Wild Things Inc. solicited contributions, purportedly for the purpose of caring for animals at the zoo and for broader, in-field conservation efforts. However, nonprofit funds were routinely transferred to the for-profit entity, Stearns Peat C Inc. A financial analysis of one year showed over $200,000 of nonprofit funds were transferred to the for-profit entity. Randall Stearns, Kathryn Stearns and Kenneth Stearns are corporate officers and/or directors of the listed entities and acted in concert to solicit contributions.
Based on the department’s investigation, the defendants allegedly violated Chapter 496, Florida Statutes, by:
Transferring large amounts of nonprofit funds to a for-profit entity to be used for for-profit and personal expenses;
Compensating corporate officers and directors after disclosing that such persons were uncompensated in their official filings with the department;
Soliciting contributions without being registered with the department (even after receiving a cease and desist order);
Falsely stating that contributions were tax deductible when their 501(c) status had been revoked years before;
Failing to apply contributions in a manner consistent with that indicated in solicitations;
Failing to provide documents requested by the department; submitting false information in response to an investigation; and
Allowing a disqualified individual to be involved in solicitation efforts and to handle contributions.
Despite direct court order forbidding Kathy Stearns from disposing of the 22 tigers, she apparently sends them to GW Zoo in Oklahoma on either the evening of July 14 or sometime on July 15, 2017. See the court order. Joe Schreibvogel admits during his Facebook LIVE broadcast that the 19 tigers who arrived on July 16, 2017 were from Kathy Stearns. He later took the video off Facebook.
(CN) – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has set its sights on a private Florida zoo that allows visitors personal interaction with cute and cuddly tiger cubs.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Tampa, PETA claims Dade City’s Wild Things and its owners are violating the Endangered Species Act.
The complaint, peppered with eyewitness accounts and references to previous federal violations, takes aim at the zoo’s programs that allow patrons to handle, pet and swim with tiger cubs. Read PeTA vs Dade City Wild Things
Dade City’s Wild Things holds more than 200 animals, including primates and reptiles, on 22 acres of land in Pasco County, Florida.
Among its draws are opportunities for up-close interactions with tiger cubs, baby alligators and monkeys, including a chance to swim with them.
Under Florida law, patrons can only have contact with tigers under 25 pounds.
The zoo’s owners — Kathryn Stearns and her son, Randall Stearns — are also named as defendants.
According to the lawsuit, Dade City’s Wild Things staff forced cubs to interact with patrons by forcibly grabbing the animals and not allowing them to escape.
PETA also claims the cubs are prematurely separated from their mothers and suffer under bad conditions.
“The Endangered Species Act prohibits harming and harassing tigers,” said Brittany Peet, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement. “They are putting profit over the animals’ lives.”
By separating the cubs from mothers — as early as three weeks, according to the complaint — the zoo is setting the tigers up for a “lifetime of cruelty,” Peet said.
Once the cubs are too large to play with, she added, they are relegated to tiny enclosures or sold to other “roadside attractions.”
“As a result there are untold thousands — some put the number at 10,000 — of grown tigers in the U.S. completely unregulated,” Peet said. “Meanwhile, tigers are endangered in the wild.”
Since 2010, the U.S. Agriculture Department has issued several official warnings to the zoo for alleged violations ranging from inadequate shelter and veterinary care to mishandling of the tigers.
In these warnings federal regulators detailed several instances of alleged mistreatment of the tiger cubs, including the painting of their fur. On one occasion, Stearns pulled a tiger’s tail and held him up by his neck, the department said.
After learning of this last incident, the Agriculture Department filed an administrative complaint against the zoo under the Animal Welfare Act, the complaint says.
“Despite having received multiple inspection reports identifying noncompliance with the regulations and failures to comply with the standards, and the receipt of an official warning, respondent has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease, and harm,” the government says.
That litigation (see below) is still pending.
In addition to the extensive regulatory record, PETA also cites eyewitness accounts, including one from a former employee, of alleged abuse at the attraction.
End the abuse by ending private ownership of big cats at BigCatAct.com
“Over many months, witnesses observed Dade City’s Wild Things staff repeatedly holding onto and pulling the tiger cubs by the cubs’ tails; grabbing the cubs by the skin on the back of their necks; pulling them by the front feet; pinching their ears and nose; and even slamming their bodies to the ground,” the complaint says.
PASCO COUNTY, Fla. -A Pasco County man who helps run a popular zoo is facing sexual misconduct charges involving children. Randy Stearns calls himself “The Tiger Man.” He is listed on the web as President and Head Trainer for Dade City’s Wild Things. But now the Tampa native is facing disturbing charges in St. Charles County, Missouri. According to a grand jury indictment, Stearns exposed himself to three girls under the age of 15 on June 25th, 2016.
The indictment filed in September lists eight counts of sexual misconduct alleged to have happened at the Embassy Suites hotel where Stearns was staying for a convention. It says Stearns exposed himself as the girls got off the elevator and headed towards their room. According to investigators, the victims went back in the hallway 10 minutes later and Stearns was still there with his penis exposed through the zipper of his jeans.
The victims say he tired to get closer to them and kept talking to them. During the investigation, it was reported Stearns exposed himself in his room to someone only identified by initials. This incident allegedly happened earlier in the evening. Stearns has been in the public eye in recent years as Dade City Wild Things made headlines for its close encounter attraction with baby tigers. That includes the controversial practice of swimming with them.
Pasco County, Fla. – Below, please find a statement from PETA Foundation Director of Litigation Caitlin Hawks regarding the guilty plea by Randy Stearns, former president of Dade City’s Wild Things, to two counts of misdemeanor sexual misconduct for exposing his genitals “under circumstances in which he … [knew] that [such] conduct [was] likely to cause affront or alarm” stemming from a 2016 indictment in Missouri:
Legal woes are mounting for Randy Stearns and the notorious Dade City’s Wild Things operated by his parents. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is suing them over alleged fraudulent fundraising, the USDA has sued the roadside zoo over numerous animal-welfare violations, and a PETA lawsuit filed against Stearns, his mother, and the roadside zoo over alleged cruelty to endangered tigers has already prompted a motion to hold them in contempt for shipping 19 tigers across the country, during which time three newborn cubs died. PETA is calling on the Stearnses to end their cruel tiger cub “encounters” and retire the animals at the facility to reputable sanctuaries.
PETA’s motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to use for entertainment,” and more information about Dade City’s Wild Things is available here.
USDA Sues Dade City Wild Things
The complaint, linked below states:
The gravity of the violations alleged in this complaint is great, involving multiple failures to handle animals carefully and to provide access for inspection.
February 23, 2012 The Official Warning stated: “After providing you with an opportunity for a hearing, we may impose civil penalties of up to $10,000, or other sanctions, for each violation described in this Official Warning. Although we generally pursue penalties for this type of violation(s ), we have decided not to pursue penalties in this instance so long as you comply, in the future, with laws that APHIS enforces.”
5. Respondent has not shown good faith. Despite having received multiple inspection reports identifying noncompliance with the Regulations and failures to comply with the Standards, and the receipt of an Official Warning, respondent has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease, and harm.
If you have first hand knowledge of abuse at Dade City Wild Things please contact:
COLLEEN A. CARROLL Attorney for Complainant Office of the General Counsel United States Department of Agriculture 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W. Room 2343 South Building Washington, D.C. 20250-1400 Telephone (202) 720-6430 Fax (202) 690-4299 email@example.com
The vet for Dade City’s Wild Things, who defended her at trial, is Dr. Don Woodman of Safety Harbor.
News Reports Based on USDA’s Lawsuit Against Kathy Stearns’ Dade City Wild Things
Kathy Stearns got international attention for her pay to play scheme whereby tiger cubs are pushed into water over their heads so that they will swim to the paying customer and cling for dear life. The only good to come of this is that it also drew international attention to the fact that USDA and the Florida Wildlife Commission have allowed this kind of cruel treatment. The outcry has been loud and fierce, and maybe now the government will do their jobs of enforcing animal welfare laws.
The most obvious problem with this activity is that exploiters have to have a constant supply of cubs that are small enough to use for petting, photo and swim with the tigers type commerce. So where do the cubs end up when they get too big to use?
Here is the story that the news should be researching: During an inspection in May 2012, the USDA counted 12 tigers. Four months later, in September 2012, the USDA counted 19 tigers. The cubs who were being used in the Good Morning America piece that aired 10/9/12 were Tony, the youngest tiger who was screaming for help during the interview, and Tarzan who was far too big to be used for this sort of activity, but on a leash, in the pool, none the less.
In late 2011 the cubs being used for pay to play and swim with the tigers were name Rauri and Rajha. On Oct 4, 2010 the 20 lb white tiger cub was named Diamond. Wondering where they are now? Probably in these barren, muddy cages at Dade City’s Wild Things:
End the abuse by ending private ownership of big cats at BigCatAct.com
This unsolicited letter reported conditions that we think are deplorable. What is most concerning is that USDA has been copied and has yet to do anything about it.
“Last month (June 2015) I went on a one-day group bus trip to WILD THINGS in Dade City, FL. We took their “Jungle Safari Ride” and what we saw was enough to make us sick! The place was nothing like your facility.
There was cage after cage of big cats, mostly Bengal tigers, kept in pathetic condition. A large Siberian tiger was kept in a cage with no shelter from the searing Florida sun or the torrential afternoon thunderstorms and recent flooding with not even a wooden deck He was laying in mud!
A surplus of other tigers were in cages on cement slabs with a barrel type shelter that could only hold one animal at a time. In a cage by itself, a young tiger had access to an in-ground kiddie pool filled with cloudy, green water.
In another area were ponies and a donkey. Although there was shade, all of these animal’s ribs were visible. Driving on, we saw a rectangular cage housing 4 coyotes. The cage was set up in the sun on a cement slab. The cage was divided by a closed fence. 2/3 of the area was occupied by 2 coyotes with no shelter and the other 1/3 was occupied by 2 coyotes and two “dog houses” taking up most of the area. These poor creatures were forced to run back and forth in their own urine and feces. The odor was horrific and they all seemed to be frantic.
NONE OF THE ANIMALS ABOVE HAD WATER IN THEIR CAGES!!!
As we moved along we saw two different species of foxes displayed in a cage on the back of a pickup truck. There was also no water and shelter for only one fox. The trolley then passed a large, fenced area and we were told that it was a sinkhole. The water in this sinkhole was stagnant with green stuff all over the top and probably breeding millions of mosquitos. Around the narrow edge of this sinkhole, were two llamas. Their drinking water was beneath the green stuff. With recent flooding, they probably already drowned. We saw cages of small monkeys and baboons with no enrichments or water. A lone zebra with an open neck wound was housed in a pen. Two ring tailed lemurs were kept in a small cage with shelter for only one at a time. We were told at the beginning of our tour that we were not allowed to take pictures. The guide emphasized
NO PHOTOS OR YOU WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE!
Most of the animals were suffering from cage syndrome, mindlessly pacing back and forth. We didn’t go to the Petting Zoo so I don’t know what conditions prevailed in that area.
I emailed PETA and they replied that they contacted the USDA and advised me to do the same thing, which I did. I sent a letter to the I Team Investigators at ABC-TV Action News, the Dade City and Pasco County Humane Societies, The St Petersburg Times and the Humane Society of the United States, vets at both Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens without any response to date. Enclosed is the reply from PETA.
I posted a blurb on Travel Advisor and it is there for all to see, along too many others who shared my experience. Can you direct me to somewhere or someone who can bring this blatant abuse to and end now?
I am a Florida resident also and this is happening in our back yard! Take a ride on the “Jungle Safari Ride” and see for yourself. This place must be shut down and the animals placed in a more humane setting. These regal and innocent animals are languishing in a living hell and if we don’t do something….who will?
Thank you for your time and I look forward to a favorable response.
Very truly yours, ******”
Note: We withheld the name and contact info of this person, but they revealed it to the authorities and have asked the authorities to contact them.
You can help!
Do you remember other names of cubs who were used at Dade City’s Wild Things? If so, please put the name, tiger or lion, and the year the animal was a cub in the comments section below.
Kathy Stearns Zoo Slapped with Official Warning Letter from USDA
Cited for improper fencing, inadequate veterinary care and improper cub handling among other things.
Despite warning Dade City’s Wild Things began hyping a new baby tiger and encouraging people to book their Swim with a Tiger exploit between august 30 through September 15. 2012 before the pool water gets too cold. If you know where she got this cub from, please post in the comments below.
On April 11, 2012 Dade City’s Wild Things was offering pay to play with three female tiger cubs who they said had been born three weeks prior.
On Aug 30, 2012 Dade City’s Wild Things was offering pay to play with a new tiger cub, saying that they could only do so until Sept 2012.
In an effort to catalog all of the cubs they have bred or bought for this purpose, please note in the comments section if you know dates when they had cubs for public contact.
We wouldn’t suggest eating there either
DCWT regularly purchases tiger and lion cubs and exploits them to make money. The cubs are taken from their mothers shortly after birth by the breeders. This is a torment to both mother and cub, like it would be to any mammal species. Then, once Stearns gets them, a former volunteer who was charged with walking them reports on what she was told to do as follows: “The cub was playful. It wanted to play bite, jump on my leg. I was told that if it did that I was to grab it by the scruff and toss it to the ground and hold it there. All training was by punishing physically.” Stearns makes money from the cubs numerous ways. She carts them out to fairs or other venues where the cubs are awakened repeatedly for anyone who will pay to pet them or take photos with them. At her “zoo”, she charges for “encounters”. One kind of encounter involves forcing the cub into a swimming pool so paying customers can swim with the cub. Cubs don’t like holding still for petting sessions and photo opportunities. The swimming solves that problem for Stearns because the cubs has to swim for dear life. And, Stearns can charge much more for this.
Stearns claims it is legal to use the cubs this way until they are 40 pounds. Under Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission rules, if the employee relinquishes control, i.e. let’s you hold the cub, the legal weight is 25 pounds. Meantime, Stearns blatantly violates the federal policies established by USDA that cubs cannot be used for petting under 8 weeks old because their immune systems are not sufficiently developed and over 12 weeks old because they are dangerous. Unfortunately, enforcement of these rules is almost nonexistent. Stearns was finally cited by USDA for causing stress to cubs during pay to play swimming sessions on p/14/12. This was a repeat violation for improper animal handling.
In addition to exploiting the animals to make money and then keeping them in miserable conditions, Stearns has consistently demonstrated a lack of financial integrity and responsibility. She has been arrested for passing bad checks (Sept 7, 2011 Kathy Stearns’ Worthless Check Case) and individuals formerly associated with the facility indicate this has been a recurring practice. We are told she owes back pay to at least one former employee. Tax deeds have been issued for her failure to pay tax on the property (Kathryn Stearns Tax Warrant May 2011. More importantly and significantly for the future of the animals, the zoo property has been in foreclosure for years, with the proceedings delayed by a series of bankruptcy filings by Stearns and other individuals and entities (April 27, 2010 Kathryn P Stearns Foreclosure).
What happens after the cubs are too old to pet? They end up spending the rest of their lives in misery living in tiny cages.
Below is a video showing the abusive treatment of the cubs and how they live after Stearns can no longer exploit them to make money.
Below is one visitor’s detailed description of the misery they saw at Dade City’s Wild Things
A friend and I recently visited Dade City’s Wild Things. What we saw was amazing, in this day and age, but certainly NOT in a good way. Maybe if I recount our trip there, you’ll understand why.
At the converted gift shop, Mr. Stearns loaded up about 20 guests onto their trolley car for transportation to their home and “zoo” a few miles away. Each guest paid $22.95 for the tour and the majority eagerly paid another $20 for an “animal encounter” with a white tiger cub or a baby snow monkey to be included after the tour. There are no cameras or video cameras or filming of any kind allowed on the tour. When asked why, we were told that it’s because of those PETA people. They said that they have to remain constantly vigilant because those animal activists can always make trouble for them. I was soon to find out why.
Arriving at their home and surrounding grounds, your first impression is of beautiful rolling hills, towering oak trees hundreds of year’s old, lush, green landscapes. Then you begin to notice the cages. Though roosters, chicks, and dogs roam freely throughout their land, the animals that were born to do so have miniscule amounts of territory to call their own.
Kathy Stearns, the proprietor, gave the tour. Having served as a Florida Fish and Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee member, she believes strongly in private ownership and is against all bans. As she says on her blog, “I am proud of standing up for all exotic owners’ rights. (Serving on this committee) It sparked a great desire to work in spreading legislature(sic) issues because I experienced firsthand on(sic) how quickly our rights can be removed in working with non human primate owners in various other states like Pennsylvania where there is a ban on private ownership of non human primates.”
For a woman with a lifelong passion for wild animals and a beautiful piece of Florida property, we were expecting to see a collection of animals benefitting from both. How shocking to see the size of the cages where these animals spend every day of their lives. The first Old World and New World monkeys she introduced us to, no matter their size, looked like they were living in approx. 10’x10’ cages that many shared with others. No vegetation, no trees, no heights to climb. A plastic hanging baby swing was all that 2 monkeys had to play with in their small cage. The 2 baboons we saw much later in the tour looked as if they were living in a cell like we used to see in old, rundown zoos decades ago. Their human- like faces definitely betrayed the sadness of their captivity.
The hills were dotted with small, minimum size chain link cages. Two servals were on display in a 6’x12’ cage, most of their space taken up with a makeshift pool. The roosters and chicks clucked their way happily through the ferns and plants outside the serval cage while the servals couldn’t even be coaxed out to view. Though we were told they could jump 12-14’ in the wild, these 2 were contained in a cage that couldn’t have been 6’ high. Again, the irony of seeing something so majestic with so much agility in the wilds of Africa yet here contained in one of the smallest cages I’ve seen….but there was more to come.
Ahead and up a hill, we saw a large metal building with many chain link cages attached to it. We thought that surely these animals must have it better? They must have indoor AND outdoor facilities? This is where the big cats are housed. But, we were told that it was a maintenance and equipment building with no access for the animals. On one side of the building, 2 full grown Florida panthers are housed together in a long, skinny, dirt floor cage that looked to be about 10’x30’ and was attached to the side of the metal building with a low roof. There is a mural painted on the side of the building depicting typical Florida life with alligators and marshes. How I wished that was what life really consisted of for this unfortunate duo.
Around the other side of the building is where the big cats live. An enormous male lion and a female lioness live in an open-top, chain link fenced cage that had a single hot wire running along top. When someone commented how huge the animals were, all we could think of was how could they not be with so little room for exercise? Again, just a dirt floor with little, if anything, to make life interesting for them. No wonder the lioness bared her teeth at Kathy when she came close to her. Someone asked if the animals were neutered and Kathy said no. We wondered, is this where the babies for the encounters come from then? But that’s another story.
Right next door to the lion cage is a duo of tigers. Kathy said one was a Bengal weighing 1000 lbs. As we stood so close, I wondered just how strong is that chain link fence between that enormous tiger and me? He ran around and around in circles while his cage mate chased him. I held my breath and hoped the cage held tight. Chain link fences vs. 1000 lb. carnivores, I didn’t want to be anywhere near that competition!
In the background, I couldn’t help but notice a small round cage. Imagine the shape of a tin can but this is about 12’ in diameter and is barren except in the middle, where 2 wooden boxes are stacked up as den boxes. This tiny cage also had 2 full grown inhabitants – 2 cougars who I imagine tire of going round and round and round their entire lives with nothing to do, nothing to explore. It looked like the definition of boredom.
Behind us was another sparse, small, low-roofed cage where 2 magnificent jaguars lived – one golden and another a luxurious, velvety black. What struck us the most about this cage was how ironic that these tall, majestic oaks towered all around and yet, these 2 jaguars were panting in the hot enclosure with so little shade for them. If we were drenched in sweat and Kathy was lingering under a water mister to cool off, how hot must that black fur coat be for that jaguar? Though we had heard that Cypress Gardens closed down and their jaguar Sheba was transferred here, we didn’t see her. We were told she wouldn’t be seen on the tour. Where is she? What has happened to her? That’s all we kept thinking.
We saw a herd of deer that, honestly, had the best enclosure on the property, though it borders the street fence line. Then we saw the cages that really broke our hearts. Two beautiful black leopards were caged in a barren, long, narrow cage that had a couple of shelves mounted inside. One of the leopards was bald around his/her eyes, laid on one of the shelves, never lifted its head or moved, and stared blankly at us. Another definition for us – misery. The cage mate stood up and stretched to try to interact with Mr. Stearns. What baffled us was why weren’t these guests asking many questions, why weren’t they seeing the things we were seeing, or was it just that they were simply anticipating their moments with the babies – that’s all they really came for?
On we went to the baboon “cell” I mentioned before. They looked so human like, I couldn’t help but identify with them. I thought about how incredibly sad life would be if I were relegated to a cage like that forever? My feelings really sunk to a new low when I saw the small cage, behind theirs, that housed 2 extremely large bears. They were very social bears, coming over to the cage wall, sitting, spending time there while visitors gawked at them. At this point, it was hard not to cry, not to shout out, “doesn’t anyone else see something wrong with all of this?” But, when a guest asked “What’s your schedule for giving all these animals their baths?” and “How hard is it to bathe them?” and “What kind of animal is this?” (It was a tiger), I realized how little this group of people knew about the life these animals should be living, the space they need, the enrichment they need to stimulate their minds in captivity. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is it still just all about the baby encounters coming up? Is that all they really care about? These other animals and the way they’re living don’t matter?”
For a minute, Kathy couldn’t remember the names of the next 2 tigers we walked over to see. I guess that was better than one of the other animals who, when asked what his name was, she said she doesn’t think he even has a name. I thought, “Not even worth naming?” At this point, everyone was hot, drained, and the 2 hours of looking at antiquated cages and sad looking animals was more than enough. But, everyone perked up when it was announced that it was now time for “Animal Encounters.”
The majority of the guests had paid and signed up for this but, even if you hadn’t, you could participate and settle up later at the conclusion of the tour. The first baby brought out was Jajay, the 7 week old baby snow monkey who was wheeled to us in a stroller wearing diapers. A very young girl had requested to play with JaJay so he was plunked down on the picnic table on a towel for her to cuddle with and play with and pose for pictures with. What if she had any respiratory illnesses or anything contagious? What a vulnerable age for this little monkey. When she was through with Jajay, and since no one else had booked time with him, he was put back in the stroller, zipped up, rolled behind the Tiki bar and left there alone while Kathy and all the other guests marched off to a small shed labeled “Nursery” for their time with Diamond, the white tiger cub caged inside. We started hearing squealing and squeaking and looked over to see JaJay very upset, looking abandoned and forgotten back there. Eventually, Kathy’s adult son came over and wheeled JaJay away. We wondered to where?
For close to half an hour, we waited while others were in the shed having their pictures taken and playing with the white tiger cub. If you didn’t pay, you didn’t play. Kathy had said Diamond was donated to them by an Oklahoma zoo. Donated? We wondered how true could that be? This was obviously the proverbial cash cow for “Wild Things.” In reality, it’s what everyone was here for. Mr. Stearns said that a couple drove all the way down from South Carolina the week before just for the chance to hold that little tiger since you couldn’t do it up there. How ridiculous that this is what Florida is famous for – allowing people to hold and handle something so small, so precious, a baby who should be spending this time with its mother, not manhandled by the public for profit.
We were so upset, at this point, all we wanted to do was leave but we were trapped there with no transportation of our own. We couldn’t believe our ears when one of the guests said he was a photographer with TBT (Tampa Bay Times) and he couldn’t wait to let everyone back at the newspaper know what a unique, fantastic place this is. Of course, he was also one of the guests who couldn’t wait to go hold a tiger cub, an animal whose life, at this point, is spent locked up in a small cage in a shed with people filing in and out twice a day to “play” with her.
When everyone was through with Diamond, they escorted us back to the trolley. I noticed a medium-sized cat off display pacing back and forth non-stop in what I thought was a transport type cage since it was so small. Mr. Stearns said that’s the 7 month old panther cub that you can still have interaction with, if you want. How could that be? If my housecat can inflict scratches and scars on me, what could a fully clawed panther the size of a small German Shepherd do to me? And, especially one that is so poorly caged and with nothing interesting to do but pace?
On the trolley back to the gift shop, one of the guests who went inside with Diamond said it was kind of hysterical watching Kathy grab the cub by the tail whenever Diamond tried to get away from the people. She’d yank her back and plop her back wherever she wanted her. She explained that it didn’t hurt the cub since her tail is attached to her spine and that’s how it’s done. I can’t remember ever seeing any wildlife shots of that method. Scruffing – yes, slinging a cub around by its tail – no.
The guest also mentioned that there were no pictures allowed. You had to pay for the CD they sell at the end of the tour if you want any pictures. The CD contains pictures taken by a photographer “Wild Things” has hired to photograph the animals. This guest was obviously disgruntled about that since she felt she had already paid enough to them for this experience, she wasn’t going to pay more for pictures. Yet, she never questioned why they don’t allow pictures. If everything’s on the up and up, why are they afraid of the photos guests will take and possibly share? Why must all the pictures be staged by them?
After being dropped off at the gift shop, we went to our car totally depressed thinking about how much more could be given to these animals by the Stearns since the property they have is so incredibly picturesque. There is just no excuse for the small, inadequate cages these animals are housed in. There is plenty of room to give them more space, a better quality of life. Instead, we heard that their plans are to start running a tram service on another part of the property so “the old people who start coming to Florida soon and who can’t walk” will be able to come out and pay to tour the facility. So, doesn’t that say it all? Is quality of life for the animals important or boosting attendance?
What’s also demoralizing is everything we saw is perfectly legal in Florida; tiny cages, no quality of life for these various species, “pay to play” operations using baby animals as a source of income, promotion of more and more breeding, a continuous flow of animals who will have no future quality of life, and teaching people by example that animals deserve nothing better than this. I’ll never get the images of these animals’ faces out of my mind. They, more than any others, are “poster children” for why there should be a ban on breeding and private exotic animal ownership.
After this visit, it’s obvious that the Stearns have basic philosophical differences with my friend and I. They see these animals as a treasure chest. Quite the opposite, we see these animals as something to be treasured. Sept. 2010
Despite all of their financial woes they continue to add to the problem by buying more and more lion and tiger cubs to use as photo props. On May 16th, 2012 they announced, “Dade City’s Wild Things has just added another tiger cub to the three that were born six weeks ago. We are doing the full encounter schedule with them…” Added from where? Sue Pearce’s Myrtle Island Ranch in Okeechobee or GW Exotic Animal Park perhaps?
Despite their name, DEW Haven is not a legitimate sanctuary. Although the heavily-edited Animal Planet reality show “Yankee Jungle” portrayed the Mount Vernon, Maine facility as a loving refuge for animals, DEW is a self-proclaimed exotic animal breeding farm and private zoo with a decades-long history of animal welfare violations, illegal wildlife trafficking, public safety issues, and deceptive behavior.
Over the past 15 years, DEW Haven has been cited for over 54 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.State investigators have described conditions there as “deplorable” and “untenable” and have seized several animals from the facility while recommending the revocation of its permits.
In 1998, Maine officials temporarily revoked DEW Haven’s exhibitor permit due to “failure to comply with state standards and regulations regarding the lawful and humane treatment of wildlife in captivity.” That year, federal authorities at the USDA fined them $4,500 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
An excerpt from a 1998 state investigator’s report. The investigation resulted in the temporary revocation of DEW’s exhibitor’s permit, and later that year, DEW was fined by the USDA for failing to comply with the Animal Welfare Act.
Although DEW Haven claims to be a sanctuary for rescued animals, most of their animals were born on-site or purchased from other private zoos. Unlike a true sanctuary, they routinely breed, buy, sell, and allow public contact with their animals, including newborn big cat cubs which are taken from their mothers immediately after birth for lucrative “encounters” with the public (an extremely inhumane practice which no legitimate facility would ever do).
At a 2016 public hearing on proposed revisions to Maine’s captive wildlife rules, DEW co-owner Julie Miner told those present that DEW is “a USDA licensed zoo” which has “bred and donated endangered species to other facilities for display.”At the hearing, Miner called proposed rules which would prevent private owners from breeding tigers “a big concern” because “they are one of the types of animals that attract visitors to facilities such as ours” and that banning private breeding “would affect our revenue and the ability to replace our own exhibit animals… …We also feel that listening to radical animal activists – who are pushing for no breeding, no zoos that aren’t accredited, etc. is a dangerous downward spiral – the fact is their only agenda is to have no animals in captivity.”
Former volunteers report that animals no longer wanted at DEW Haven are often “shot, sick, sold, traded, skinned and mounted, and some just disappear.” And although DEW claims to be run on a shoestring budget and begs for more donations to help their animals, the organization’s tax returns show significant annual profit going into the pockets of the owners, with very little of the public’s “donations” spent on animal care.
After reviewing 500 pages of government records, the investigative news outlet Mother Jones published a scathing indictment of DEW Haven, using it as an example of the “difficulties that state and federal wildlife officials have with effectively regulating the nation’s private zoos.”
DEW is owned and operated by Bob Miner, a convicted felon with a 14 page long criminal record.Miner has been found guilty of seven felonies and four misdemeanors since 1981, including multiple counts of felony burglary, receiving stolen property, theft by unauthorized taking, illegal ownership of firearms, and misdemeanor assault.
Bob and his wife Julie are not accredited by any legitimate organization, have no formal education in caring for exotic animals, and have admitted to the press that they consider their facility a “farm” and their exotic animals as nothing more than “alternative livestock.” As recently as April 2016, the Miners proudly told the Portland Press Herald that they consider themselves “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-type people” and refused to allow a reporter access to their property.
Bob Miner has a history of threatening and intimidating anyone who criticizes DEW. In 2002, he was arrested for harassment of a neighbor who criticized his operation, and in 2004, courts issued a temporary restraining order against him after he threatened former DEW volunteer Monica Hooper at a supermarket.
Hooper has stated that “these are not nice people running this facility. When you turn off the cameras and the public is off of the property, they drop the act.” She claims that she has been contacted by many other volunteers, neighbors, and DEW visitors who were disturbed by what they saw at the facility, but were afraid to speak up out of fear of retaliation. These whistleblowers write:
“I used to live next door to where he threw all the unused carcasses…acres of filthy rotting carcasses…not buried or burned …the smell was so bad we couldn’t even go outside…he is one crazy scary individual!…” “We called every agency we knew of but no one would do anything about it. They said it was illegal but I heard no one dares to cross him because he is so unstable…ended up digging a big hole and putting the carcasses in it..then it rained and all the swollen carcasses were floating in it. Then it would overflow and the runoff flowed down the ditches on the side of the road into Echo Lake…the locals couldnt let that happen so they buried as many carcasses as they could with an excavator..then Bob sold the property to a relative no less…and they drilled a well right next to the mass grave…he never told them the difference! What a vile human being!…” “You can certainly share whatever information I may have but I prefer to keep my name out of it as he is crazy and I have children and grandchildren in the area and I don’t trust him not to retaliate….”
“What I remember? Pigs and cows dying all up and down Ithiel Gordon Rd (adjacent to his property) with massive lacerations–blood everywhere. There is a little swampy area on I.G. road, just South of Walter Greene Rd where the bodies of numerous farm animals were found. A friend of mine also said he witnessed Miner’s step-son kill a dog with his bare hands when they were teenagers. There are some seriously messed up things happening there in my opinion. I’m normally the last person to play nanny–but really folks, if you are reading this, stay away from this place and this man.”
Animal Welfare Violations
DEW Haven has been fined multiple times by the USDA for chronic violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
In March 1998, DEW was fined $4,300 after inspectors witnessed injured animals, contaminated feed, and dangerous fencing. The USDA gave the Miners two options: they could pay the fine outright, or they could take that same money and use it to remedy the problems, with the condition that they show how the money was spent to improve the facility. DEW declined to improve their facility and chose to pay the fine directly.
In 2002, the USDA fined DEW $2,000 and cited the Miners for improper animal housing and unsanitary conditions, including a “drum of a liquid and bone mix” which left the USDA inspector “visibly upset.”
Recent USDA inspection records show that these violations continue. From 2004 to 2015 alone, DEW violated the Animal Welfare Act 54 times.Among the recent violations:
In 2012, three bears were euthanized “on an emergency basis” after fighting with each other and sustaining severe injuries. The inspector wrote:
“According to the licensees, the older male [bear] had been showing behavioral changes (including aggression) for the past year, however the licensees did not communicate this observation to the attending veterinarian. Had they communicated the observation in a timely fashion, this traumatic incident may have been avoided.”
Piles of garbage and feed waste with “waste odor” were found behind animal enclosures, and a fly infestation was reported near a cougar cub’s pen.
Tigers, sheep, deer, and goats had little or no shelter from the elements, and another tiger was housed in a poorly-drained, damp pen, “a condition that could cause harm to the animal.”
Perimeter fences to keep the public away from adult lions and bears were inadequate or non-existent.
Some animal feed was expired or contaminated with feces.
Visitors were allowed to interact with an 8 month old, 130 lb. tiger which was far too large and dangerous to legally come in contact with the public.
Shelters for tiger and lion cubs were inadequate and too small for the animals to have freedom of movement.
A shelf in the black leopard enclosure was poorly-maintained and “could cause injury” to the animal, and a crowbar was left on the ground in the bobcat enclosure.
There were “considerable unhygienic conditions” in the food preparation area.
A gap in the lion enclosure was ordered to be closed to “minimize the risk of escape.”
The public was allowed to interact with an adult tiger at distances “insufficient to assure safety,” and dangerous gaps were noted in the zebra enclosure.
Unused fencing, construction materials, and other trash was repeatedly found on the ground inside animal enclosures.
Three adult tigers were being kept in enclosures insufficient to ensure their containment.
A goat was observed with an “excessively long hoof” which could cause lameness.
A livestock trailer used to transport animals had rusted out in some areas.
A black bear was being displayed in a cage with dirty water. Inspectors noted that “this bear was obtained from an animal dealer in New Hampshire and was imported into Maine without an importation permit having been issued. This bear also has been recently injured and has not been seen by a veterinarian or other trained personnel. It appeared that the bear may have broken its left front leg. The bear has no use of this limb and drags it on the ground.”
A Bengal tiger was housed in a barren enclosure with no climbing or claw logs required by the state of Maine, and provided with “a bathtub containing 2 inches of dirty water for drinking purposes.”The roof of the enclosure “was not attached to the frame of the pen in such a manner so as to prevent escape.”
A female lion cub was housed in an enclosure with no water. This enclosure lacked the legally-required roof to prevent escapes, and a fallen tree over the side of the enclosure provided “a mechanism for the lion cub to get out of the pen.”
Two black leopards were kept in 12 by 12 foot cages that “had not been cleaned in some time.” Inspectors found an “excessive amount of feces” and maggot-infested meat in the cage. There was no water, and “both cages had barbed wire twists holding roof panels together and in such a manner so that the exposed ends of the barbed wire could cause injury to the cats.” An inadequate safety barrier was “close enough to the enclosure that a person could be in contact with one of the cats.”
Two adult lions were housed in an enclosure with no roof to prevent escapes and no provision for shade.
A male mountain lion was housed in an enclosure with dirty water and feces that were “more than a day old”, while the enclosure for the female mountain lion had no shade and water that was “inadequate and in a dirty receptacle.”
Primates were housed without water in cages that “do not meet minimum specifications.”
An illegally-imported black bear cub was found in a cage, and a crested macaque had also been imported without the required permits.
Many of the enclosures did not have adequate shelter for the animals to seek relief from the elements, and most animals had dirty water or no water at all.
Drinking water and food dishes were dirty, and rats were seen at the facility.
There was no written plan of action in the event of a disaster.
Two bobcats were housed in enclosures with dirty water and no perch as required by state law.
As a result of this investigation, the state of Maine suspended DEW’s exhibitor permit for 90 days. The Miners cleaned up their facility and were allowed to resume operations, but quickly reverted to their old ways as soon as the permit was reinstated.
In May 2002, federal and state officials confiscated three illegally-imported cougars and a ringtailed lemur from DEW Haven. One of the cougars, Zach, had been left with bloody, abscessed paws after authorities suspect Bob Miner attempted to declaw the cat himself. The state’s report on a veterinarian’s assessment referred to the declaw as a “butcher job” which left Zach “crippled” and unable to walk.
A volunteer’s photo of a cougar’s abscessed paws before he was seized by the state.
One month after the 2002 confiscation, DEW was subject to an announced inspection by USDA veterinarian Clem Dussault, Maine Warden Investigator Phil Dugas, and state wildlife biologist Keel Kemper. Kemper later relayed his observations in an internal memo:
Many of the animals being held do not have access to water. This is required by law, and no excuse no matter how dramatic can ameliorate this transgression. In each instance that water was not provided, a ready excuse was forthcoming, as to why this particular animal’s behavior (i.e. he knocks over his dish) prevented it from having access to water. I indicated to the Miners that this was unacceptable from the state’s point of view and steps must be taken to ensure that all animals have water available to them whenever they want it.
Dead, decaying carcasses continue to be a problem. The current condition at DEW is unacceptable to any reasonable person. One cage contained two carcasses of what appeared to be geese. According to Julie Miner, these geese were killed by a Great Horned Owl this past winter. It appears that no one thought to remove these carcasses to an appropriate disposal facility. They were allowed to decay within the pen, in plain sight of the public. I observed bones, heads, hides, cast randomly about the property. A dead, bloated calf with approximately 1 billion flies was observed, just south of the Camel pen.
In looking at the paper work associated with many of these animals, it appears that there is a tremendous amount of “donating” being made between animal propagators. These animals are changing hands yet, they are almost always “donated” from one propagator to the other. A normal circumstance would necessitate some payments and exchange of money. This is the only industry I know where everybody seems to donate to each other, “on paper.” I believe all of these “donations” are to cover the illegal trade of wildlife. This is sheer opinion on my part.
Mr. Clem Dussault informed me that in 1998, DEW Animal Kingdom had to resolve a complaint of similar violations with [the USDA]. DEW was offered two options. They could pay an outright fine of approximately $4300.00 or in lieu of the fine, they could take that same money and put it into the facility to remedy the problems identified by the complaint. If the second option was chosen they would have to show how the money was spent to improve the facility. DEW chose to pay the fine outright as opposed to putting the money into their facility to solve the problems identified in the complaint.
I cannot recommend that DEW permits be reinstated at this time. I cannot recommend that DEW be allowed to have back those animals that were seized from them in May. (Federal Vet. Dussault concurs with this recommendation). It appears that DEW is not capable of compliance with the State of Maine Laws with regards to animals in captivity.”
“I am very surprised that DEW Animal Kingdom was not more prepared for this inspection,” he writes. “Watering of animals kept in captivity has been an issue at this facility in the past and continues to be an issue. It is unacceptable that several exhibits didn’t have water in the cages and no attempt was made at the time to correct the deficiency. The dead and decaying animals lying around the facility is unsanitary, unsightly, and unhealthy. This has also been a chronic condition at this facility. It is apparent to me that neither the watering nor the dead decaying condition is going to change. Based on the results of an announced inspection with notice I cannot recommend that the Department grant DEW Animal Kingdom a license to display wildlife.”
Shortly after this inspection, the Mount Vernon Code Office notified the Miners that their property was in violation of the town’s Junkyard Ordinance, while the local Health Officer, responding to a complaint, ordered that the dead carcasses be removed from the property as an “offense to public health” and noted that “this is not the first complaint about dead animals on this lot.”
After this inspection, the Kennebec State-Journal reported that Maine’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife “was not going to renew [DEW’s] license” for 2002 because the facility “failed to comply with state standards and regulations regarding the lawful and humane treatment of wildlife in captivity.” However, after the Miners negotiated with state officials and made some improvements to their facility, the department suddenly changed its mind and decided to renew DEW’s permit against the recommendations of state and federal inspectors.
“Lion cubs are a dime a dozen.” – Julie Miner
Julie Miner with a newborn lion cub. A former DEW volunteer alleges that Julie Miner has been seen taunting the cubs’ distraught mothers after taking them, saying “I got your baby!”
Unlike a true sanctuary, DEW Haven buys, breeds, and sells big cats, and takes cubs from their mothers at just hours old in order to handraise them and sell $50 “encounters” to the public. Many of the cubs used in these programs are far too young to be legally handled under USDA regulations. In 2014, state and federal officials ordered DEW to immediately stop selling tickets for the public to hold and bottlefeed newborn tiger cubs because cubs that small are not able to regulate their body temperatures and have an underdeveloped immune system, placing them at risk of disease and infection. According to Mother Jones, DEW complied, but “complained to the department that banning the shows meant lost revenue.”
The Miners have admitted to local newspapers that their cubs are fed goat’s milk, an entirely inappropriate diet for a growing big cat which can cause malnourishment. This report also notes that a lion cub’s mother remained visibly agitated after having her baby stolen from her.
This tiny lion cub at DEW is very skinny and appears to be malnourished on a diet of goat’s milk.
If the cubs survive this abuse, they are kept by the Miners to breed more cubs or sold to anyone who will pay for them. DEW refuses to reveal the buyers of their cubs and has stated that once they have sold a cub, they are “not responsible for the lifetime of the animal.”
Bob Miner has bragged to tour groups about selling his cubs to circuses, and several of their cubs have ended up at Bear Path Acres, a notoriously abusive roadside zoo which had its license suspended in 2016 for severe and repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Born at DEW, this tiny black leopard cub was put on display at a local fair, after he was allegedly sold for $2,500 to Bear Path Acres.
A former DEW volunteer writes:
“Makeena was a white [tiger] cub brought in to DEW Haven in 2011 for breeding. She was stolen from her mother and used for shameless promotion from the get-go. She was put into a crate and carted around the property for viewing opportunities. Here is a picture of Makeena after she was pulled out of a crate and put out for photo ops. Please look at her hurt paw. Despite the injury there is no mention of a vet or even a thought for her own welfare, as Julie Miner shamelessly uses her for media attention in dozens of pictures.”
In 2014, Makeena gave birth to two litters of cubs, both of which were immediately taken from her to be handled and fed by paying customers. The Miners told the press and the public the common cub-petting lies: that the mother wasn’t caring for the cubs, that the cubs needed to “bond with people,” and that “they’ll go to nonprofit facilities focused on education and breeding programs because they are [an] endangered species.”Of the three cubs in one of Makeena’s litters, one white cub was euthanized due to birth defects caused by inbreeding, another white cub was “shipped out” to an undisclosed facility at just four weeks old, and the third, an orange cub named Aurora, “had trouble finding a buyer” and remained at the facility until the fall. A volunteer was told the cub went to a facility that had advertised online looking for a tiger and was given away online in response to a Craigslist ad.
One of Makeena’s 4 week old cubs, before being euthanized due to claims of a congenital neurological condition.
This cub is being fed illegally by a member of the public with dirty fingernails.
Aurora, as a tiny cub before being given away on Craigslist.
This newborn cub will never see his mother.
A cub being used for petting screams at DEW.
Newborn cubs are displayed in playpens at DEW. This exhausted cub wants to sleep.
DEW also purchases cubs from substandard private zoos and tells the public that they were “rescued.” This tiger cub was purchased by the Miners from Robert Engesser’s notoriously abusive Jungle Safari traveling exhibit and kept in the Miner’s living room in violation of Maine law.
Animal Escapes & Safety Issues
A protest sign by a former DEW volunteer details recent escapes.
Former DEW volunteers report that there have been multiple escapes of dangerous animals at the facility, including at least one during a public tour. None of these incidents were ever reported to local, state, or federal authorities as required by law. A whistleblower warns:
“The important thing to remember is that nothing has changed to prevent future escapes. There is no heightened preventive practices happening. If you are planning to take your loved ones there, there is a risk everyday.”
In 2003, an adult male lion named Baghwa escaped from his enclosure at night and ate the domestic fowl roaming the property. He was witnessed by a family member who was driving into the facility at the time and saw Baghwa’s eyes in the headlights of her van. The Miners reportedly spent the whole night trying to get Baghwa back into his enclosure.
Sometime within the last 10 years, a black leopard named Gabrielle allegedly escaped her enclosure during a public tour and was safely re-captured.
In 2012, a wolf named Cherokee escaped his enclosure and was shot. Although DEW denies ever having a wolf named Cherokee, a former volunteer writes:
“One day [Cherokee] climbed up and over the fence of his enclosure and was loose on the path. Fortunately the public was not there. Cherokee encountered several geese in his path and killed one and threw it down. He moved on to the next, killed it and threw it down. He continued down the path repeating this over and over. Unable to contain him, the Miners shot and killed him. How do I know this? This is the story Julie told me herself when I went there and noticed he was missing. I haven’t heard him spoken of again. I believe in an episode of Yankee Jungle, Julie says they only had 2 wolves. No, Cherokee did exist and he was beautiful.”
Around 2012, Bob Miner deliberately provoked a tiger in an unsafe enclosure with a large group of children present. The incident so disturbed one visitor that she filed a formal complaint with the state. It reads:
“The crowd was gathering around [Bob Miner]. There were probably 50 people total, mostly kids (maybe ages 7-10) from some organization, as they all had the same red t-shirt on. Miner threw a piece of meat over the fence into the tiger pen, and onto a 3 or 4 foot raised platform, that the tiger jumped up on to eat this meat. Miner was in-between the short barrier fence and the tiger’s enclosures chain link one.
This fence was about 12 to 14 feet tall but, with the subtraction of the platform’s 3-4 feet the tiger only had maybe 8-11 feet separating us from it. Miner then hit the fence near the tiger’s face, and the tiger would agro and start roaring and showing its teeth. Over and over Miner aggro’d the tiger while yelling to the crowd about the tiger’s behavior. All the children and adults were enthralled. The tiger was pissed. He was constantly showing his teeth, then roaring, slashing his tail against the fence, and crouching and flexing, over this piece of meat. I did the math on the fence level, where the tiger knows the meat flies over, and the tiger was at least 10 feet long, adding up to a disaster for all the people there. I told my friend and her kids that we were leaving. They were just like the crowd, enthralled and oblivious to the potential danger. I explained briefly that this was dangerous and as I pulled one of the children through the crowd with my friend and the other child following, Miner started yelling some rhetoric about the fences being electric and that the tigers could not get out. Not for nothing but, I had just seen this same man hitting the fence with his bare hand to agro the tiger. …This is a time bomb waiting to happen.”
On June 25, 2016, a volunteer witnessed a cougar nearly escape in front of a tour group. The enclosure was not designed to contain an animal the size of a full-grown cougar and had a gap between the walls and the roof almost large enough to allow the cat to slip through.
DEW has been cited numerous times for housing dangerous animals in enclosures deemed “insufficient to contain” them. These photos were taken as recently as 2015, and show a tiger cub being held in his cage by nothing more than a scrap of wood, an old dog leash being used to keep the public out of a lion enclosure, and fencing that is falling apart. The Miners refer to these enclosures as “rustic” and “recycled.”
Bob Miner has continually disregarded laws which prohibit the public from having direct contact with large carnivores. He has been cited by the USDA twice for allowing the public to enter the barrier fence to pose with and touch adult tigers, and famously encouraged the public to feed candy to his black bear from their mouths. Facebook posts and other photos show that this dangerous behavior continues despite USDA citations.
In April 2016, the Miners would not allow a reporter onto their property under the excuse that because it was the offseason, “not all safety measures are in place.” Safety measures must legally be in place at all times, not just when the public is present.
In the late 1990s, Bob Miner often drove around with large big cat cubs in the back of his truck for the public to pet and admire, including this young tiger, photographed at a convenience store:
In 1997, a report sent to Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife records an incident where Bob and Julie brought a leashed 8-month old leopard to the state agriculture department office for employees to pat and play with. The report states that the large cub was “too rough with his teeth and claws” and that he “lunged and grabbed” an employee walking down the hallway, who claims that the cat’s “head and paws were around my midsection.” The employee was startled but unhurt.
Multiple animals at DEW have died due to neglect, and some have been shot by the Miners in their cages. Animal deaths are rarely, if ever, reported to the public, and former volunteers report that when an animal dies, the Miners simply replace it with a new animal of the same name. The following information was provided to us by whistleblowers who witnessed these incidents while volunteering:
In 2000, a 4-month-old lion cub named Boonyea died of neglect. He spent most of his short life illegally chained to the floor in the Miner’s home with no water receptacle and only scraps of meat to eat. On March 31, volunteers noticed that the cub was not eating, drinking or defecating, and was lethargic and weak. Instead of seeking veterinary help for the cub, Bob and Julie Miner left him chained to the floor for three days while they displayed animals at the Augusta, Maine Sportsman Show. While they were away, Boonyea died. According to a volunteer:
“[Boonyea] was in obvious distress during the weekend. I thought it was possibly an internal blockage since he was not ingesting fluids or food and not defecating. I witnessed this lion cub’s physical health deteriorate over the course of Friday March 31, 2000 to the evening of April 2, 2000, when the show was over and I went home. I returned the following day, Monday April 3, 2000 and Julie Miner told me that Boonyea had died during the night. Her facial expression and the tone of her voice was stone cold. I was told by Julie Miner that the lion cub had an internal digestive obstruction that he could not pass. If he had received proper veterinary care during his time of pain and distress on that Friday before, the blockage would have been removed and the lion would have lived. Julie Miner’s response:
“Lion cubs are a dime a dozen.”
Boonyhea on a short chain in the Miner’s home. Although the Miners were aware that the cub was in distress, they left him to die in pain, with no medical treatment.
According to a volunteer who witnessed the incident: “In April 2000, I witnessed Bob Miner yell at and chase Seren,a female cougar, with a long pole to get her in a section of the enclosure so his devoted wife Julie Miner could shut her out. So Bob could show off for a tour crowd with Zach, a male cougar who authorities suspect Bob had attempted to de-claw himself and his efforts left Zach crippled and he limped instead of walking naturally for the rest of his life. Watching a wild cougar react as a wild cougar should against this type of handling was an image I shall never forget. I would also like to point out that not one of the spectators even so much as winced at this display. This illustrates how ignorant the general public are concerning the laws and proper care and handling of these animals.”
Because Seren did not produce offspring, and she was not crippled and could retaliate against Bob Miner’s regular abuse for spectators, she attacked Miner. Miner escaped with injuries to his shoulder, and soon after, Seren was shot to death in her cage in the late summer of 2001, at the will of Bob Miner himself. A convicted felon who is not legally allowed to posses firearms, who admits mental instability and illness to his patrons every tour he gives.
Seren was stuffed and sold by Miner. Her carcass is now in a local museum with a $1500 price tag.
Seren, shot and sold by DEW.
In 2005, a male lion named Baghwa was shot in his cage by Julie Miner. There are conflicting accounts about what led up to the incident, but they all agree that Bob Miner was in the cage with Baghwa during feeding time and had forgotten to lock a gate separating him from the lion. When Baghwa felt that his food was threatened (possibly because Bob had been trying to steal his food in order to tease him), he retaliated and started to bite Miner’s face. Miner then bit Baghwa and managed to escape the enclosure with injuries. Julie Miner returned to the lion’s pen and shot him while Bob brought a backhoe to dispose of the carcass. Then, Julie drove Bob to the hospital.
When asked by a tour group why Bob didn’t call 911, he replied, “Because then it would have been public knowledge and they probably would have shut me down.” Baghwa’s body was given to a local trapper’s club and skinned.
Baghwa, before and after his death.
Does DEW Need Donations?
Like most pseudo-sanctuaries, the Miners have DEW Haven registered as a nonprofit organization and tug on the public’s heartstrings by claiming that they operate on a shoestring budget and can’t afford to improve their ramshackle enclosures unless more people donate. This story doesn’t match up with DEW’s 2015 tax returns, which reveal that the zoo had over $200,000 in assets (including over $120,000 in cash) and raked in nearly $90,000 of profit during that year alone.
In 2015, $60,000 was spent on salaries for the Miners and their staff, while just $9,050 went to food and veterinary care for all 200+ animals living at DEW. By comparison, a legitimate facility will typically spend roughly $10,000 each year to care for a single adult tiger.
An expense report from DEW’s 2015 tax returns.
What happens to the rest of the public’s donations? Recent Facebook posts reveal DEW’s owners buying luxury cars and trucks while their animals live in conditions that they just “can’t afford” to improve:
Tax returns also show that DEW only attributed 11.4% of its 2015 income to public donations. The rest of the income, totaling almost $280,000, was obtained through “unrelated business activities,” defined as commercial activity not substantially related to furthering the exempt purpose of the organization — in DEW’s case,animal protection and welfare.
For every animal welfare violation that inspectors can catch, there is often more abuse going on “behind the scenes.” Former volunteers and interns report seeing the following while working at DEW:
“I personally witnessed Bob attach a chain to a living cow in the back of his truck, attach the other end of the chain to a tree and drive away to get the cow out of his truck. The cow suffered with broken hips for days, but Bob would not put it out of its misery. A long as the cow was breathing the meat would stay fresh.”
“One time, they received a cow with broken back leg tendons, so it needed to be put down and couldn’t walk. It was going to be used for cat feed, which is normal for DEW and other zoos. They chained the cow to the back hoe and dragged it out to the pasture, by its back legs as it was in SEVERE pain. They left this female cow next to the pile of rotting animal carcasses in the sun, without shade or water, for over 3 days before they finally killed it. They told interns to “just not look at it” if we had to go into the cow pasture (everyone was visibly upset when they saw it). This cow suffered for many days, they didn’t want to ‘waste’ food and water on it since they were going to feed it out later that week.”
“The rabbits had been purchased in bulk to be killed off for serval food, as the servals prefer to eat smaller animals instead of large pieces of carcass. These rabbits were put in a large cage outside in the back where guests couldn’t see them. The cage was in the sun, in the middle of the summer. It looked like a multi-level ferret cage. These rabbits had no food or water for the first two days they were there, as they didn’t want to waste resources on feeding and watering animals that were meant to be food. The Miners eventually killed them to be put in the freezer with the rest of the rotting meat to be fed out at a later date.”
“A deer (that they did not know was pregnant) was found with the baby half way hanging out of the mother and it was dead. Then they decided the best thing to do was tranquilize it. It got many cuts and was bleeding due to trying to get away from Bob and the team. He got one dart in it and it didnt go down. He got a second dart in it and it didnt go down. Finally he tried to lasso it. He ended up getting the wrong deer and it was trying so hard to get away and it flopped onto a sharp tree trunk which looked like it hurt it and then it was making choking sounds because it was twisting its neck in the lasso. They finally got the pregnant mom and pulled the baby out which was dead. Total process took probably a little over 2 hours of stress for the poor deer that was already probably in pain from the failed birth. And a dead baby at the Miners farm due to lack of veterinary care. But also, Bob was becoming very angry and stressed during the process and at one point he told us all to get out of the enclosure and as I began to follow the man in front of me, he grabbed my arm hard enough to hurt and screamed at me to go the other way. I did not like that he grabbed me like that when I don’t even know the man. He not much as even said hi to me or any of the other interns I saw since my week of working there. I also had one experience when the cow got out when Julie Miner was telling us to close the DEW gate. As there were two gates open, one intern began to ask which of the two gates to clarify. Julie spat at her, “Dont you EVER talk when I’m talking” and drove off. They are just not the nice people that everyone thinks.”
“The entire property reeked of rotting carcasses and feces. Many enclosures were substandard, not large enough, filthy and muddy. A serval cat was being kept in a large dog kennel and I was told it was temporary but I went back months later and it was still there. They have too many animals to care for properly.”
Visitors to DEW Haven report seeing animals being deliberately teased by Bob Miner for the enjoyment of the audience:
“There was a large rock outside the hyena’s enclosure that was right next to the fence. Bob had a bucket of road kill meat sitting there, while he was sitting on the rock. He teased that hyena with a piece of meat until the animal was so frustrated that it lunged at his shoulder, mouth wide open, but hit the fence. We were totally appalled by Bob’s behavior. It was disgusting to see him tease that animal like that. From what I saw at my last visit, I do believe they should be closed. From the sound of it, things have gotten even worse for the animals living there than they were years ago.”
“As Bob came to the Binturong [a nocturnal animal] that was sleeping on a raised up platform… …Bob had what looked like a metal sheet pan, and slammed the sheet pan on the fencing where the Binturong was sleeping, yelling, “Get UP!!”, and something about how they sleep a lot, playing to the crowd. For the Binturong, when the sheet pan hit the fence, it made a huge metal on metal noise and he jumped up scrambling for a second and looked frightened back and forth. It then slumped back down, like this happens all the time. It looked broken and depressed to me, not tired and sleepy.
I’m so disturbed by what I saw. It has taken a long time for me to get the distance I need from this horrible situation. I feel bad and the sick feeling isn’t leaving me. I get how people are fascinated by these places. It was like all these people are hypnotized by the exotic animals and can’t see the abuse and danger. Maybe they don’t care. I’ve cried about what happened there that day. Some of the parrots had more secure and roomy pens than some of the larger animals… …It makes me sick.”