Dade City Wild Things – Kathy Stearns
Where do those cute cubs end up?
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:
You can help put a stop to this with a quick and easy letter to lawmakers here: http://www.CatLaws.com
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.
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