2/7/2020 USDA suspended Dade City Wild Things license and imposed a $16,000 fine. 2020-02-07-stearns-zoological-license-suspended-16k
Shortly thereafter the zoo was put on the market for sale and the trolly is on a car lot for sale indicating the Stearn’s are no longer in the zoo business.
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.
The Daily Beast does a great recap of the situation at https://www.thedailybeast.com/gun-toting-zoo-owners-in-showdown-with-peta-and-the-feds-over-baby-tigers
Stearns defies federal judge’s orders and is a no show in court: http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/civil/Dade-City-s-Wild-Things-owner-tests-limits-of-federal-court-in-PETA-lawsuit_164854981
Florida Sues Dade City Wild Things
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.
PeTA Sues Dade City Wild Things
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.
“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.
PETA seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.
By ALEX PICKETT Read more at http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/10/14/peta-says-florida-zoo-abuses-baby-tigers.htm
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.
The US Department of Agriculture eventually fined Wild Things for its treatment of the tigers and and ordered them to stop letting people swim with them. Stearns attorney said his client denies the allegations and will fight them in court. More at http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-pasco/wild-things-head-trainer-charged-with-exposing-himself-to-girl
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:
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 colleen.carroll
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
Terrific article with lots of photos of what we think to be cub abuse and eye witness reports at https://www.thedodo.com/dade-city-wild-things-tigers-2074576624.html
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
What Animal Lovers Think About Dade City’s Wild Things
Clearly, the public is opposed to this sort of cruel activity. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/815/305/050/ban-activity-allowing-visitors-to-swim-with-baby-animals/
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.
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