According to a brochure for the “fund”, the ESCF’s registration number for the Solicitations of Contributions Act is CH23363.

If you go to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ “Gift Giver” website, looking up this registration number reveals that it’s officially registered to Dade City’s Wild Things, and the “statement of purpose” is: “care, upkeep, feeding of animals and conservation through ESCF.”

Furthermore, GuideStar’s nonprofit report for Stearns’ Zoological Rescue and Rehab Center shows the exact same financial data, suggesting that Dade City’s Wild Things and the ESCF are one and the same. It also mentions that, despite being required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ, “this organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years.”

You may be able to get more detailed public records by calling the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at
1-800-435-7352 and using the ESCF’s Solicitation of Contributions Act registration number to ask for them.

So, it appears that the ESCF is another name for Dade City’s Wild Things. But what does the “fund” supposedly do? We were particularly struck by the official mission statement for the ESCF, which can be found on its website. The statement reads (emphasis ours):

We strive to promote breeding and conservation through the use of educational interactive programs. We hope to increase public awareness of the importance of conservation and to emphasize the dangers of habitat destruction.”

It’s your standard exploiter’s “education” excuse. This fund appears to be set up so that Dade City’s Wild Things can “donate” to themselves while apparently tricking their supporters into thinking they’ve actually helped save wild cats.  We would be extremely surprised if any money from this “fund” actually ends up leavingDade City’s Wild Things.

And now, for the proof (or at least pretty decent evidence):

On the current home page for the “fund”, there is what we believe to be a very deceptive interactive map proudly displaying “organizations we support”. It features the legitimate conservation organizations that the Stearns used to claim supported them. This page seems to be deliberately set up to fool people into thinking that financial donations will be sent to these groups, when, in all likelihood, “support” used in the context of the website only means “approval”.

Furthermore, if you go on the official Facebook page for the fund, you’ll find zero posts about the “organization” actually doing anything (as of Nov 2, 2014) – it’s just animal-related news stories, poorly-written “expert press releases” about how churning out big cat cubs for private ownership somehow “saves” them, and posts from DCWT about their latest moneymaking schemes.

The closest thing to a relevant post was this informational graphic about what their “fund” supposedly does. Looking at this image, we found it very suspicious that DCWT actually wrote that text – in everything else they’ve published, it’s been made abundantly clear that they struggle to spell simple words. A quick Google search of the text revealed that it was copied word-for-word from the Feline Conservation Federation, a group of private exotic c! at owners and roadside zoos (of which the Stearns are members) who believe that the private breeding of cats aids conservation.

It is pretty disturbing that the “president” of the Feline Conservation Federation is an exotics breeder and broker who proudly brags in his official profile about having “…transported animals all over the USA and to and from over 20 different foreign countries, dealing with facilities from all venues: research facilities, domestic and international zoos, private breeders, pet owners, entertainers, and exhibitors.” 

ESCF’s “mission statement” about captive breeding and education used to justify the “re-homing” (probably meaning sale) of white tigers from Dade City’s Wild Things to other “zoos” on this Facebook album. The fact that they specifically mentioned their Endangered Species Conservation Fund suggests that this is the kind of thing their “fund” supports – their own business.

Kathy Stearns has been responding to negative Yelp reviews by claiming that “We donate a percentage of our proceeds to endangered species conservation fund that goes to help wild animals, like the Florida Panther program here in our great state of Florida.” 

Unfortunately, there is no way to verify this… unless we obtain their public records (which may prove disappointing, since they haven’t been submitted since 2012, and even then, the preliminary report on the Gift Giver’s Guide shows that they put all of their profits toward “administrative costs” which hides what they’re actually doing with the money).

Is what the Endangered Species Conservation Fund, via Dade City’s Wild Things, doing illegal?

According to chapter 496 of the 2012 Florida Statutes,

No charitable organization shall knowingly allow any of its officers, directors, trustees, or employees to solicit contributions on behalf of such charitable organization if such officer, director, trustee, or employee has, regardless of adjudication, been convicted of… pled nolo contendere to… or has been incarcerated within the last 10 years as a result of having previously been convicted of… any crime within the last 10 years involving fraud.

We know that Kathy Stearns was arrested in 2011 for passing bad checks, so it would seem that, Kathy Stearns cannot legally solicit contributions for Dade City’s Wild Things, Stearns Zoological Rehab and Rescue, the ESCF, or whatever name they’re going by this week.

Furthermore, according to section 415, on “prohibited acts”, it’s illegal for an organization to:

– Knowingly submit false or misleading information to the state.

– Make misrepresentations or misleading statements to the effect that any other person or organization sponsors or endorses such solicitation, approves of its purpose, or is connected therewith, when that person or organization has not given written consent to the use of its name.

– Misrepresent or mislead anyone by any manner, means, practice, or device whatsoever to believe that the organization on whose behalf the solicitation is being conducted is a charitable organization or sponsor, or that any of the proceeds of the solicitation will be used for charitable or sponsor purposes, if that is not the fact.

– Fail to identify his or her professional relationship to the person for whom the solicitation is being made.

And according to chapter 496, section 417 of the 2012 Florida Statutes, “Any person who willfully and knowingly violates (these fundraising rules) commits a felony of the third degree.”

Other parts of chapter 496 state that “the department may conduct an investigation of any person or organization whenever there is an appearance, either upon complaint or otherwise, that a violation has been committed or is about to be committed.


The Bottom Line:  We think the Endangered Species Conservation Fund is a sham.