TAMPA, Fla. (CN) – A private Florida zoo violated federal law by allowing patrons to handle, pet and swim with tiger cubs, a judge ruled late Tuesday.
The zoo, Dade City’s Wild Things, will also face an injunction barring it from owning any tigers in the future.
The order from U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell in Tampa concludes a three-year legal battle with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which brought the lawsuit after alleging animal abuse at the facility.
PETA claimed Dade City’s Wild Things and its owners violated the Endangered Species Act by forcing tiger cubs to interact with patrons by grabbing the animals and not allowing them to escape. The organization also claimed the cubs were prematurely separated from their mothers and suffered under bad conditions.
During the protracted legal battle, owners Kathryn Stearns and her son Randall shipped 19 tigers to an Oklahoma animal park days before a court-ordered inspection. During the trip, one of those tigers gave birth to three cubs, which died.
Afterward, PETA amended its complaint to include the deaths as further violations of the ESA.
The Stearns also sent five more tigers to other Florida zoos. Two of the tigers sent to a facility in Ocala were shot and killed after escaping their cages, according to court records.
A magistrate judge previously ordered a default judgment in the lawsuit due to the Stearns’ “calculated and deliberately deceptive” actions to avoid discovery, but such rulings are not final until a federal judge approves.
Honeywell, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in her 27-page order that the Stearns “schemed to remove and transfer their tigers with the knowledge that PETA had a legal right to observe the tigers at Dade City’s Wild Things as part of the civil discovery process.”
“The court agrees with the magistrate judge: Defendants’ actions demonstrated a complete disregard for the rule of law,” she wrote.
Honeywell also indicated she will separately issue a permanent injunction in the coming days to prevent the Stearns from owning any more tigers
Through their attorney, Gus Centrone, the Stearns said they plan to appeal.
“We have been ruled guilty without the court even hearing the merits of the case, which we feel confident we would have won,” the Stearns said in a statement. “Our property will be taken based on an extreme animal activist agenda, not on anything we did wrong. We remain committed to standing up for our rights and protecting our home from PETA’s extremist activities.”
Dade City’s Wild Things holds more than 200 animals, including primates and reptiles, on 22 acres of land in Pasco County, an hour north of Tampa.
Among its draws are opportunities for up-close interactions with some animals, including a chance to swim with them.
The zoo continues to operate and allows interactions with alligators, monkeys and other animals.
PETA has harshly criticized such “roadside zoos” and celebrated the legal victory.
“Dade City’s Wild Things is now answering for years of tearing baby tigers away from their mothers, using them as photo props, and warehousing them in virtually barren cages,” Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation’s director of captive animal law enforcement, said in an emailed statement. “PETA’s forthcoming victory in this landmark case could signal the beginning of the end for tiger cub encounters — a huge force behind the captive-tiger overpopulation crisis in the U.S.”
Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.
In 2017, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services filed a lawsuit against the zoo and its corporate officers over “illicit fundraising.”
In August, the agency brought criminal charges against Kathy Stearns for fraudulent solicitation of funds, charitable organization fraud and organized scheme to defraud.