(CN) – A private Florida zoo faced renewed accusations of animal abuse on Friday by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Tampa, PETA claims Dade City’s Wild Things and its owners violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing patrons to handle, pet and swim with tiger cubs.
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.
PETA filed a similar suit in October 2016. But during the protracted legal battle, owners Kathryn Stearns and her son Randall shipped 19 tigers to Oklahoma days before a court-ordered inspection. During the trip, one of those tigers gave birth to three cubs, which died.
In a June 6 order, Judge Charlene Honeywell wrote the deaths could be considered violations of the Endangered Species Act and allowed PETA to amend its complaint. The matter then returns to Magistrate Judge Amanda Sansone, who will rule on an earlier request by PETA to sanction Dade City’s Wild Things for contempt. In March, Sansone called transporting the tigers “calculated and deliberately deceptive.”
“The court’s ruling allows PETA to hold Dade City’s Wild Things’ feet to the fire for sending 19 tigers on an 18-hour journey without air conditioning or water, which proved deadly for three newborn cubs,” said Brittany Peet, PETA’s foundation director of captive animal law enforcement, in a statement. “Nineteen tigers have subsequently been relocated and are recovering at a reputable sanctuary, and PETA’s lawsuit is working to ensure that this facility will never possess tigers again.”
Kathryn Stearns did not immediately reply to requests for comment by phone and e-mail.
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 some animals, including a chance to swim with them.
But 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.” In addition, PETA says, once the cubs are too large to play with, they are relegated to tiny enclosures or sold to other roadside attractions.
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.
The USDA fined Dade City’s Wild Things in February and ordered the zoo to not allow any more swims with tigers. The zoo continues to operate and allows interactions with alligators, monkeys and other animals.
Last year, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services filed a lawsuit against the zoo and its corporate officers over “illicit fundraising.”
The agency accuses the zoo of soliciting donations without registering and transferring donations to the owners’ personal accounts.
That litigation is still pending.
During all of this, one of the zoo’s officers also faced unrelated criminal charges. Randall Stearns, also named in the lawsuit as the zoo’s president, recently served 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to charges of sexual misconduct, according to Missouri court records.