(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.
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.
Randall Stearns, president of the zoo, declined to comment on PETA's allegations, saying he has not yet seen the complaint.
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 relagated 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 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.
Kathryn Stearns, the zoo's executive director, said in an e-mail to Courthouse News that "Dade City's Wild Things adamantly denies all the allegations by PETA in the complaint and has never been found guilty of any claims."
Stearns said the PETA is a fanatical group that seeks to eliminate "the essential natural bond and love between animals and people" and the accusations are part of a plan to eliminate all zoos.
"PETA makes false claims and distorts the law for fundraising tactics by making false claims, suing and causing settlements even when there is no violation of the law," she said. "PETA knows nothing about true conservation of animals, and will distort anything and manipulate people into false claims for their continued fundraising tactics."
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