Gun-Toting Zoo Owners in Showdown With PETA and the Feds Over Baby Tigers
A Florida zoo featured on ‘Good Morning America’ for its tiger-cub ‘swims’ is facing lawsuits from PETA and state and federal agencies over its charity and treatment of the cats.
One day in October, Randy Stearns walked out to a Florida campfire, dressed in a fringed leather top like a modern-day Davy Crockett. “Hello, friends, Randy the Tiger Man,” the animal trainer greeted the camera, which was set between a teepee and totem pole out in the woods near his family’s Dade City zoo.
“You can’t believe a damn thing you see on the news,” the 34-year-old declared in the filmed fireside chat posted on Facebook. “Just look at me. I’m the newest Charlie Sheen. Every time you go on, there’s something on about us, the park…”
Then Stearns took aim at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)—a constant topic in The Tiger Man’s online videos. “Kind of like Rambo, they drew first blood,” Stearns said. “We had to go out there, defend ourselves.”
Just two months before, the wannabe Jack Hanna stood guard at the zoo’s gates with a holstered weapon, joining supporters flaunting neon “PETA Kills” T-shirts. They were protesting, and allegedly delaying, a court-ordered inspection of the private, unaccredited zoo’s collection of adult and baby tigers.
Stearns and his parents run Dade City’s Wild Things (DCWT), a 22-acre zoo about 44 miles northeast of Tampa. The attraction has more than 300 animals: jaguars, lions, bears, lemurs, macaques, porcupines, bearded dragons, and other reptiles.
But it’s known for baby tigers, deployed for photo-ops and swim sessions in the zoo’s chlorinated pool. In years past, the cubs appeared on Good Morning America and Fox & Friends for the seemingly adorable gimmick.
Yet behind the footage, there’s allegedly a darker side to the tiger business, according to animal-welfare advocates—one that prematurely rips cubs away from their mothers and forces them into stressful encounters with humans for profit.
According to PETA, Dade City’s Wild Things is contributing to a captive tiger overpopulation crisis by continually breeding them for photo-ops and ticket sales. Once cubs grow too large for customer interactions, they’re left to languish for the rest of their days in cages, or sold off to other roadside attractions and collectors of exotic animals, PETA says.
The big cats are at the center of separate lawsuits brought by PETA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which respectively allege the zoo violated the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act over its handling of the tigers.
The zoo also faces a state lawsuit for allegedly accepting donations while not registered as a nonprofit. Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services claims the zoo used hundreds of thousands in charity funds to foot the bills for Randy Stearns’ nuptials and the bankruptcy payments of his mother, Kathy.
Meanwhile, Randy Stearns is battling criminal charges in Missouri, where he’s accused of exposing himself to five girls at a hotel in June 2016. Stearns, who was in town for a conference, allegedly exposed his genitals to one victim as she left an elevator and headed to her room, an indictment states.
Stearns followed the girl and flashed her through the zipper of his pants, the indictment states. A spokeswoman for the St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said Stearns pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include six counts of sexual misconduct involving a child less than 15 years of age.
His next court appearance is Jan. 2, records show. Stearns’ defense attorney declined to comment on the charges.
When reached by The Daily Beast, DCWT declined to comment on any of the three lawsuits targeting the zoo, or on Randy Stearns’ pending criminal charges. “Our attorney has advised us to not talk about it,” one staffer said over the phone. Emails left for Kathy Stearns and Randy Stearns were not returned. The family’s attorney, William Cook, declined to comment.
Still, DCWT hasn’t been shy in social-media posts. In one August Facebook video (titled “Daily Update : Truth”), Kenneth Stearns boasts about making “PETA kills” signs, which he vowed to post at other zoos and along the highways.
“Them five terrorists that come in here, yeah, their pictures is gonna be on there, too… we’ll make ’em famous,” said Stearns, apparently referring to a showdown between the zoo and PETA inspectors the week before.
“That’s what they do to us, ain’t it? You know, they don’t know this is a two-way street, y’all. Everything they do to us, we gonna do to them, except we gonna do legal stuff,” continues the 58-year-old Stearns.
“God’s going to take care of us. He always does, always has and always will this time,” he said. “Don’t mean it’s easy.”
PETA requested, and a judge granted, a site inspection to observe the tigers and the zoo’s treatment of them, saying the visit by a team of experts was “necessary and permissible” because the animals’ “behavior and physical condition are central to the claims at issue in this lawsuit.”
But the animal park shipped off about two dozen tigers in the weeks before an inspection could be conducted.
When that court-ordered site visit came due in early August, the Stearns family and 20 supporters kept federal marshals at the zoo gates for 30 minutes, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Kenneth and Randy Stearns were armed, “touching their holsters and posturing, following us every step of the way,” Jenni James, counsel for the PETA Foundation, told the Times.
James told The Daily Beast that protesters blocked the driveway and heckled and hurled epithets at PETA’s inspectors. Kenneth Stearns fumbled with his holster and leaned against one of the smallest tiger enclosures to block photographs, James said.
One supporter even mocked the empty cages, yelling, “Get some shots of the tigers, guys. Oh, wait. There’s none here.”
The zoo posted video from the inspection on YouTube, under the heading, “Terrorist Group PETA violating a court order during an inspection #1.” (In response to the title, James said, “I don’t know what laws they think we broke frankly.”)
Days after the inspection, Kenneth Stearns told fans in a Facebook video, “They know they ain’t got nothing. With no tigers, how they gonna prove tiger abuse? You know? There ain’t no abuse.”
Cops accompanied PETA because Kathy Stearns stopped them from conducting a prior inspection on July 20. When the inspection team arrived, they found a crude homemade wooden sign at the front gate that said, “Closed due to PETA terrorist death threat.”
Indeed, seemingly to avoid the survey, Kathy Stearns and her hubby, Kenneth, shipped 19 tigers to Oklahoma in a livestock trailer without air conditioning, according to the PETA lawsuit. In affidavits, witnesses claimed the tigers, some of which were pregnant, didn’t have food or water. Three baby tigers were born and died during the 18-hour, 1,200-mile journey, PETA says.
The Stearns clan transported their big cats—quickly and without regard to the animals’ safety—in a bid to defy PETA and the federal judge who had scheduled an inspection of the tigers at the facility, PETA alleges.
When one white tiger arrived at The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, it was so thirsty it began drinking out of a dirty puddle, a Facebook video showed. Joe Maldonado, president of the Wynnewood park and a Libertarian candidate for governor, posted Facebook Live videos of the tigers, the burial of the cubs, and staffers administering anesthesia by sticking poles through holes in the trailer.
In the footage, a Wynnewood staffer zoomed in on the dead tigers and said, “Kathy, all I can say is, I’m sorry dear, couldn’t get to ’em on time.” At another point in the video, the man says, “Somebody had some problems, had to get rid of all their tigers.”
Four other cats were sent to Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (EARS) in Citra, Florida, about 84 miles north of Dade City.
The sanctuary’s owner, Gail Bowen, said DCWT delivered two white tigers named Remington and Luna on July 13. Kenneth Stearns transported the animals in a fifth-wheel trailer, Bowen said in an affidavit in PETA’s case.
Stearns told Bowen he’d eventually collect the tigers and mentioned signing a contract, but no such document was provided, the affidavit says.
Two days later, Stearns appeared at EARS with a pair of orange tigers, Rory and Rajah, in the same vehicle. Behind them was another trailer with the 19 tigers, who “were all without water and appeared very hot,” Bowen said.
“I was profusely sweating just standing in [the] shade… because it was hot as blazes,” Bowen said, adding that she hosed down the tigers and gave them water to drink. According to Bowen, Stearns’ crew was in a hurry and left after 20 minutes.
Bowen caught up with Kathy and Kenneth Stearns on Aug. 2. During the meeting, Kathy Stearns told Bowen that PETA had sued her, and that she moved the tigers because she wanted to get them out before an inspection occurred, according to the affidavit.
Kathy Stearns then allegedly informed Bowen that she wanted the white tigers back so she could breed them. “She said that she was looking to get them back in about one year,” Bowen said in the affidavit.“I do not believe DCWT should breed tigers to simply exploit tiger cubs in public encounters, and I did not tell either Kathy or Kenny Stearns that I would agree to return the two white tigers to DCWT,” Bowen concluded.
Meanwhile, Deborah Warrick, the founder of the nonprofit St. Augustine Wild Reserve, said an associate of Kathy Stearns contacted her to see if she’d accept two 7-year-old brother tigers from the Dade City zoo. In an affidavit in PETA’s case, Warrick said she spoke to Stearns on July 14 and asked how many cats needed a home. Stearns, according to Warrick, was evasive but said “a lot.” Warwick built a new enclosure for the brothers and awaited their arrival, only to discover they’d instead gone to EARS. She called Bowen, the owner of EARS and a personal friend.
Bowen cried and told Warrick that she was “very disturbed” by DCWT’s decision to transport 19 tigers to Oklahoma in a cattle trailer, Warrick said.
According to the affidavit, Bowen said Kenneth Stearns was among the crew transporting the tigers, which were foaming at the mouth and urinating on each other in the trailer.
A 24th tiger, a baby named Shiva who grew too big for public swims, was sent to another Florida zoo called Hernando Primate, James said. William Cook, an attorney for Kathy Stearns, told PETA counsel in a July 19 email that Shiva “has grown too large for swims and she has been placed since DCWT is done with her.”
PETA has argued DCWT should be held in contempt for violating the court order for an inspection.
“The tigers are the evidence in our lawsuit, and the evidence is gone,” James said.
In the 2012 Good Morning America segment, reporter Matt Gutman hopped into the water to take a dip with Tony the Tiger.
The 6-week-old cat hissed and paddled away from Gutman, then climbed on top of him, apparently in an attempt to escape. ABC anchor Amy Robach joked in a voiceover that Tony “doesn’t look like he wants to be in the pool,” and Lara Spencer chimed in, “That wasn’t a happy growl.”
Randy Stearns joined Gutman in the pool with an older, calmer 30-pound cat named Tarzan. In the backdrop, Tony was pushed back into the water after climbing to land.
Tony the Tiger was featured in another 2012 video by Barcroft TV, swimming alongside a 5-year-old girl wearing water wings. “He has a pretty good temperament, he loves attention, he’s been raised around people,” Randy Stearns said in the video.
“I would love having my own baby tiger to swim with,” the girl said, in a clip that’s spilling over with cuteness.
The family-friendly publicity is a far cry from the zoo’s current affairs, with the three ongoing lawsuits and the criminal case against Randy Stearns.
Last month, the 19 Dade City tigers secretly shipped to Oklahoma were placed at a 720-acre wildlife sanctuary outside Boulder, Colorado.
A federal judge approved an agreement between PETA and the Wynnewood zoo to send the cats to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, where about 84 tigers roam free after being rescued from roadside zoos or surrendered by their owners.
America’s captive tigers outnumber their wild, endangered counterparts. Experts estimate as many as 10,000 captive tigers are in the United States alone.
According to PETA’s lawsuit, the wild tiger population is at an all-time low, with just 3,200 of the apex predators in the world today.
But big cat sanctuaries “are bursting at the seams with tigers rescued from unaccredited zoos and private owners,” the complaint states.
“DCWT plays a large role in the captive-tiger overpopulation crisis as one of a relatively few exhibitors who are breeding cubs for public encounters and fueling the overpopulation problem,” PETA said in court papers.
The zoo sells “many of the tiger cubs it regularly breeds to other exhibitors for use in public encounters and to so-called ‘backyard breeders,’” the complaint alleges, adding that Kathy Stearns has a waitlist for tiger cubs, and that the cats can go for $4,000 each.
PETA filed its federal lawsuit in October 2016, alleging that the cub swimming program at Dade City’s Wild Things violates the Endangered Species Act.
The suit came after a PETA probe in 2015 and 2016, when an eyewitness worked and volunteered at the zoo to document what the group claims is abusive handling of distressed and sickly animals.
Photograph and video footage reveal the zoo’s true stripes as a tiger cub breeding mill, PETA claims. One clip shows Ariel, a cub who couldn’t hold her head straight and appeared to suffer from a spinal deformity or neurological disease. According to PETA, the tiger was forced to swim repeatedly and for a 10-minute stretch where she struggled to keep her head above the water. Other footage showed two cubs being taken from their mother hours after they were born. A dead newborn was left on the ground before eventually being bagged and tossed in the trash, PETA claims.
In response to the 2016 lawsuit, DCWT filed a counterclaim one month later, alleging fraud and tortious interference with business and contractual relationships over the “undercover” job.
PETA’s lawsuit alleges that DCWT’s practices violate federal law by distressing the tigers, causing them pain and discomfort, and risking illness and injury.
DCWT trainers often begin introducing the cubs for public play sessions when they are less than 4 weeks old, and the zoo utilized at least one cub when she was only 2 weeks old, the complaint states.
The zoo charges $39.99 for a 10-minute group encounter with baby tigers. During these sessions, as many as two dozen visitors are permitted to pet, play with, hold, or kiss the cubs.
Guests who prefer one-on-one sessions pay $299 per couple. The tiger swims are $300 per person or $1,000 for a family of four. According to the zoo’s website, the 30-minute encounters are in and out of the pool.
These encounters stop when the cubs are about 6 months old. “To ensure a constant supply of cubs for use in its lucrative public encounters, [the zoo] breeds and purchases tiger cubs,” the lawsuit states.
PETA has also accused DCWT of obtaining a one-week-old white tiger from an Oklahoma facility and leaving the mother behind. And the zoo separated at least three cubs from their mothers within days of birth in order to ship them to for-profit ventures, including an Ohio amusement park, court papers allege.
Prematurely separating the cubs from their mothers causes psychological and physical injuries, and stops them from engaging in species-typical behaviors, the lawsuit says. (In the wild, tiger cubs are not weaned until approximately six months old and remain with their mothers for nearly two years, PETA says.)
Cubs open their eyes for the first time six to 12 days after birth, and they have difficulty thermoregulating until they are several weeks old, the suit states. Mother’s milk is crucial, because it has antibodies cubs’ immune systems lack; cubs don’t make their own antibodies until they’re 8 weeks old.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums advises against hand-rearing tiger cubs, stating that it should only be done in emergencies, such as “when parent-rearing is not possible due to maternal neglect or health reasons.”
PETA’s lawsuit says studies suggest that forcing animals to interact with audiences—as the Dade City zoo’s cubs do almost daily—causes them greater distress than if they were simply on display.
In July 2015, the USDA filed a lawsuit against the zoo over the same swim program, saying it violated the Animal Welfare Act.
In February of this year, a judge ruled that the swims violated regulations stating that young animals “shall not be exposed to rough or excessive public handling or exhibited for periods of time which would be detrimental to their health or well-being.”
The judge ordered the zoo to cease and desist the program, and leveled a $21,000 civil penalty and 60-day suspension of its exhibitor’s license. DCWT appealed this ruling, saying the swims are “beneficial to both tigers and people.” (A decision is pending.)
Kathy Stearns developed the swim program with veterinarians “over several years as part of its tiger training program as a means to acclimate captive bred tigers to the presence of humans and to build a greater bond with the public in the animal world,” zoo attorney William Cook wrote in court papers.
Stearns claims to limit the swims to three per day and says the cubs don’t swim for more than a few minutes total. She said trainers check the tigers each morning, and that they’re checked again before swims, the appeal states.
“You can’t make it swim. I mean, it’s going to do what it’s going to do. It’s never going to follow your pattern,” Stearns testified at a hearing held in June 2016.
But the PETA lawsuit claims that, despite previous USDA citations, the zoo continued to prevent distressed cubs from leaving the swimming pool by dragging them on leashes, grabbing their tails, pulling them by the feet, and holding the skin of their necks.
“DCWT often schedules back-to-back encounters, forcing the tiger cubs to interact with numerous people over the course of a day,” the complaint alleges.
In a single day, zoo staff allegedly used the same tiger cub in at least two private encounters, two or more group encounters, and swim sessions with 17 guests, the lawsuit says.
During these encounters, the tigers often cry, growl, attempt to break free, and use body postures experts recognize as stress, court papers state.
PETA says witnesses saw staff restraining one desperate cub by pulling its leash and holding onto the base of its tail. The worker repeatedly pushed the cub down as it tried to climb on her to escape the pool, the complaint alleges.
In another session, an employee allegedly voiced concern that the same cub was getting too tired to play, but the tiger was kept in the pool and was panting audibly.
On a third occasion, Kathy Stearns tossed a flotation device into the water for a cub to play with, but the tiger swam away. When the animal escaped the pool, Kathy told a worker to “just dump [the cub’s] ass in the water,” the lawsuit says.
PETA claims employees press the cubs to the ground by their sides or collars so guests can pet them during private and group encounters. Staff was also allegedly instructed to pinch their ears and noses to keep them in line.
“They begin a lifetime of cruelty for these animals,” PETA attorney Jenni James told The Daily Beast. “They’re taken days or hours after their birth, manhandled by humans, then put in a pool from which they cannot escape.
“When they get too large, they’re discarded to cages. If they’re female, they’re forced into breeding for more tiger cubs,” she said.
PETA has asked a federal judge to hold DCWT in contempt for shipping its tigers to Oklahoma, and has asked for a default judgment in its favor.
“The Stearns family acts like they’re above the law, but it’s catching up to them,” James said.
In October, the state of Florida also sued the Stearns, claiming they collected donations for their menagerie but instead used them for personal expenses including Randy Stearns’ wedding and Kathy Stearns’ bankruptcy.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says that Kathy and Kenneth Stearns registered Stearns Zoological Rescue and Rehab Center as a nonprofit in 2007. The firm’s registration expired in July 2016.
When Stearns Zoological attempted to register in February 2017, the agency asked for additional documents. The nonprofit withdrew its application one month later.
According to the lawsuit, Stearns Zoological was fined $500 for soliciting donations in September 2016 without being registered with the department. The company was also ordered to cease and desist from seeking contributions.
Despite the order, Stearns Zoological continued to seek cash through Dade City’s Wild Things, which was never registered as a charitable organization. (Stearns Zoological was tax exempt until May 2013, when the IRS revoked its status for failure to file a form 990 for three consecutive years, the lawsuit says.)
DCWT continued to solicit donations on its website, which falsely stated donations were tax-deductible, until at least March 2017.
“We receive no state or federal funding. We survive strictly on the generosity of animal lovers like yourself who understand the importance of providing for these animals,” the website said regarding its Endangered Species Conservation Fund.
Still, an analysis showed that $211,659 from the nonprofit’s coffers was transferred to an account for the family’s peat business, from March 2016 to February 2017.
Kathy Stearns filed for personal bankruptcy in 2013 and was required to make monthly payments to a trustee. In February 2016, her bankruptcy case was dismissed for delinquency in payments. One month later, she filed a motion to reconsider the dismissal.
Days later, $17,500 was transferred to the turf business from DCWT, court papers allege. On the same day, a cashier’s check was drawn from the peat company and made to the bankruptcy trustee. Soon after, a second cashier’s check for $6,693 was made to the trustee from the same account.
“Non-profit funds were intentionally transferred to the [turf account] so that they could be used to pay the delinquent personal bankruptcy payments of Kathryn Stearns,” the state of Florida said in court papers.
In the meantime, Randy Stearns got hitched at Dade City’s Wild Things in March 2016. Nearly $10,000 of the nonprofit’s money went to the wedding, the lawsuit claims. The peat account listed a number of wedding expenses, including $3,229 total for catering, $1,544 for floral arrangements, and $1,492 for photography.
“Despite Kathryn Stearns’ claims to the contrary, Defendants have held Stearns Zoological and DCWT out to the public as a not-for-profit entity and as a charity,” the complaint states.
In a Sept. 12, 2017, video posted on DCWT’s Facebook page, Kathy Stearns continued soliciting donations. She discussed the zoo’s financial problems and pleaded, “I really need you guys to step it up a little bit. A dollar even helps please.”
It’s not the first time Kathy Stearns has faced trouble from Florida agencies.
In August 2011, she pled no contest to obtaining property or services using worthless checks. State law prohibits charities from allowing any of its officers or employees who plead guilty or no contest in the last 10 years to any crime involving fraud, theft, larceny, and the like to solicit contributions.
When Stearns Zoological filed an application for nonprofit registration with the state in December 2011, Kathy Stearns falsely stated no such plea existed, the lawsuit says.
The department became aware of the plea in May 2012. Three months later, the agency canceled Stearns Zoological’s registration and ordered the firm to cease and desist from collecting donations in the state of Florida.
In October 2012, the zoo filed a new application stating Kathy Stearns would not handle contributions. The request was eventually granted, after the nonprofit said Stearns would not have access to the funds.
Despite this, Kathy Stearns has continuously been involved in the solicitation of contributions and has had access to said funds, the complaint states.
Indeed, she’s listed as an authorized signer on the nonprofit’s accounts, and she’s the primary person for withdrawing funds, signing checks, or otherwise handling the donations, according to the lawsuit.
The department has asked a judge to order the Stearns to pay fines, and to permanently ban them from soliciting donations in Florida.
In court papers, the Stearns family denied their business account received their nonprofit’s funds. “Soliciting contributions and depositing contributions into an account is not wrongful conduct,” their lawyer wrote in court papers. The attorney declined to comment.
But the show has gone on at Dade City’s Wild Things. Kathy Stearns introduced her newest baby tiger, Noah, on Facebook last month, writing that he was available for encounters starting Nov. 28.
Noah was featured at “Pasta with a Purpose,” an event scheduled for Oct. 7 and that originally was billed as a benefit for DCWT with a silent auction and raffle. DCWT postponed the dinner, which was listed in the state’s lawsuit.
A Dec. 16 dinner for DCWT was $25 per ticket but didn’t mention a charitable affair. “Thank you for your patience on our reschedule date,” DCWT wrote on its Facebook event page. “We have been waiting for our newest arrival ‘Noah’ to make sure he was available for the Pasta Dinner.”
The next day, supporters posted photos of the event, including one of a woman bottle-feeding Noah in a little cage strewn with toys.
One attendee wrote, “We had a great time and we’ll see you at the next fundraiser! ....and I am quite sure before that, too!”