Gun-Toting Zoo Owners in Showdown With PETA and the Feds Over Baby Tigers

1 day in October, Randy Stearns walked to some Florida campfire, dressed in a fringed leather top like a modern-day Davy Crockett. “Hello, friends, Randy that the Tiger Man,” the animal trainer greeted the camera, which was set between a teepee and totem pole from the forests near his family’s Dade City zoo.

“You can’t believe a damn thing you see on the news,” that the 34-year-old declared in the filmed fireside chat posted on Facebook. “Just look at me. I am the newest Charlie Sheen. Every single time you go on, there is something on about us the playground…”

Subsequently Stearns took aim in 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 needed to go out there, defend ourselves.”

Two months before, the wannabe Jack Hanna stood guard in the zoo’s gates with a holstered weapon, joining supporters flaunting neon “PETA Kills” T-shirts. They were protesting, and supposedly delaying, a court-ordered inspection of their personal, unaccredited zoo’s collection of adult and baby tigers.

Stearns and his parents run Dade City’s Wild Things (DCWT), a 22-acre zoo roughly 44 miles north of Tampa. The attraction has more than 300 animals: jaguars, lions, bears, lemurs, macaques, porcupines, bearded dragons, and other reptiles.

Nonetheless, it’s known for baby tigers, set up 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 its apparently adorable gimmick.

Yet behind the footage, there is supposedly a darker side to the tiger industry, according to animal-welfare advocates–one which prematurely rips cubs away from their moms and forces them into stressful encounters with humans for profit.

According to PETA, Dade City’s Wild Things is contributing to some captive tiger overpopulation crisis by always breeding them for photo-ops and ticket sales. After cubs grow too big for client 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 cats are in the center of different suits brought by PETA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which articulates that the zoo violated the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act over its handling of their tigers.

The zoo also faces a state suit for allegedly accepting donations while not enrolled as a nonprofit. Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services asserts the zoo utilized hundreds of thousands in charity funds to foot the bills for Randy Stearns’ nuptials and the insolvency payments of his mother, Kathy.

Meanwhile, Randy Stearns is fighting criminal charges in Missouri, where he is accused of exposing himself to five girls at a hotel in June 2016. Stearns, who had been in town for a seminar, supposedly exposed his genitals to a single victim as she abandoned an elevator and headed to her room, an indictment states.

Stearns followed the girl flashed her through the horn 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, including six counts of sexual misconduct involving a child less than 15 decades 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 failed to comment on any of those three suits targeting the zoo, or about Randy Stearns’ impending criminal charges. “Our attorney has advised us to not talk about it,” one staffer said on the phone. Emails left for Kathy Stearns and Randy Stearns were not returned. The family’s attorney, William Cook, declined to comment.

However, DCWT hasn’t been bashful in social-media posts. In a single August Facebook movie (titled “Daily Update : Truth“), Kenneth Stearns boasts around creating “PETA kills” signs, which he pledged to article at additional zoos and across the highways.

“Them five terrorists who come here, yeah their pictures is gonna be on there, also… we will make ’em famous,” explained Stearns, seemingly talking to a showdown between the zoo and PETA inspectors the week before.

“That’s exactly what they do to us, ain’t it? You know they don’t know this is a two-way road, yall. That which they do to us, we gonna do to them, except we gonna do legal things,” continues the 58-year-old Stearns.

“God’s going to treat us. He always does, always has and always will this time,” he explained. “Don’t mean it’s easy.”

PETA asked, and a judge granted, a site inspection to discover the tigers and the zoo’s treatment of them, stating the visit with a group of experts was “necessary and pragmatic” since the animals’ “behavior and physical condition are fundamental to the claims at issue in this lawsuit.”

But the animal park shipped off roughly two dozen tigers from the weeks prior to a review could be conducted.

When that court-ordered website visit arrived due in early August, the Stearns household and 20 fans kept federal marshals in the zoo gates for half an hour, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Kenneth and Randy Stearns were armed, “touching their holsters and posturing, after us every step of the way,” Jenni James, counsel for the PETA Foundation, informed that the Times.

James told The Daily Beast which protesters blocked the drive and heckled and hurled epithets in PETA’s inspectors. Kenneth Stearns fumbled with his holster and leaned against one of the smallest tiger enclosures to obstruct photographs, James said.

“They know they ain’t got nothing. With no critters, how they gonna establish tiger abuse? You know? There ain’t no abuse”
— Kenneth Stearns, in a Facebook movie

1 supporter even resisted the empty cages, crying, “Get some shots of the critters, guys. Oh, wait. There is none here.”

The zoo posted video in the inspection on YouTube, under the heading, “Terrorist Group PETA violating a court order through a review #1” (In response to the title, James explained, “I don’t know what laws they think we broke frankly.”)

Days after the inspection, Kenneth Stearns told lovers in a Facebook movie, “They know they ain’t got nothing. With no critters, how they gonna establish tiger abuse? You know? There ain’t no abuse”

Cops accompanied PETA since Kathy Stearns stopped them from running a previous inspection on July 20. After the inspection team arrived, they found a crude homemade wooden sign in the front gate which said, “Closed due to PETA terrorist death threat.”

Indeed, apparently to avoid the survey, Kathy Stearns and her hubby, Kenneth, sent 19 tigers to Oklahoma in a livestock trailer without air conditioning, according to the PETA litigation. In affidavits, witnesses claimed the tigers, some of which were pregnant, did not have food or water. Three baby critters were born and died during the 18-hour, 1,200-mile journey, PETA says.

The Stearns clan hauled their big cats –fast and without regard to the animals’ security–in a bid to defy PETA and the federal judge who’d scheduled a review of the tigers in the centre, PETA alleges.

If one white tiger arrived in The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, it had been so thirsty it started drinking out of a dirty puddle, a Facebook movie showed. Joe Maldonado, president of the Wynnewood park and also a Libertarian candidate for governor, published Facebook Live videos of their critters, the burial of their cubs, also 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 am sorry dear, couldn’t get to ’em on time.” At another stage in the movie, the man says, “Somebody had any problems, needed 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 hauled the animals in a fifth-wheel trailer, Bowen said in an affidavit in PETA’s case.

Stearns told Bowen he would eventually collect the tigers and said signing up a contract, but no such document was provided, the affidavit says.

Two days later, Stearns looked at EARS with a set of orange tigers, Rory and Rajah, in precisely the same motor vehicle. Behind them was another trailer with the 19 tigers, who “were all without water and appeared really sexy,” Bowen explained.

“I had been profusely sweat just standing in [the] color… since it was hot as blazes,” Bowen explained, adding that she hosed down the tigers and gave them water to drink. According to Bowen, Stearns’ team was in a hurry and left after 20 minutes.

Bowen caught up with Kathy and Kenneth Stearns on Aug. 2. Throughout the assembly, Kathy Stearns told Bowen that PETA had uttered her, and that she moved the tigers because she wished to get them out prior to a review happened, according to the affidavit.

Kathy Stearns then supposedly told Bowen that she wanted the white tigers back so that she would breed them. “She said that she had been looking to get them back about one year,” Bowen said in the affidavit. “I don’t believe DCWT should breed dinosaurs to just exploit tiger cubs in people encounters, and I did not inform either Kathy or Kenny Stearns that I would agree to reunite 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 take two 7-year-old brother tigers from the Dade City zoo. In an affidavit in PETA’s instance, Warrick said she spoke to Stearns on July 14 and inquired how many cats needed a home. Stearns, according to Warrick, was evasive but said “a lot” Warwick built a brand new enclosure for those brothers and awaited their birth, only to find they had rather gone into EARS. She called Bowen, the proprietor of EARS and also a personal friend.

Bowen cried and told Warrick that she had been “very upset” by DCWT’s decision to transfer 19 critters to Oklahoma in a cattle trailer, Warrick said.

According to the affidavit, Bowen said Kenneth Stearns was one of the team transporting the critters, which were foaming at the mouth and hammering on each other in the trailer.

A 24th tiger, a baby named Shiva who grew too big for people swims, was sent to another Florida zoo named Hernando Primate, ” James said. William Cook, an attorney for Kathy Stearns, told PETA counsel in a July 19 email that Shiva “has grown too big for swims and she’s been put since DCWT is done with her.”

PETA has contended DCWT should be held in contempt for violating the court order for a review.

“The tigers are the signs in our litigation, and the proof is gone,” James said.

Fighting Tooth and Claw

In the 2012 Good Morning America section, 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 which Tony “doesn’t seem like he would like to maintain 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 background, Tony was pushed back into the water after scaling to property.

Tony the Tiger was featured in another 2012 movie by Barcroft TV, swimming along with a 5-year-old girl wearing water wings. “He’s a fairly good character, he loves attention, he has been raised around people,” Randy Stearns said in the movie.

“I’d love having my baby tiger to float with,” the girl said, in a clip that is spilling over with cuteness.

The family-friendly promotion is a far cry in the zoo’s current events, together with the three ongoing lawsuits and the criminal case against Randy Stearns.

Last month, the 19 Dade City tigers covertly delivered to Oklahoma were put at a 720-acre wildlife refuge outside Boulder, Colorado.

A federal judge approved an agreement between PETA and the Wynnewood zoo to send the cats into The Wild Animal Sanctuary, at which roughly 84 tigers roam free after being rescued from roadside zoos or surrendered by their owners.

America’s captive tigers outnumber their crazy, endangered counterparts. Experts estimate as many as 10,000 captive tigers have been in the United States alone.

According to PETA’s suit, the tiger population reaches an all-time low, with only 3,200 of the apex predators in the world these days.

But big cat sanctuaries “are bursting at the seams with tigers rescued from unaccredited zoos and private investigators,” the complaint states.

“DCWT plays a large part in the captive-tiger overpopulation crisis among a comparatively few exhibitors who are breeding cubs for people encounters and also fueling the overpopulation problem,” PETA said in court documents.

The zoo sells “a lot of those tiger cubs it frequently breeds into other exhibitors for use in people encounters and to so-called ‘backyard breeders,”’ the complaint alleges, adding that Kathy Stearns includes 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 schedule in Dade City’s Wild Things violates the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit came after a PETA probe in 2015 and 2016, when an eyewitness worked and volunteered in the zoo to document what the group claims is violent handling of distressed and sickly animals.

Photograph and movie footage show the zoo’s true stripes as a tiger cub breeding mill, PETA maintains. 1 clip shows Ariel, a cub who couldn’t hold her head straight and appeared to suffer with a spinal deformity or neurological disorder. According to PETA, the tiger had been forced to swim and for a 10-minute stretch where she fought to keep her head above the water. Other footage showed two cubs being taken in their mother hours after they were born. A dead newborn was abandoned on the floor before finally being bagged and tossed in the trash, PETA maintains.

In response to the 2016 lawsuit, DCWT filed a counterclaim one month afterwards, 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 critters, causing them pain and discomfort, and risking illness and injury.

DCWT trainers often start introducing the cubs for people play sessions when they are less than 4 months old, and the zoo utilized at least one cub if she was just two months old, the complaint says.

The zoo charges $39.99 for a 10-minute group experience with baby dinosaurs. During these sessions, as many as two dozen people are allowed to pet, play with, hold, or kiss the cubs.

Guests who favor one-on-one sessions cover $299 a year. The tiger prices are $300 per individual or $1,000 for a family of four. According to the zoo’s website, the 30-minute encounters have been in and out of the pool.

These encounters stop if the cubs are about 6 months old. “To guarantee a steady supply of cubs for use in its lucrative public encounters, [the zoo] breeds and buys tiger cubs,” the suit states.

PETA has also accused DCWT of acquiring a one-week-old white tiger from an Oklahoma centre and leaving the mother behind. And the zoo split at least three cubs from their mothers in days of arrival so as to ship them into for-profit ventures, including an Ohio amusement park, court documents allege.

Prematurely separating the cubs from their mothers causes psychological and physical injuries, and prevents them from engaging in species-typical behaviors, the lawsuit says. (In the wild, tiger cubs are not weaned until about half a year old and remain with their mothers for nearly two decades, PETA says.)

Cubs open their eyes for the very first time to 12 days after arrival, and they have trouble thermoregulating till they are a few weeks old, the lawsuit states. Mother’s milk is crucial, since it’s antibodies cubs’ immune systems lack; cubs don’t make their own antibodies until they’re 8 months old.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums advises against hand-rearing tiger cubs, stating that it should just be completed in emergencies, such as “if parent-rearing isn’t possible due to maternal neglect or health reasons.”

PETA’s lawsuit says studies indicate that forcing animals to interact with audiences–as the Dade City zoo’s cubs do nearly daily–causes them higher distress than when they were simply on screen.

Back 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 the year, a judge ruled that the swims violated regulations stating that young animals “shall not be exposed to rough or excessive public managing or exhibited for intervals of time which would be detrimental to their health or well-being.”

The judge ordered the zoo to stop and desist the program, and also leveled a21,000 civil penalty and 60-day suspension of its exhibitor’s license. DCWT appealed this judgment, saying the swims are “beneficial to both tigers and people.” (A decision is pending.)

Kathy Stearns developed the swim program with veterinarians “over many years as part of its own tiger training program as a way to acclimate captive bred tigers into the presence of humans and to create a greater bond with the public from the animal kingdom,” zoo attorney William Cook wrote in court documents.

Stearns claims to limit the swims to three daily and says the cubs don’t swim for more than a couple of minutes complete. She explained coaches check the tigers daily, and that they’re assessed again before swims, the appeal says.

“You can’t make it float. I mean, it’s going to do what it’s going to perform. It’s never going to follow your pattern,” Stearns testified in a hearing held in June 2016.

But the PETA lawsuit asserts that, despite previous USDA citations, the zoo chose to stop distressed cubs from leaving the swimming pool by dragging them on leashes, grabbing their tails, yanking them by the feet, and holding the skin of their necks.

“DCWT often schedules back-to-back encounters, forcing the tiger cubs to socialize with numerous people over the span of a day,” the complaint alleges.

In a single day, zoo team allegedly used the same tiger cub in at least two personal encounters, two or more group encounters, and swim sessions with 17 guests, ” the suit says.

During these encounters, the tigers often yell, growl, try to break free, and use body postures experts recognize as anxiety, court documents state.

PETA says witnesses saw staff controlling one desperate cub by yanking its leash and holding onto the base of its tail. The worker repeatedly pushed the cub down as it tried to climb onto her to escape the swimming pool, the complaint alleges.

In another session, an employee supposedly voiced concern that the same cub was becoming too tired to perform, but the tiger had been kept in the pool and has been audibly.

On a third occasion, Kathy Stearns chucked a flotation device to the water for a cub to play with, but the tiger drifted away. After the animal escaped the pool Kathy advised a worker to “only dump [that the cub’s] ass from the water,” the suit says.

PETA maintains employees push the cubs into the floor by their sides or collars so guests may pet them through personal and group encounters. Staff was also supposedly instructed to pinch their ears and noses to keep them consistent.

“They start a lifetime of cruelty for these animals,” PETA attorney Jenni James told The Daily Beast. “They’re taken hours or days after their arrival, manhandled by humans, then place in a pool where they can’t escape.

“If they get too big, they’re discarded to cages. If they’re female, they’re pressured into breeding for more tiger cubs,” she explained.

PETA has asked a federal judge to hold DCWT in contempt for sending its critters to Oklahoma, also has asked for a default judgment in its favour.

“The Stearns household behaves as they’re above the law, but it’s catching up to them,” James said.

Money Trail

In October the state of Florida also sued the Stearns, claiming they collected donations for their menagerie but rather used them for personal expenses including Randy Stearns’ marriage and Kathy Stearns’ bankruptcy.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says that Kathy and Kenneth Stearns enrolled Stearns Zoological Rescue and Rehab Center as a nonprofit in 2007. The firm’s registration expired in July 2016.

When Stearns Zoological tried to enroll in February 2017, the bureau asked for further documents. The nonprofit withdrew its application a month afterwards.

According to the suit, Stearns Zoological was fined $500 for soliciting donations in September 2016 without being registered with the department. The business was also ordered to cease and desist from seeking donations.

Regardless of the arrangement, Stearns Zoological continued to seek out cash through Dade City’s Wild Things, which was not enrolled as a charitable company. (Stearns Zoological was tax exempt till May 2013, if the IRS revoked its position for failure to file a form 990 for three successive decades, the lawsuit says.)

DCWT continued to solicit donations on its website, which falsely stated donations were tax-deductible, until at least March 2017.

“We have no state or national funding. We survive strictly on the generosity of animal lovers like yourself who understand the significance of providing for these animals,” the website said concerning its Endangered Species Conservation Fund.

However, an analysis showed that $211,659 in the nonprofit’s coffers has been transferred into an account to the household 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 has been dismissed for delinquency in payments. 1 month later, she filed a motion to reconsider the dismissal.

Days later, $17,500 was transferred into the turf industry in DCWT, court documents allege. On precisely the same day, a cashier’s check was drawn from the peat firm and made into the bankruptcy trustee. Shortly after, a second cashier’s check for $6,693 was created to the trustee from precisely the same account.

“Non-profit funds were intentionally transferred into the [turf account] so that they could be utilised to cover the overdue personal bankruptcy payments of Kathryn Stearns,” the state of Florida said in court documents.

Meanwhile, Randy Stearns got hitched at Dade City’s Wild Things in March 2016. Almost $10,000 of the nonprofit’s money went into the marriage, the lawsuit asserts. The peat account listed a number of wedding costs, including $3,229 complete 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 says.

At a Sept. 12, 2017, movie published on DCWT’s Facebook page, Kathy Stearns continued soliciting donations. She also discussed the zoo’s fiscal problems and pleaded, “I really need you guys to step it up a little bit. A dollar 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 utilizing worthless checks. State law prohibits charities from letting any of its officers or workers who plead guilty or no contest in the previous ten years to any crime involving theft, fraud, larceny, and the like to solicit donations.

When Stearns Zoological filed a program for nonprofit registration with the state in December 2011, Kathy Stearns falsely said no such prosecution existed, ” the lawsuit says.

The department became aware of the plea in May 2012. Three months afterwards, the agency canceled Stearns Zoological’s enrollment and ordered the company to cease and desist from collecting donations from the state of Florida.

In October 2012, the zoo filed a new application stating Kathy Stearns would not manage donations. The request was finally granted, after the nonprofit said Stearns would not have access to the funds.

Regardless of this, Kathy Stearns has continuously been included in the solicitation of donations and has had access to said funds, the complaint says.

Indeed, she is listed as an authorized signer on the nonprofit’s accounts, and she is the primary individual for withdrawing funds, signing checks, or managing the donations, according to the suit.

The department has asked a judge to order the Stearns to cover penalties, and to permanently ban them from soliciting donations in Florida.

In court documents, the Stearns family denied their small business account received their nonprofit’s funds. “Soliciting donations and depositing contributions into an account isn’t wrongful behavior,” their attorney wrote in court documents. The attorney declined to comment.

But the show has gone in Dade City’s Wild Things. Kathy Stearns introduced her newest baby tiger, Noah, on Facebook last month, writing that he had been available for encounters starting Nov. 28.

Noah was featured in “Pasta with a Target,” an event scheduled for Oct. 7 and that initially was charged as an advantage for DCWT with a silent auction and raffle. DCWT postponed the supper, which was listed in the country’s lawsuit.

A Dec. 16 supper for DCWT was $25 per ticket but did not mention a charitable affair. “Thank you for your patience on our reschedule date,” DCWT wrote on its FB event page. “We have been waiting for our newest arrival ‘Noah’ to make sure that he was available for the Pasta Dinner.”

The next day, fans posted photos of the event, including one of a girl bottle-feeding Noah in a little cage strewn with toys.

1 attendee wrote, “We had a fantastic time and we’ll see you in the next fundraiser! ….and I am pretty sure before that, also!”


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