PETA has taken out a major player in the cruel tiger cub–petting industry, which fuels the captive-tiger overpopulation crisis
– Brittany Peet, director of captive law enforcement at PETA
Dade City's Wild Things (DCWT), a privately-owned animal park in Dade, Florida, has been banned from possessing endangered tigers, a court has ruled.
The United States District Court in Tampa handed down the judgement earlier this week following a three-year court battle in which the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed that park owners, Randall and Kathy Stearn, were in violation of the Endangered Species Act, due to the treatment of their tigers.
The animal rights group argued that DCWT didn't meet minimum federal standards, set out by the Animal Welfare Act, for the care of animals used in exhibits.
PETA also raised concerns over the park's failure to maintain enclosures and adequate shelters for the animals or provide sufficient veterinary care and claimed that the animals were being mishandled and caused physical harm, stress and discomfort, contending that cubs were being prematurely separated from their mothers and forced to swim and interact with visitors.
The court granted PETA the authority to rehome all of DCWT's tigers at a Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries-accredited sanctuary.
"PETA has taken out a major player in the cruel tiger cub–petting industry, which fuels the captive-tiger overpopulation crisis," said Brittany Peet, director of captive law enforcement at PETA.
"This decision means a new life for the tigers at DCWT, who will soon be able to roam vast habitats, swim in freshwater and live as tigers should for the first time in their lives."
PETA filed a lawsuit against the zoo in June 2017 after a volunteer, who worked at the zoo between 2015 and 2016, reported: "abusive handling, stressed and sickly animals, and a callous disregard for animals' welfare."
The volunteer claimed that cubs were separated from their mothers within just hours or days of birth to be hand-reared, so they could get "used to" being handled by humans and could be used in the zoo's paid-for experiences, such as swimming with tiger cubs.
Also in June 2017, PETA requested to inspect the property, this request was granted by a judge, who issued a court order preventing the Stearns removing any tigers from the property prior to the inspection, however, a day later 19 tigers were sedated and loaded into a cattle trailer, before being transported to the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, more than 1000 miles away. During transit, a female tiger gave birth to three cubs, all of which died on the journey.
Greater Wynnewood director Joe Maldonado testified that the tigers arrived at the park demonstrating signs of neglect, with open sores, infected toenails, and severe hide fungus.
PETA members were also denied access to the property on the day of the inspection with Kenneth Stearn, Kathy Stearn's husband, boasting about having outsmarted PETA in a video posted to the zoo's Facebook page. PETA was subsequently granted permission to remove 19 tigers from the park to a 720-acre animal sanctuary in Colorado.
In the following January two more tigers, named Luna and Remington, were moved to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Luna and Remington were two of the tigers that had been prematurely separated from their mothers and had been used in DCWT's 'Swim with Tiger Cubs' experience and had been illegally transferred to another Florida facility with two other tigers, Rajah and Rory, during DCWT's attempt to reduce its tiger population prior to the PETA inspection. Rajah and Rory were shot and killed in 2019 after escaping from their enclosure.
US District Judge Charlene Edward Honeywell approved PETA's request for a default judgement "based on DCWT's misconduct in the case, including the illegal transfer of Remington and Luna," and ruled that the zoo was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
"These tigers were taken from their mothers and used as photo props - but now, they'll live out the rest of their days at an accredited sanctuary where they can run, climb, explore and live as tigers should," said Peet.