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May 23, 2018
Cash menageries: Exotic and wild animals as entertainment in Florida

Photo: Dade City's Wild Things

Tigers eat 15 pounds per day - mostly chicken leg quarters, beef, pork or turkey. It takes $525 a month to feed a large tiger. The yearly food bill for all the animals at Wild Things is $390,000, says Randy Stearns.

Wild Florida

Cash menageries: Exotic and wild animals as entertainment in Florida

Mike Vogel | 3/28/2016

Some exotic animals in Florida live in accredited zoos and respected conservation facilities. Most, however, are either held for research or serve as entertainment — housed in roadside attractions or rented as backdrops for corporate events or birthday parties.

Tigers eat about 15 pounds per day — mostly chicken leg quarters, beef, pork or turkey. It takes $525 a month to feed a large tiger. The yearly food bill for all the animals at Wild Things — the biggest expense — comes to $390,000, says Randy Stearns.

A large "S" — as in "Stearns" — on the gate is the only signage along a brick wall on Blanton Road on the fringe of a small town about 35 miles from Tampa.

Beyond the gate, behind a house, Kathy Stearns, like a mom getting the toddlers some air, watches two young gibbon apes in diapers as they swing around a play set in the sun. A zebra, uninterested, stands in a field.

Across the lawn, the back yard melds into the family's tree-shaded zoo, Dade City's Wild Things. It draws 40,000 to 50,000 paying customers a year, but today is the one day a week it's closed. The screams of birds fill the air as Kathy's son, 31-year-old Randy, approaches. "They're used to having more attention," he says.

The pungent smell of animals permeates the area. Wild Things is home to 141 animals representing 40 species — not counting the abundant birds — from Senegal bushbabies to rabbits to jaguars to spider monkeys. As of its last federal inspection, it had 27 tigers.

Combined, Busch Gardens, Zoo Miami and all the other institutions in Florida accredited by the industry leading Association of Zoos and Aquariums have just 32. And Wild Things isn't unique in Florida. It doesn't even own the most tigers.

Florida is home to thousands of non-native animals, including elephants, tapirs, antelopes, Chinese crocodiles and arctic foxes. There are apes and monkeys galore: 7,877 in captivity, according to a Florida Trend review of hundreds of federal inspection reports. That doesn't include the colonies of escaped primates that live near Ocala and the fringe of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Tigers? Florida has 364. By contrast, there are only an estimated 100 to 180 Florida Panthers, the state's only native big cat, left in the wild.

Only a fraction of these exotica are held at top-accredited zoos or legitimate conservation facilities or sanctuaries — places like Zoo Miami; Disney's Animal Kingdom; the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in rural Palm Beach County; and Fort Pierce-based Save The Chimps, the world's largest chimpanzee sanctuary.

The rest are in private commerce at places like the Stearns' Wild Things, which Randy Stearns describes as akin to "a real old-time Florida attraction."

Going back to the 1950s, attraction operators decided that the already wild Florida locale needed more exotic company. So they began importing "jungle" animals that have been a part of Florida tourism ever since. Today, you can find exotic animals at for-profit and non-profit private zoos, as nightclub entertainment, as backdrops for weddings and corporate events, in county fairs and mall parking lot circuses and traveling menageries, at birthday parties, at fashion and TV commercial shoots, at retailers and roadside attractions, at true sanctuaries and refuges and at those that are sanctuaries in name only. Also at state parks — Lu the hippopotamus, a surviving member of a group of creatures used in TV shows and movies by Ivan Tors Animal Actors, recently celebrated her 56th birthday at Homosassa Springs State Park, which was at one time privately owned and operated as an animal attraction.

The owners of the attractions are a diverse bunch, but many have similar histories, typically progressing from the rescue of one exotic animal to taking on many more. The common theme, operators say, is their love of animals.

The Stearns family moved from Tampa 20 years ago to its 22 acres in Dade City. "I was always rescuing anything I could get my hands on," Kathy Stearns says. Her husband had a pet monkey as a kid. Randy grew up with a human sister — and monkeys and tiger cubs. Wild Things opened to the public in 2007, doubling the number of animals since 2011.

Visitors assemble at a gift shop in town and take a bus to the grounds, which feature repurposed bits of Americana such as a tractor, a phone booth, a cut-up Peterbilt cab. This year, the Stearns added a reception tent to attract corporate events and weddings. Laid back with an easy smile, Randy Stearns dresses the part of his "Tiger Man" persona, with a hat on his head decorated with crocodile teeth and a revolver on his hip.

The animals at Wild Things, he says, come from a variety of sources, including old-time attractions like Cypress Gardens and staterun Silver Springs that wanted to unload some of their exotic stock. The "mystery monkey of Tampa Bay," an animal of unknown origin that roamed Pinellas County and became a national story until captured, wound up at Wild Things.

In its 2012 federal tax return, Wild Things' reported $330,163 in revenue against $324,140 in expenses. The revenue side of the non-profit is driven by tours. A basic tour is $15 — a bargain, the family says, compared to theme parks at $100 per day — but almost all guests pay additionally for add-on tours and "encounters" with animals. The encounters serve a mission, Randy Stearns says. "If we can let people come out and hold a tiger, then they want to save the ones in the wild," he says.

Taking a page from the swim with- the-dolphins trend in tourism, Wild Things added a 30-minute swim with a tiger cub or small alligator (with its mouth taped shut) for $200 per person or $300 to swim with both. That revenue booster, however, brought scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, regulates facilities that keep exotic animals.

After ordering the tiger swims suspended in 2012, Florida's FWC, with input from the USDA, approved the swims if proper protocols were followed. FWC's most recent three inspections of Wild Things have been clean, with mi- nor structural issues that were immediately remedied. Animal housing exceeded minimum standards in a number of instances.

But in July, the USDA filed a complaint mainly over incidents in 2011 and 2012, saying Wild Things "has not shown good faith" and the gravity of violations "is great." Specifically, Wild Things "has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease and harm."

The complaint cited an instance in 2011 when a distressed cub allegedly was forced to swim, and a segment on "Good Morning America" in 2012 — still on YouTube — when the USDA says a reporter doing a story on the swims restrained a distressed cub from leaving the pool. "A Good Morning America reporter abused an animal? Come on," says Kathy Stearns. She said she could have gotten off by paying a small fine but "I'm not admitting to anything I didn't do. I'm going to have my day when I go to court. The videos speak for themselves." Animals are treated worse on late night TV appearances, she says.

Defending against activist groups is a constant process, she says, and notes the USDA complaint followed a petition filed with the USDA by activist organizations, including the Humane Society and Tampa's Big Cat Rescue. Those groups want the USDA to prohibit public contact with big cats, bears and primates. Wild Things, Zoological Wildlife in Miami-Dade and 10 other operators in Florida were among the 75 nationally that the groups named.

The activist groups say letting the public have physical contact harms the animals and risks the spread of disease to and from the public. It also encourages frivolous breeding to keep the encounters supplied with cubs, they say.

Tiger cubs can be used in encounters only for a four-week window from when they're about 8 weeks old — mature enough by USDA standards to be held by the public — to 12 weeks, after which they grow too big to be safe. But they can live for decades after that. The Humane Society also is pushing for a federal law to ban private possession and breeding of big cats by anyone except pro- fessional zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and qualifying wildlife sanctuaries.

Randy Stearns says Wild Things advances conservation. "If they're gone in the wild, the only way to keep that species alive is in captivity," he says.

But that "Noah's Ark" argument, in and of itself, doesn't hold, some say. If it's Noah's Ark, then "those animals are sentenced to an endless voyage," says Paul Reillo, founder and president of global conservation organization Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. "Captive breeding by itself is not conservation." An animal serves no purpose unless it has a traceable pedigree and is part of a program to save a species in the wild.

He says private facilities are "hit and miss." The public, he explains, should examine whether they're about to visit the equivalent of an exotic animal puppy mill or a facility that does credible science and is transparent about its finances and operations. "There are many menageries out there and whether they're private, for-profit, non-profit, the end result is they're often a sink for donations, a sink for revenue, to maintain a collection of animals," he says.

Big Cat Rescue

Carole Baskin, CEO, and her husband, Howard, run the Tampa non-profit Big Cat Rescue, one of the few sanctuaries for exotic animals in Florida that has the seal of approval from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Such sanctuaries keep animals for life and don't breed them. Her rule of thumb: "If they have cubs, it's probably a bad place. If they have cubs and they're allowing you to touch them, you know it's a bad place." She has 85 tigers, cougars, lions, bobcats and other wild felines. She has little good to say about most operators. Baskin maintains a website that keeps track of citations at other facilites. She would close every zoo, private or professional, if she could. Big Cat's 2014 IRS return shows $3.5 million in revenue against $2.3 million in expenses.

Carole Baskin's rule of thumb: "If they have cubs and they're allowing you to touch them, you know it's a bad place."

Felinity

In Brevard, non-profit Central Florida Animal Reserve has the most tigers in Florida with 29, plus a total of six lions, cougars and leopards. Volunteer CEO K. Simba Wiltz, a pharmacist, says CFAR has raised $800,000 toward the $1 million it wants to relocate to Osceola County. Its 2013 IRS filing showed $405,397 in revenue against $202,546 in expenses.

Big Cats

Some 33 counties in Florida are home to facilities that house big cats — tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, cougars and cheetahs: Gilchrist, Lee, Palm Beach, Collier, Hillsborough, Bay, Duval, Okaloosa, Polk, Seminole, St. Johns, Marion, Sarasota, Miami-Dade, Charlotte, Alachua, Lake, Okeechobee, Pasco, Hernando, DeSoto, Manatee, Levy, Sumter, Brevard, Nassau, Walton, Orange, Glades, Clay, Citrus, Hardee and Leon.

Tags: Wild Florida

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