Photo: Dade City's Wild ThingsTigers 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.
Cash menageries: Exotic and wild animals as entertainment in Florida
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.