USDA files complaint against private Dade City zoo

click to enlarge USDA files complaint against private Dade City zoo - dade city's wild things' Facebook page
dade city's wild things' Facebook page
USDA files complaint against private Dade City zoo

A Pasco County wildlife attraction, Dade's City Wild Things, is under fire for the way it treats some of its residents, namely, juvenile tigers that it allows visitors to swim with for $200 a pop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month filed a complaint against the zoo over conditions some animals are kept in as well as the swim-with-the-tigers experience.

From the complaint:

"Despite having received multiple inspection reports identifying noncompliance with the Regulations and failures to comply with the Standards, and the receipt of an Official Warning, respondent [Dade City Wild Things] has continued to mishandle animals, particularly infant and juvenile tigers, exposing these animals and the public to injury, disease, and harm. Respondent held or participated in events that included allowing members of the public to handle young and juvenile tigers, to paint the fur of young and juvenile tigers, and to force young and juvenile tigers to 'swim' and to 'play' with members of the public."

The violations include handlers forcing a little tiger to swim in the pool "despite the tiger's obvious discomfort," exposing them to "rough or excessive handling," exhibiting monkeys and tigers at unsafe distances from the public and failing to keep enclosures in decent repair (including excess water in cages and loose electrical wires).

"The gravity of the violations alleged in this complaint is great, involving multiple failures to handle animals carefully and to provide access for inspection," the complaint reads.

Potential consequences include a fine up to $10,000 and a cease and desist order.

Multiple animal rights groups laud the agency's action.

"Formal administrative complaints are issued in only the most serious cases," said Animal Rights Foundation of Florida spokesman Nick Atwood. "It is time for Dade City's Wild Things to stop their dangerous and abusive exhibition of tiger cubs. This case is further evidence that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission should prohibit public handling of big cats, bears, and primates. Public contact puts animals at risk and endangers the public."

Kathy Stearns, the attraction's director, denied all of the allegations outlined in the complaint.

"On principle I won't settle this," Stearns told the Tampa Bay Times. "I'm going to take it all the way because I know for a fact that I have not done these things."

Susan Bass, a spokesperson for Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit in the Citrus Park area of Tampa, said she has gone to the facility multiple times undercover (she says she would not have been let in if they knew who she worked for), and found the conditions deplorable. She recalls one winter day when handlers and visitors wore wetsuits to get into the frigid water while a reluctant baby tiger was brought into the water, and no one attempting to dry or warm the cub after it exited the pool shivering.

"We are very pleased that USDA has actually taken this step and will actually holds them accountable for what the USDA says seems to be willful violation of the Animal Welfare Act," Bass sad

Big Cat Rescue aims to end the exploitation of lions, tigers and other big cats so facilities like Big Cat Rescue aren't needed to serve as sanctuary anymore. Bass said she's unclear on where the tiger cubs come from, and is concerned about whether they're bred in captivity. She also wonders what happens to the cubs once they're too old to be held by or go in a swimming pool with humans.

"You can only do this with a cub, have direct contact with a cub, when they're very small and not incredibly dangerous," she said. "They can still actually hurt a person even when they're very young, and they have diseases they can spread to people and people can spread diseases to the cubs. Their immune systems aren't developed yet."

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