Alisa Manzelli, Global Animal
FLORIDA — The latest controversial attraction at Dade City’s Wild Things, a 22-acre private zoo in Pasco County, not only allows patrons to interact with a slew of wild animals, but also provides the public with a chance to actually swim alongside Siberian tiger cubs.
Drawing customers from all over the globe, these tiger pool parties are described as a “roaring success.”
After making a reservation, signing a general release form, and paying $200, patrons are allotted 30 minutes to cuddle, bottle feed, and/or swim with the facility’s star attraction, an eight-week-old cub, Tony the tiger.
“I never thought I’d get to touch one, much less swim with one,” said Bertha Cruz, who described her time with Tony.
When asked whether or not swimming with a tiger cub is dangerous or not, the facility’s president and head trainer Randy Stearns said, “Well, with any animal there’s always a risk. It’s not like we’re going to just throw you in the pool and say, here’s the tiger. You’re in there with at least one of the trainers actually in the water with you.”
“They’re very strong, but they’re also very well trained,” he said. “That’s why a lot of other facilities don’t let you interact with the cubs, because they don’t have the staff or the knowledge to do it.”
And to Stearns’ knowledge, his facility is the only place in the U.S. where you can swim with tigers.
Wild Things director Kathy Stearns takes credit for coming up with the idea for the tiger swims and says the zoo has not had any close calls —yet.
There are really no laws regulating swimming with tigers. Florida State law says it’s fine for humans to interact with big cats until they reach 40 pounds. And at 25 pounds, tigers require a harness and a trainer must be present. According to the statue, “All wildlife shall be exhibited in a manner that prevents injuries to the public and to the animals.”
“But what a lot of people don’t know is that its actually safer to swim with them outside of the water, that way they’re too busy swimming to swat you,” as reported by Matt Gutman of ABC News.
“The whole idea is to socialize animals who were born in captivity and will live the rest of their lives in captivity,” he concluded.
There are currently more tigers in U.S. backyards than in the wild, according to the Associated Press. And in some states, it is easier to adopt a tiger than a kitten.
Two pieces of legislation address ownership of big cats and if passed, the bills would prohibit the private ownership and breeding of big cats. Therefore, only zoos, licensed sanctuaries, and conservatories would be allowed to own and breed large cats.
Wild Things Inc. claims to be in conjunction with Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Inc. Their website states, “You will be amazed at how close you will be to stalking tigers, playing bears, roaring lions, mischievious monkeys, swimming otters, calling birds and so much more.” But we can’t help but ask: are the rescued and rehabilitated animals the same animals used for entertainment?
A similar attraction that allows the public to hold and feed rescued baby gators was recently shutdown in Madeira Beach, FL.
Bob Barrett’s Tampa Bay business, the Alligator Attraction, began as a beachside attraction where tourists would take a picture with any of his 50 alligators. But when business slowed down, Barrett began transporting alligators to children’s birthday parties for just $175.
“If you’re 9, 10 or 11 years old, you’ve already had the ‘jumparoo’ house, the bounce house, you’ve had the pizza party, you’ve had the clown party,” Barrett said. “You get to have a pool party with a gator. It’s a very popular party.”
Barrett claims his business methods were completely safe as he would tape the baby gators’ mouths shut before parties.
Similarly, Wild Things provides customers the opportunity to interact and swim with a four-foot-long alligator, Ally, who also has her mouth taped shut.
However, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission soon became inundated with phone calls from concerned citizens who felt the parties were too dangerous. The organization quickly shut down the operation and ultimately determined that Barrett isn’t doing anything illegal as there are no safety violations, while adding in a statement, “We will say that this is not something that we encourage.”
Born Free USA’s executive vice president Adam Roberts states, “You should never have close human contact with animals, especially actual petting of wild animals. They belong in the wild and people should not get in the habit of being in close contact with them.”