Tiger cub raised ruckus at Wiregrass mall Saturday
By LISA A. DAVIS The Tampa Tribune
A central Pasco outdoor mall boasts that it’s pet friendly, even supplying baggies when furry friends take care of business on its grounds.
But on Saturday, Shops at Wiregrass officials say, a group of people took it too far when they brought a leashed 4-month-old tiger cub.
The group, from Dade City Wild Things, a nonprofit zoological rescue and rehab , went to the mall around 5:30 p.m. to promote their cause and were handing out fliers during the mall’s car show Saturday night.
“We didn’t know it would be a big to-do,” said zoo director Kathy Stearns. “We just thought that people would like to see the tiger.”
So, they doubled-leashed Bo, the cub, with Stearns and her 25-year-old son, Randall, each holding one, and they strolled through the main outdoor concourse where the show was being held. Sure, she said, Bo drew attention. Lots of people seemed surprised but not startled and many took pictures, she said.
When a rainstorm rolled in with heavy lightening, she said, they had to quickly seek shelter. She and her son stood in the door of American Eagle with Bo. That’s when trouble began.
“The lightning go so bad, I was like everyone’s got to go in, Kathy Stearns said. “It was just one of those really bad storms.”
Bo, who started being socialized when he was only two weeks old, seemed fine with the storm but Stearns wanted to keep him occupied because he doesn’t usually sit in public for long periods of time. She had her son buy Bo an inexpensive jacket from American Eagle so he could play. She held on to the arm and they played a bit of game of tug-of-war. He also played, mostly laying on his back, with the paper bag it came with, shredding it.
Something made the store manager nervous, it seems. He at first he didn’t appear bothered by the cub, Stearns said, and was asking questions about it. Then suddenly mall security appeared and they asked the group to leave.
No soliciting is allowed at Wiregrass. Stearns said she couldn’t leave immediately because of the storm but left when it was safe. Apparently, at some point the sheriff’s office was called and security officers gave deputies a different account of what happened.
A store video tape, according to a Pasco Sheriff’s Office report, shows that the group actually went inside the store with the tiger and stood in an alcove adjacent to the doors. Customers came within a couple of feet of the tiger. The manager asked them to leave and eventually they moved outside to under the awning but were blocking the entryway, the report states.
“The individuals were very belligerent and refused to leave,” a deputy wrote in a report. “One of the females went as far as to say he was discriminating against animals and that she had a right to be on the mall property.”
Stearns said none of that is true.
When deputies arrived, however, the tiger and most members of the group were gone. Stearns said her son and a couple of his friends stayed behind to do some shopping. Randall Stearns and a deputy had words but he eventually left, the report says.
Nobody was arrested, and, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Stearns didn’t do anything illegal. She has her permits and the cub is within the age and weight restrictions to be out in the public.
“”It’s fairly common to see these and start socializing these animals,” said Gary Morse, FWC spokesman. “And it’s a real good idea.”
Of course, none of that matters when a tiger is brought uninvited onto private property.
“Any pets that are perceived to be a possible threat to the safety and comfort of our guests cannot be on the property,” said Greg Lenners, general manager of Wiregrass. “We perceived it as still being a wild animal.”
In addition, he said, the group was soliciting and that’s also a no-no.
Bo resides at the zoo’s 22-acre facility in Dade City with his brother, Luke and sister, Daisy. They are three of more than 190 exotic animals available for public viewing at the property accessible only by their special trolley. Donations and proceeds from the tickets cost are the only funding for the facility. Their Web site can be found at http://www.dadecityswildthings.com.