Animal groups want swimming with tiger cubs to stop

Petition filed with USDA

TAMPA - These days, Tony the Tiger is the main attraction at Dade City's Wild Things.

For $200, visitors to the private zoo can spend a half-hour swimming with the ten week-old cub.

But if Carole Baskin and many others have their way, it will soon be against the law.

"It's so sad to see people handing these cubs, because I wonder are they thinking what kind of life this animal has when they are not there," said Baskin.

Baskin runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. A sanctuary with hundreds of tigers, cougars and leopards.

She teamed up with several animal conservation groups to file a petition with the US Department of Agriculture. Their goal is to stop public contact with big cats that includes swimming and feeding.

"USDA guidelines say that you can only handle a big cat between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks. So that animal is being bred for a four-week shelf life, and then regulated to horrible barren, backyard cages or worse," said Baskin.

At Wild Things they've been offering people the chance to handle animals for more than ten years and swim with them for five. And they say they've never had any problem.

Wild Things Owner Kathy Stearns says the pool interaction is a great teaching tool that allows the public to better understand big cats, while they are still small enough to handle.

"A lot of our business comes from other people, word of mouth, they like the idea of learning, education, they get the tour they see the full grown ones. They know what they are going to get into," said Stearns.

The idea of swimming with wild animals got national attention when word got out about the bay area company that brought small alligators to birthday parties to swim with kids in home pools. State officials put a stop to that.

Now Tony's been featured by national media as well.

It's led to more customers coming to Wild Things, but they've also got threatening phone calls from those against what they offer.

"They had their opinions, and it's a shame they don't respect our opinions as well," said Stearns.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says some physical contact with captive wildlife is permitting, but swimming with big cats is a potential threat to the public as well as the animals. They say it may also violate state code.

Meanwhile, Tony is off for another swim with another group ready for a close encounter.

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