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Exotic beasts find natural ally
Wildlife champion Kathy Stearns is expanding her rehabilitation zoo to open a nonprofit gift shop.
By HELEN ANNE TRAVIS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 4, 2007
DADE CITY - The green trolley car lumbers down Blanton Road, slowing traffic. It stops when it comes to a high red brick wall split by a large wrought-iron gate. The gate is embellished with a tall, angular letter S and looks like it came straight out of Jurassic Park.
It opens for the trolley and shuts securely behind the awkward vehicle.
Roosters and peacocks putter around the grounds and an emu with a bad leg drinks from a fountain. In the distance, cages speckle the 22 acres. The air smells strongly of grass and faintly of animal droppings.
Kathy Stearns, 47, blond and hazel-eyed, greets the trolley riders in a mini denim skirt and white high-heeled sandals.
She says she's going to give them a tour, bring them by the cougars and leopard cages. She'll introduce them to the macaques and black bears.
Stearns knows the terrain well. This is her back yard.
Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Center opened in 2003. Those in the know could sign up for private tours of the center's 150-plus animals.
But Kathy is ready to take it to the next level.
She and her husband, Kenny, are opening Wild Things, a shop filled with stuffed animals and wildlife kitsch, today in downtown Dade City. Proceeds from the shop benefit the zoological center. Both Wild Things and the zoo are nonprofits.
Wild Things shoppers can pay to take a trolley from the store to the zoo for a private tour.
As the center grows, Stearns will be assisted, and eventually replaced, by other guides. She needs a vacation, too.
But guests who sign up for tours within the store's first few months will be able to explore Kathy's backyard wilderness with the woman who created it.
* * *
There wasn't any money for college and Stearns was quite happy with her roles as wife and mother.
Even if she had the time and cash, Stearns wouldn't have even thought to go to veterinary school. She didn't get her first rehabbing experience - helping an injured raccoon - until her youngest daughter was 2.
Twenty-two years and tens of thousands of training hours later, Stearns owns nearly 200 native and exotic animals.
The majority are rescued. Veterinarians from Pasco and surrounding counties often direct wounded and unwanted animals her way. So does the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
She rehabs the native animals - deer, panthers, armadillos - in a private hospital on her premises. It's not part of the tour.
The goal for rescues is to release them to the wild after minimal contact with humans. Sometimes the injured animals don't make it.
"I'll be bawling for three days," Stearns says. "But there's always more animals to keep me busy."
If an animal survives but isn't well enough to be released, it gets a spot on Stearns' tour.
A quarter of the animals, the exotics mostly, are from shut-down zoos and breeders. These animals were raised by humans and can never be released to the wild.
Some come to her as babies, and Stearns can't help but get attached. She talks to the macaques in a voice others might use for their pet cats. She scratches the lion's mane through the chain-link fence. The otter gets excited when she comes into its cage to play.
Visitors can get closer to the leopards and jaguars than they can at other area zoos, but they can't get as close as Stearns does.
"I just know how to read them," she says when guests gawk at her bravery with the animals. "They don't really lose their wild instincts. You've just got to know the signs."
Sometimes people are worried about the animals. Stearns says she keeps the cages larger than required by the state, but some guests still find it odd to see a lion behind a chain-link fence.
"The animals in captivity have never experienced the wild," she says. "And if you consider most animals in the wild, they don't live a long life. They're always hungry, they're always fighting for their territory and their right to breed."
Stearns' animals get fresh produce three times a week from a man who delivers food to local restaurants. The Bengal tigers devour 15 pounds of Super Wal-Mart chicken pieces, bone and all, in less than five minutes.
The African servals are fixed because they're siblings, but Stearns keeps many of her animals fertile. She hopes that other zoos and rescue centers will use her animals for breeding, especially the endangered species.
"I would like to be a part of saving them."
* * *
The three-hour tour ends back in Stearns' driveway. One of the center's two zookeepers lets tour members pet the chick she saved a few weeks ago. The family dog, Pork Chop, circles Stearns as she waves goodbye to the guests boarding the trolley.