Iowa Court of Appeals upholds Cricket Hollow Zoo animal rescue order


Controversial private zoo in eastern Iowa will remain closed after an appeals court upheld a district court order allowing animal rights activists to seize and find new homes for its hundreds of animals exotic animals.

The appeal arose out of a lawsuit brought by four women against Cricket Hollow Zoo, a Manchester roadside attraction operated by Pam and Tom Sellner. The women claimed the zoo was a public nuisance due to the widespread neglect of the animals and asked the court to allow the seizure and movement of the animals while prohibiting the Sellners from acquiring more.

In 2019, after a five-day trial that included a visit to the zoo, the judge agreed. In court, Judge Monica Wittig spoke of the “horrible stench” and said the emotions she felt after seeing the animals made it “very difficult for me to go to lunch”.

View of Iowa:The animals were neglected for a decade at an Iowa zoo. Why did I have to sue three times to get something done?

The plaintiffs were represented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and a team of attorneys from Fredrikson & Byron in Des Moines, who volunteered to work on the case. Kristy Rogers, one of Fredrikson’s attorneys, said the 2019 ruling was a milestone in Iowa’s animal welfare law.

“He says public displays of neglect or mistreatment of animals is a public nuisance. It’s a big precedent for Iowa law,” Rogers said. “It’s great to have a case that shows our law protects animals in this way.”

In a statement, the ALDF said it used the Cricket Hollow case to litigate similar nuisance actions against roadside zoos in other states.

Lawyer Larry Thorson, who represented the zoo at trial and on appeal, did not return messages seeking comment. Attorney Joey Hoover, who represents the Sellners in a related contempt of court case, said in an email that the case sets a precedent, but not a precedent.

“If ever a judge decides that a private citizen can sue under the public nuisance theory, it could cripple our agricultural economy, as farmers would have to spend thousands of dollars to fight these lawsuits paid for by these well-funded animals. and out of state. militant groups, ”he said.

He added that he hopes the Iowa legislature will look into the matter to ensure the law protects farmers.

Court of Appeal: judge’s comments did not cross the line

In their appeal, the Sellners argued that Iowa law only allowed local governments, not private citizens, to bring complaints under Iowa’s animal cruelty laws. The appeals court declined to consider this argument, saying the Sellners did not make this argument in the original trial.

The Sellners also pointed to Wittig’s comments and questions to witnesses as evidence that she “did not act fairly and impartially in deciding the case and instead acted as an advocate for the plaintiffs.”

Appeals judges declined to overturn Wittig’s decision, noting that she had promised to hear all evidence and testimony from both sides before ruling.

“The court’s references to the site visit give us pause. But the court ultimately allowed the defense to present its case and based the final order on the evidence,” Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran wrote for the three-member panel. . She adds, however, that “the best practice is for the trial judge to exercise restraint and avoid the fray.”

Editorial 2015:Why is this zoo still in operation?

Rogers said the argument failed because an allegation of judicial bias must show that a judge was influenced by knowledge outside of the case.

“It does not indicate a bias against you for the judge to hear the evidence against you… and then form an opinion based on that evidence,” she said. “That’s exactly what a trial is for.”

The ALDF statement notes a long history of litigation involving Manchester Zoo, including a 2014 lawsuit that resulted in a federal court ruling applying the protections of the Endangered Species Act to animals in captivity , and another that forced the US Department of Agriculture to revoke the zoo’s exhibitor license. in 2017. The Sellners finally came to an agreement with the ministry in 2020 to give up their license and never apply for another.

Judge could still hold the zoo in contempt

Although Wednesday’s appeal decision upheld Wittig’s original order, the district court has yet to put the case behind it. The parties have been waiting since February for Wittig to decide whether to hold the Sellners guilty of allegedly selling or giving away numerous animals before the plaintiffs can arrive to remove them.

According to court documents, Wittig filed his order granting the plaintiffs the right to save the animals on November 24, 2019. By the time the ALDF and its partners made the necessary preparations and came to collect the animals on December 9, around 110 were not found.

In a four-day trial in January, plaintiffs presented evidence that the Sellners had, in the two weeks between the order and the rescue, “unloaded as many animals as they could,” Rogers said. . The extinct animals included bears, pumas and tropical birds.

From the 2015 test:Cricket Hollow vet testifies in support of struggling zoo

The Sellners, represented by Hoover, argued that there was no evidence that they disposed of animals after the order was issued rather than before. Even if the court found them in contempt, the appropriate fine would not exceed $ 100, they argued.

During the trial, Pamela Sellner blamed the ALDF, which she called an “animal rights terrorist group”, for disrupting her livelihood.

“It was a very sad day, to think that all the deception and ignorance of your group can destroy businesses and people’s livelihoods,” Sellner told an ALDF lawyer. “I’ve spent my whole life building this (zoo) for kids, and then you came and stole it in a few days.”

According to the ALDF, more than 400 animals have been rescued from Cricket Hollow Zoo. A spokesperson said the nonprofit had spent “well over $ 100,000” on the rescue, housing and subsequent veterinary care for many animals, in addition to the time and effort of d ‘other partner organizations.

William Morris covers the courts for the Des Moines register. He can be contacted at, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.

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