Veterinary board won’t initiate probe of zoo vet

By: - January 8, 2020 6:30 am

In December 2019, hundreds of animals at Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa, were relocated by court order. (Photo from U.S. District Court exhibits)

The Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine will not initiate its own investigation into the veterinarian who worked for the recently shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester.

The board chairman, Dr. Keith Leonard of Atlantic, said Tuesday that no one has complained to the board about the veterinary care at the privately run zoo, and the board only initiates investigations in response to complaints.

He acknowledged that he’d seen media reports on conditions at the zoo, which were described by a judge as “deplorable.”

“I have no information about that other than I know they closed it down – which, from the pictures I saw on TV, it looked like it should have been done a long time ago,” Leonard said.

One reason the zoo remained open despite concerns raised by visitors and federal inspectors was that its state-licensed veterinarian, Dr. Ivan Lilienthal of Delhi, Iowa, was signing annual federal forms indicating he would be providing veterinary care for the animals.

Six weeks ago, Iowa District Court Judge Monica Wittig stated in a court ruling that animals at the zoo had been afforded “little to no veterinarian care on a regular basis” and that the zoo “lost a large number of animals over the years due to infection, zoonotic illnesses and improper veterinarian care.”

Asked why the board doesn’t self-initiate investigations, Leonard said, “It’s just historical precedent, as far as I know.”

Under Iowa law, the veterinary board can, “upon its own motion or upon a verified complaint in writing,” initiate proceedings against a licensed veterinarian.

Tracey Kuehl of eastern Iowa is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that resulted in last month’s court-ordered relocation of more than 400 animals from Cricket Hollow. Kuehl says she doesn’t understand why the veterinary board wouldn’t look into the care provided by the zoo’s veterinarian without first getting a complaint.

“I feel like this is just them putting their proverbial head in the sand,” she said.

Amanda Howell, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, says the concerns expressed by the judge in the case should serve as a complaint if that’s what’s needed for the licensing board to take action.

“There is irrevocable and unimpeachable evidence that a veterinarian has been holding himself out as providing veterinary care while completely failing to provide any veterinary care and while animals have died of neglect and disease on his watch,” she said. “Eighty animals, I think, died within the last year and he didn’t perform a single necropsy to figure out why the animals were dying.”

Lilienthal and the zoo’s owners, Thomas and Pamela Sellner, did not respond to calls and text messages seeking comment.

The veterinary care at the zoo was the subject of criticism in Wittig’s court ruling, which led to the animals being relocated last month.

In her ruling, Judge Wittig described Lilienthal as “a graduate of what is believed to be the College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul, Minnesota … His main area of practice is hoof trimming. He also cares for cattle. He has no office; he uses the back of his pick-up as an examination table.

An overhead view of Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa. (Photo from U.S. District Court exhibits)

“Dr. Lilienthal visits the zoo approximately six times a year, stating he sometimes does not see every animal every time … He has no training in exotic animal care. He also testified that he had never read the Animal Welfare Act because it’s taking information off a piece of paper and you are telling people how to run their life. He has no knowledge of enrichment requirements for the animals at the zoo. He also was not able to discuss the term ‘enrichment.’ His impression is that the word is made up by the animal-rights activists and means nothing. Most importantly, he does not conduct any hands-on examination of the animals or do necropsies at their death.”

Wittig found that Lilienthal provided the majority of Cricket Hollow’s veterinary care by telephone. For three years, he was the veterinarian for the hundreds of animals housed at the zoo, but the “total sum of his records on (the Sellners’) animals consists of five pages of notes,” Wittig found.  

The judge made a personal visit to the zoo and stated in her ruling, “Before reaching the door, an offensive smell was overwhelming and deplorable. One of the experts indicated she regurgitated in her mouth while inside. The aquariums were encrusted with algae. In some instances, one could not see inside through the glass to view the animal on exhibit. The floor was filthy and sticky. The bird cages were riddled with poop, cobwebs, rust, and dirty substrate. The ventilation in the reptile house was so bad it was suffocating.”

In her ruling, Wittig made note of Compliance Investigator Douglas Anderson of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, who began visiting the zoo in 2012 as a result of complaints to the state. He generally issued favorable reports on the zoo and the Sellners.

“Mr. Anderson has no training in the care or husbandry of exotic animals,” Wittig wrote. “He refers to anyone placing a concern about the facility as the ‘complainers.’ His reports however show that he has found violations in the past and has not taken any action to rectify the same … The general public and even state employees such as Inspector Anderson see the issues very complacently and treat the issues as bothersome. The Sellners are nice people and that seems to grant them exemptions.”

In November, an Iowa judge declared conditions at the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa, to be “deplorable.” (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits)

In one 2013 email that Anderson sent to colleagues at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, he wrote that he had visited the zoo “for a pre-emptive strike on the upcoming complaint season.”

When asked about Anderson’s actions and the judge’s ruling, Keely Coppess, communications director for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said, “Cricket Hollow is a USDA-licensed and inspected facility” — a reference to the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture.   

She said IDALS has “added more veterinary staff, which gives the department more capacity to better serve Iowa’s animal industries. We also completed a comprehensive review and revision of the animal welfare rules that fall under the department’s regulatory authority based on input from key stakeholders, including animal welfare groups and the department’s animal inspectors.”

She said the new rules, which take effect Wednesday, are “intended to elevate the standard of care for all animals in commercial establishments in Iowa.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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