Piles of dead animals were found at Iowa zoo, according to court testimony

In December 2019, 400 animals at Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa, were relocated by court order. (Photo from U.S. District Court exhibits)

An investigator tasked with rescuing animals from the shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester testified Wednesday that she stumbled upon “piles” of dead animals when she launched an investigation there 13 months ago.

This camel, seen here at Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa, before the facility’s court-ordered closure, is missing, according to court records. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits.)

The testimony came in the first day of a contempt-of-court trial of the zoo’s owners, Thomas and Pamela Sellner of Manchester. The two are alleged to have violated a judge’s order requiring them to cooperate with rescue groups. The groups were to take custody of the zoo’s animals after the judge effectively ordered the roadside attraction closed due to numerous allegations of animal neglect.

Court records indicate when the rescue groups arrived at the zoo in December 2019, dozens of animals were unaccounted for, including four or five grizzly bears. Testimony on Wednesday indicated that when members of one rescue group first arrived on the scene, they found many of the cages and enclosures were empty.

After expanding their search for animals to the Sellners’ neighboring dairy farm, they allegedly found piles of dead animals in various stages of decay, as well as live zoo animals that appeared to have been hidden on the farm.

“There were animals in the dairy farm field that were not dairy cows,” Elizabeth Putsche of the Animal Legal Defense Fund testified. “There were some miniature ponies, at least one llama and some rabbits … On the back end of that field was a large pile of decomposing animals, mixed with some sticks and mud and brush. There were clearly animals who had been decomposing there for a significant amount of time and were reduced to bones. And there were fresh animals who still were completely intact but were clearly dead and left on the pile. There was also blood present within the mud, so then it was very clear that this was a recent addition to the pile.”

Putsche testified that Pamela Sellner didn’t cooperate with the court-ordered evacuation of the zoo.

“Mrs. Sellner was what I would call extremely aggressive,” Putsche testified. “She was yelling, she was cursing, she was getting in our face. She was trying to impede our progress.”

Because the trial involves charges of contempt of court, it is considered a “quasi-criminal” proceeding and much of the testimony is focused not on the issue of animal neglect, but on the issue of whether the Sellners defied the court’s order to turn over their animals.

However, evidence was provided Tuesday that indicates some of the animals that were moved or sold by the Sellners before the animal-welfare groups arrived on the scene died as a result.

For example, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports for an Indiana animal exhibitor were introduced as evidence and they indicate that two brown bears died due to transportation stress shortly after being taken from the Manchester zoo to Indiana.

The issue of neglect at the zoo was the focus of civil-court proceedings in 2019.  Iowa District Court Judge Monica Wittig ultimately declared conditions at Cricket Hollow to be “deplorable” and ordered the Sellners to relinquish custody all of the exotic animals and wildlife in their care. Roughly 400 animals were successfully relocated.

In her ruling, Wittig was critical of the veterinary care provided to the zoo by Dr. Ivan Lilienthal of Delhi. In a deposition, Lilienthal boasted of never familiarizing himself with the Animal Welfare Act that regulates the care of zoo animals, and attempted to evade questions about state oversight of the zoo.

Lilienthal was combative at times and refused to answer questions about his conversations regarding the zoo with Delaware County Sheriff John LeClere and the state veterinarian, Dr. Gary Eiben of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

“I cannot talk about that because I’m not going to get them in trouble,” he testified. When advised that he was obligated to answer questions or run the risk of being jailed, he replied, “Well, then put me in jail … Go ahead … Not answering … Put me in jail. Fine … I am not answering because Sheriff LeClere and Dr. Eiben are really good people.”

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

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 was also critical 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. Anderson 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 in her ruling. “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.”

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.