Zoo attorney argues a finding of guilt would warrant no more than a $100 fine

A judge ruled in November that animals at Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa, had died due to "improper" veterinary care. (Photo from U.S. District Court exhibits)

The attorney representing the operators of eastern Iowa’s Cricket Hollow Zoo said his clients never violated a court order pertaining to their animals, but if they did, a fine of $100 would be appropriate.

Pamela and Thomas are Sellner of Manchester are accused of contempt of court for allegedly violating a judge’s 2019 order requiring them to cooperate with rescue groups who were to take custody of the wild animals at their roadside attraction due to numerous allegations of animal neglect.

All of the parties agree that many animals covered by the judge’s Nov. 24, 2019, court order were not at the Manchester zoo when the rescue groups arrived there on Dec. 9, 2019. The missing animals included five bears, two mountain lions, a fox, a wolf, a camel and a large variety of birds, turtles, hedgehogs, snakes and reptiles.

The critical issue facing the court is when the Sellners disposed of those animals. If they were sold or given away after the court order was issued, the couple could be found guilty of contempt of court.

Normally, the sale or transfer of live zoo animals — particularly the wild animals tracked by federal regulators — would be thoroughly documented. Pamela Sellner, however, testified at trial last week that she sold many of the animals to unknown individuals in exchange for cash, so there’s no evidence of when, or to whom, the animals were sold.

As for one of the wild animals, a wolf, Sellner said she once had the required paperwork documenting the sale, but inadvertently destroyed it by putting it through the wash. In addition, the legitimacy of paperwork tied to the transfer of other animals from the zoo was called into question at trial by a handwriting expert.

In delivering his written closing arguments in the case, defense attorney Joey Hoover pointed to his own clients’ lack of written documentation and noted that the plaintiffs in the case, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, have the burden of showing when the animals were sold or given away.

He argued that the ALDF is asking the court “to say we expected these animals to be at the zoo and they weren’t, so you should punish the defendants. Fortunately for the defendants, that is not the standard … The court should find that it cannot say beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants transferred the animals after the court order.”

Hoover also argued that after the court ordered the Sellners to relinquish ownership of the animals but before the rescue groups arrived at the zoo, the Sellners took the initiative and continued feeding the animals.

“No one had hired them to take care of the animals, (and) they no longer had a duty to feed said animals,” Hoover stated. “The court did not order them to take care of the animals pending transfer … yet the defendants, in their care and compassion for the animals they raised, fed them anyways.”

Hoover acknowledged that two mountain lions were still on the zoo property after the court issued its order on Nov. 24, 2019, but were taken away by an Ohio wildlife exhibitor before the rescue groups arrived on the scene. However, Hoover agued, there was a written agreement, executed two weeks before the court order, for the Ohio exhibitor to eventually take custody of the two mountain lions.

As for his clients’ credibility, Hoover argued that Pamela Sellner “did not try to make herself look like an angel while everyone else was evil … If she was trying to subvert the court order, she would have likely gotten rid of a larger portion of the animals.”

The ALDF has yet to file its closing argument in the case. Because the trial involves charges of contempt of court, it is considered a “quasi-criminal” proceeding. Hoover said that while the court should find his clients innocent, a finding of guilt should not result in a jail sentence, adding that a fine of $100 “would be the most appropriate punishment.”

The contempt-of-court proceeding is the latest round in a six-year string of state and federal litigation involving the Sellners. In 2014, the ALDF sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for repeatedly renewing Cricket Hollow’s exhibitor license despite a long history of animal-welfare violations. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed that case in 2016, but that ruling was reversed by the the U.S. Court of Appeals, which said the USDA could not  “arbitrarily and capriciously” renew licenses for zoos known to be in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

Soon after, the USDA suspended Cricket Hollow’s exhibitor license and imposed a $10,000 fine against the Sellners.

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.