Animal-welfare group asks judge to consider heavy fines and jail in Cricket Hollow case

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

The animal-welfare organization that’s battling the owners of Iowa’s Cricket Hollow Zoo are asking the court to fine the owners roughly $50,000 and consider jailing the couple for up to six months if they are found guilty of contempt of court.

The two owners of the now-shuttered zoo, Pamela and Thomas Sellner of Manchester, are accused of violating a judge’s 2019 order requiring them to cooperate with rescue groups who were to take custody of the animals due to numerous findings of neglect.

Roughly 100 animals — five bears, two mountain lions, a fox, a wolf, a camel and a large variety of birds, turtles, hedgehogs, snakes and reptiles — were covered by the judge’s Nov. 24, 2019, court order but were not at the Manchester zoo when rescue groups arrived at the roadside attraction on Dec. 9, 2019.

The critical issue facing the court is when the Sellners disposed of those animals. If they were sold or given away after Nov. 24, the couple could be found guilty of contempt of court.

The Sellners claim that while they did allow other individuals to take animals from the zoo after Nov. 24, that was done pursuant to agreements that were reached before the court order was issued. However, that claim is undermined by the Sellners’ admission that even after Nov. 24, they were still planning to reopen their zoo in the spring of 2020 — which raises the question of why they would have sold or given away so many of their animals before the court ordered them to relinquish ownership.

Also, Pamela Sellner testified at trial that she sold many of the animals to unknown individuals in exchange for cash, so there’s no documentation as to when, or to whom, those animals were sold.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is pursuing the contempt action, says in new court filings that the Sellners are “relying on a story so preposterous that it is, beyond any reasonable doubt, a total fabrication.”

The ALDF is asking the court to impose the maximum fine of $500 for each of the 29 animals that were not at the zoo on Dec. 9 but were found there during a Dec. 12 re-visit by the rescue groups. The ALDF also asks the court to impose a $500 fine for each animal that couldn’t be located during either visit.

The organization is also asking the court to sentence the Sellners to six months in jail unless the couple can return the still-missing animals or produce proof that it’s impossible for them to do so.

The Sellners’ defense attorney, Joey Hoover, has argued that while his clients did not violate the court order, the appropriate punishment for contempt of court would be a total fine of $100.

In its most recent post-trial brief, the ALDF argues that the Sellners “manufactured paperwork, often times in violation of state or federal law, in order to cover up their willful violations” of the court order. The organization alleges that after the Iowa Supreme Court rejected the Sellners’ appeal of the Nov. 24 court order, the couple “acted swiftly to unload as many zoo animals onto their friends as they could” in an effort to “prevent the zoo animals from going to ‘evil’ accredited sanctuaries and zoos where they would have received vital veterinary care and rehabilitative treatment.”

The ALDF says the Sellners’ efforts “likely resulted in the deaths of at least two brown bears, one mountain lion, a fennec fox, three groundhogs, kinkajous, and many other animals.”