Judges grill lawyers for closed zoo in appeal requesting new trial

By: - June 22, 2021 5:55 pm

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

Iowa Court of Appeals judges on Tuesday questioned why lawyers for a Delaware County zoo closed for “deplorable” conditions didn’t object more aggressively to a judge’s actions in district court. 

Delaware County District Judge Monica Zrinyi Wittig in 2019 cited “unsanitary, horrible” conditions for animals at the zoo before ordering the long-time private attraction closed and the animals moved to other facilities. 

Attorneys for zoo owners Pamela and Thomas Sellner appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday. They questioned the district judge’s objectivity and comments she made to witnesses in the case. 

One of the Sellners’ attorneys, Larry Thorson, said the zoo owners want a new trial and the ability to sell zoo animals that were, in their opinion, domestic livestock. 

Thorson reviewed for the appeals court judges what the zoo owners considered inflammatory comments the trial judge made about the zoo in the case. The district judge visited the facility during the trial, and did not base her ruling just on testimony in the courtroom, the Sellners allege. 

They also argued about whether the court properly applied the language in some portions of public nuisance laws. 

Appeals Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran asked Thorson if the appeal is moot given a consent decree the zoo owners signed with government inspectors that decided the fate of the animals. 

Thorson said the consent decree came after the court decision his clients now question. He said the appeal is about whether they should be allowed to sell the sheep, pot belly pigs, and horses that were part of a 100-animal attraction that included bears, mountain lions, a fox, a wolf, a camel and birds, turtles, snakes and reptiles.

“There is value in those animals,” Thorson said of the more domestic animals.

Appeals Judge Arthur Gamble noted that the Sellners had not objected to the comments made by the judge to witnesses, or asked for a mistrial immediately after the visit to the zoo.

“I notice there was no objection at the time,” Gamble said.   

In response to questions from the appeals judges, Kristy Rogers, representing the plaintiffs, acknowledged that the district judge had made errors in some of her statements about her powers, but argued that the facility had properly been ruled a nuisance. 

When Vaitheswaran asked about the legal fine points of the nuisance arguments, Rogers responded that the judge was trying to get the owners to change the operation and had encouraged an agreement among the parties. “The violations were so ongoing,” the judge eventually shut the place down, Rogers said. 

“There was a fundamental difference in perception,” among the owners and the zoo’s critics,  she added.

Gamble questioned Rogers about the severity of the district judge’s order, which she cast as the minimal action the situation called for.

“There could be no less than forfeiture?” Gamble asked.

In a separate case, the Sellners are accused of contempt of court over how they handled getting rid of the animals and working with rescue organizations.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.