Legal battle over zoo concludes, but questions about lack of enforcement linger

By: - September 29, 2021 12:46 pm

After years of litigation, the legal fight over the court-ordered shutdown of an eastern Iowa zoo continues. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits)

After years of litigation, the legal fight over the court-ordered shutdown of an eastern Iowa zoo appears to be at an end, but questions remain over Iowa’s enforcement of animal-protection laws.

The Iowa Supreme Court this week refused to review an Iowa Court of Appeals decision that said the owners of Manchester’s Cricket Hollow Zoo received a fair trial in 2019.

The Supreme Court’s decision comes three years to the day after a group of Iowans, assisted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit against the zoo’s owners, owners, Pamela and Thomas Sellner, alleging numerous violations of Iowa’s animal neglect laws. And that lawsuit was only one of several cases involving the zoo dating back seven years, to 2014.

Although the decision brings to an end the Sellners’ appeal of the 2019 ruling declaring their roadside zoo to be a public nuisance, it does not address the larger issue that lay at the heart of the court battle: the lack of enforcement of state and federal animal-protection laws.

It was the perceived lack of enforcement that prompted the judge in the case, Monica Zrinyi Wittig, to remark during the trial, “Our government is just sitting on its laurels and doing nothing. And there’s a reason that they exist. I pay my taxes for them to exist.”

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

Despite the zoo’s well-documented history of keeping animals in what Wittig called “deplorable” conditions, no federal, state or county officials had ever attempted to close the zoo or bring criminal charges against the owners. In addition, state licensing officials took no public action against the zoo’s veterinarian, even after his care of the animals was declared by Wittig to be substandard.

It fell to a group of Iowa citizens Tracey Kuehl, Lisa Kuehl, Pamela Jones and Haley Anderson and the ALDF to bring the matter to court through several rounds of state and federal civil litigation that was initiated at the ALDF’s own expense.

“There was a complete lack of enforcement here by those charged with protecting animals,” said Amanda Howell, attorney for the ALDF. “If the system was working as it should, we would never have to bring any of these cases.”

In fact, the Sellners’ own attorney attempted to use the lack of law enforcement action in his clients’ favor at the 2019 civil trial, arguing the Sellners’ conduct could not be considered a nuisance because no “law enforcement or any local authority alleged they were creating a nuisance.”

Federal agency renewed license despite violations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the agency that licenses zoos like Cricket Hollow. In theory, those licenses are granted only to zoos that comply with the federal agency’s regulations but as the USDA later admitted, it tended to rubber-stamp license-renewal requests. If the fees were paid, the license renewals were automatically granted, regardless of how well the animals were cared for and regardless of the number of violations.

In May 2014, for example, the USDA cited Cricket Hollow for 11 violations. That same day, it renewed the zoo’s license for one year, despite a federal law that says no license shall be issued to a zoo that fails to comply with minimum standards.

USDA officials later defended their actions by arguing the law applied only to the initial issuance of a license, and renewals were to be automatically approved without regard to regulatory compliance. In 2015, the USDA renewed the Cricket Hollow’s license again, despite having documented more than 100 violations over the previous five years.

The agency’s actions led to a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and while the USDA initially denied any wrongdoing, it eventually revoked Cricket Hollow’s license due to its past history of violations.

Judge: State inspectors took no action

During the 2019 public-nuisance trial, the Sellners’ attorney pointed out that enclosures at the zoo met all of the standards imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In response, Wittig said, “If that’s the case, the USDA requirements are so pale in comparison to what they should be … It’s making me shake right now … It’s terrible.”

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)

In one of her rulings, Wittig made note of Compliance Investigator Douglas Anderson, an employee of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, who began visiting the zoo in 2012 as a result of complaints sent to the state. Anderson also accompanied USDA inspectors on their visits to the zoo, Wittig pointed out, then generally issued reports favorable to the zoo.

Court records show that in a 2013 email Anderson sent to colleagues at the IDALS, he said he had visited the zoo “for a pre-emptive strike on the upcoming complaint season.” He added that he had talked to Pam Sellner about “the complaint crowd, and she is well aware that they will probably be back and is making a conscious effort to make her facility completely ready for their visits. I am sure they will complain anyway.”

“Mr. Anderson has no training in the care or husbandry of exotic animals,” Wittig wrote in a court 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.”

Howell agrees with the judge’s assessment, and says Anderson seemed to accompany USDA inspectors to the zoo simply to run interference for the Sellners, writing unofficial reports that minimized the issues uncovered there.

“The state’s actions were particularly egregious here,” Howell says, noting that IDALS doesn’t have much oversight authority of the zoo. “And yet they were taking affirmative steps basically to protect Cricket Hollow Zoo by going there at the same time as the federal inspectors and then writing their own made-up reports. They didn’t even have forms for those reports. They were just sort of creating something to contradict the record being created by the USDA inspectors.”

Last year, when IDALS was asked about its role at the zoo, the agency said it had revised its animal-welfare rules “based on input from key stakeholders, including animal-welfare groups and the department’s animal inspectors.” The new rules, the department said, are intended to “elevate the standard of care for all animals in commercial establishments in Iowa.”

No investigation by veterinary board

Separate from state and federal inspectors, the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine is tasked with ensuring that veterinarians including those hired by zoos in order to maintain licensure are doing their job.

In one ruling, Judge Wittig had stated that animals at Cricket Hollow had been afforded “little to no veterinarian care” and that the zoo “lost a large number of animals over the years due to infection, zoonotic illnesses and improper veterinarian care.”

But even in the wake of those statements, Iowa’s veterinary board indicated it would not be investigating the matter, let alone taking action against Cricket Hollow’s veterinarian, Dr. Ivan Lilienthal of Delhi, Iowa.

Dr. Keith Leonard of Atlantic, then the chairman of the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch last year that he was aware of issues at the zoo. “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,” he said.

Even so, Leonard added, no one had complained directly to the board about the zoo, and because the board only initiated investigations in response to complaints, there were no plans to examine Lilienthal’s conduct.

Under Iowa law, the veterinary board can, “upon its own motion or upon a verified complaint in writing,” initiate proceedings against any Iowa-licensed veterinarian. Asked why the board didn’t self-initiate investigations, Leonard said, “It’s just historical precedent, as far as I know.”

The board has oversight of roughly 3,000 Iowa-licensed, practicing veterinarians. In the past 45 months, it has taken public action against only three veterinarians.

Veterinarian: ‘Put me in jail … Go ahead.’

In the months leading up to the 2019 Cricket Hollow trial, Lilienthal, the zoo’s veterinarian, boasted of having never familiarized  himself with the Animal Welfare Act that regulates the care of zoo animals.

During a deposition in the case, he was combative at times and refused to answer questions about conversations he had concerning the zoo with Delaware County Sheriff John LeClere and the state veterinarian, Dr. Gary Eiben of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

In fact, when he was asked to describe those conversations, Lilienthal testified, “I cannot talk about that because I’m not going to get them in trouble.”

A camel at the now-shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits.)

When advised that he was there under subpoena and had to answer the question or run the risk of being jailed, he replied, “Well, then put me in jail … Go ahead … Not answering … Put me in jail … I am not answering because Sheriff LeClere and Dr. Eiben are really good people.”

After a break for Lilienthal to reconsider his stance, he testified that he knew LeClere and Eiben “had gone out on a previous complaint at the Cricket Hollow Zoo, and that’s as far as it went.”

Howell says the lack of overall lack of enforcement of animal-protection laws isn’t an issue that’s unique to Iowa, a state where the economy is tied closely to agricultural industries that involve large-scale animal operations.

“It’s a problem all around the country,” she said, “but Iowa has been particularly egregious here.”

She noted that even after the ALDF sued the USDA and the agency revoked Cricket Hollow’s license to  exhibit animals, federal and state regulators didn’t step in to rescue  or relocate the animals.

“So it didn’t really solve the problem,” Howell said.

What comes next?

The Supreme Court’s decision this week means the only unresolved legal issue involving Cricket Hollow is a contempt-of-court proceeding against the owners, Pamela and Thomas Sellner. The couple is accused of defying court orders to turn over their animals to a rescue group after a district court judge effectively shut down the zoo, citing what she called “deplorable” conditions there.

A hearing on the contempt charges was completed in January, but a decision in that matter has yet to be issued.

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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.