Judge: Zoo owners must pay $70,000 or face 140 days in jail

By: - September 30, 2021 9:42 am

Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa, was shut down in December as the result of a court order. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits.)

The owners of Manchester’s Cricket Hollow Zoo have been ordered to pay $70,000 or serve five months in jail for violating court orders regarding the relocation of animals at their roadside attraction.

The ruling this week in the contempt-of-court case against Pamela and Thomas Sellner comes three days after the Iowa Supreme Court declined to review a lower court decision in the case that led to zoo’s closure in 2019.

In that case, a group of Iowans assisted by animal rights advocates sued the Sellners, alleging numerous violations of Iowa’s animal neglect laws. A judge ruled in their favor and effectively ordered the zoo closed with many of the animals to be relocated to wildlife sanctuaries in other states.

But when animal-rescue organizations arrived at the eastern Iowa zoo, they found many of the animals were missing, hidden, dead or sold. That triggered a contempt-of-court proceeding and a hearing that was held in January of this year before the trial judge, Monica Zrinyi Wittig,

In her ruling holding the couple in contempt, Wittig wrote that the Sellners’ mistreatment of animals at the zoo was intentional, and that they “knew what they were obligated to do in order to be compliant” with her 2019 order, but instead chose to take  “deliberate action” in defying that order.

Wittig stated the missing animals that were subject to her 2019 court order included five bears, two mountain lions, a camel, a fox, a wolf, nine guinea pigs and hedgehogs, 13 lizards, seven tortoises and turtles, at least 55 birds and six kinkajous.

“From Ms. Sellner’s testimony, there is a great deal of money to be made on the sale of the animals she kept in the zoo,” Wittig said in her ruling. “The deception that was used to hide the animals was deliberate and with much planning.”

Veterinary board claims lack of jurisdiction over zoo vet

The Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine refused last year to investigate the conduct of the vet who worked for Cricket Hollow Zoo, newly disclosed records show.

In January 2020, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that the board was not considering an investigation into the work of Dr. Ivan Lilienthal at Cricket Hollow Zoo, despite court findings of substandard veterinary care.

At the time, the board said it would not investigate veterinarians unless a complaint was filed.

A few weeks later, attorneys for the Animal Legal Defense filed a detailed, footnoted, 1,600-word complaint with the board, alleging Lilienthal had violated specific veterinary practice standards, as well as Iowa’s administrative code and criminal statutes.

“As a result of this blatant disregard for the expectations set forth in your administrative code, hundreds of animals at this location suffered and many died,” the ALDF complained. They noted that Lilienthal had stated the only reason he became the veterinarian for Cricket Hollow was so the owners could get their U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibitors’ license, adding that he added his name to USDA forms “because nobody else would.”

Five months after the complaint was filed, the board rejected it and closed the case, telling the ALDF that its members had “concluded they lack jurisdiction to pursue potential disciplinary action.” No further explanation was offered.

Wittig wrote that the Sellners “cannot claim” the 2019 court order was confusing and said it was clear the couple was not “permitted to retain, hide, exchange for any service or fee, dispose of, sell, give away or let die, any of the animals which were the subject of the court’s order.”

She noted that when questions were raised about which animals were subject to relocation, an immediate hearing was held and an “order of clarification was entered to make sure it was as plain as the nose on one’s face as to which animals were being rescued.”

Wittig said the Sellners provided “less than credible testimony” about the fate of the missing animals, adding that bears and mountain lions were given to an Ohio wildlife exhibitor who is barred by that state from owning wild animals. The exhibitor removed the bears and mountain lions from Cricket Hollow, then fed the bears despite the fact that they were in hibernation. Two of the bears died as a result, Wittig said.

She ruled that one of the Sellners’ friends, Deb Virchow, had assisted the Sellners in violating the court order by taking possession of some animals – including a fox, ferrets, hedgehogs and chinchillas – shortly before rescue groups arrived, and later returned them to the Sellners. Virchow, the judge said, had “committed forgery” in assisting with the falsification of records, “and therefore her testimony is deemed perjury before this court.”

Another alleged “accomplice” referenced in Wittig’s ruling is the Sellners’ veterinarian, Ivan Lilienthal, who had signed documents approving meal plans and care plans that were actually written by Pamela Sellner, Wittig said. Sellner “continued this practice of falsifying records once the court’s order was entered,” Wittig found, adding that “her conduct in mistreating the animals” was intentional.

Wittig ruled that for each of the 79 animals not at the zoo when rescue groups arrived there on Dec. 9, 2019, the Sellners must pay a fine of $500, which amounts to $39,500. The Sellners also must pay $500 for each of the 61 animals that could not be located when rescue groups returned to the zoo on Dec. 12, 2019. That fine amounts to $30,500.00.

The $70,000 penalty is to be paid to the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s lawyers at the rate of $1,000 per month until paid in full, the order states. If the payments and not made and the ALDF chooses not to pursue collection efforts, the Sellners will each have to serve a one-day jail sentence for each animal not recovered, for a total of 140 days.

Wittig’s order states that if, in the next two weeks, the Sellners locate and return to the rescue groups a female lion that has yet to be recovered, the court will reduce the fine and the potential jail time. If other missing animals are returned in the next 30 days, the court will again reduce the fine and the potential jail time.

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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. 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.

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