Zoo owners avoid jail, say the case against them could ‘cripple’ Iowa agriculture

By: - February 2, 2022 4:02 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)

Last September, the owners of Manchester’s Cricket Hollow Zoo were ordered by an Iowa judge to pay $70,000 or serve five months in jail for refusing to surrender the animals at their roadside attraction.

Four months later, zoo owners Pamela and Thomas Sellner have yet to pay anything toward that fine or serve any time in jail. The couple is taking their case to the Iowa Supreme Court and arguing that if a contempt-of-court ruling against them is allowed to stand, it could “cripple our agricultural sector.”

The fine and potential jail sentence stem from a finding that the Sellners are guilty of contempt for falsifying records and defying a 2019 court order that they relinquish custody of the animals in their care.

That 2019 order grew out of a lawsuit filed by a group of Iowans and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. They sued the Sellners, alleging numerous violations of Iowa’s animal neglect laws. A judge ruled against the Sellners 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 the contempt-of-court proceedings before District Court Judge Monica Zrinyi Wittig.

In ruling that the Sellners were in contempt, Wittig wrote that the couple’s 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 had instead chosen to take “deliberate action” in defiance of that order.

The missing animals 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.

“The deception that was used to hide the animals was deliberate and with much planning,” Wittig said in her ruling.

Wittig ruled that one of the Sellners’ “accomplices” was the zoo’s designated veterinarian, Dr. Ivan Lilienthal, who had signed documents approving meal plans and care plans that were actually written by Pamela Sellner. Sellner “continued this practice of falsifying records once the court’s order was entered,” Wittig found, adding that Sellner’s “conduct in mistreating the animals” at the zoo 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 amounted to $39,500. The Sellners also were also ordered to 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 amounted to $30,500.

If payments were not made on the $70,000 fine, the Sellners would have to serve a one-day jail sentence for each animal not recovered, for a total of 140 days, the order stated.

Sellners: Case threatens to ‘cripple’ Iowa agriculture

Shortly after that contempt ruling was issued, the Sellners petitioned the court for reconsideration, arguing in part that the Iowans who sued them lacked standing to pursue a contempt-of-court action against them once the animals were removed from the zoo.

In court filings, the couple’s lawyer said there is a “public policy” rationale for refusing to allow such cases to proceed since such litigation “could cripple our agricultural sector. If any member who disagrees with the way that a farmer or other producer raises their animals, they could simply file suit against the farmer.”

In previous court proceedings, Pamela Sellner called the ALDF an “animal rights terrorist group.”

In December, Wittig rejected the Sellners’ request for reconsideration and warned the couple that if they failed to make the required payments, they might soon be facing another charge of contempt of court.

By then, the Sellners were already late in making the first of the scheduled $1,000 payments. Lawyers for the ALDF wrote to Wittig and informed her that they had talked to the Sellners’ attorney and determined the couple had no intention of making any of the payments.

In the meantime, the Sellners filed a motion with the Iowa Supreme Court to block the enforcement of the contempt order pending a decision on their request to have the justices review the district court’s decision. The Supreme Court agreed to stay enforcement of the order until it decides whether to review the case.

On Monday, attorneys for the ALDF challenged the Sellners’ request for review by the Supreme Court, arguing that the findings of contempt and the fine were clearly justified. The Sellners, the ALDF argued, have not paid any of the $70,000 fine, “have not spent any time in jail, and have not taken the chance provided by the district court to purge themselves of contempt. But in keeping with their practice of appealing every finding against them, the Sellners now challenge the contempt order, raising completely meritless arguments.”

The ALDF noted that Wittig offered to reduce the fine and potential jail time if the Sellners turned over some of the animals that remain missing.

“The Sellners have not returned a single animal,” the ALDF lawyers told the Supreme Court. “They have effectively acquiesced in the very punishment they now challenge.”

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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.