After five years of litigation, Iowa zoo owners face fines or jail

By: - April 7, 2022 2:39 pm

The Iowa Supreme Court this week rejected Pamela and Thomas Sellner’s efforts to set aside a judge’s finding that they were in contempt for having refused a court order to surrender the animals at Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits.)

A tangled and contentious five-year legal odyssey involving the owners of eastern Iowa’s shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo may finally be near an end.

The Iowa Supreme Court this week rejected zoo owners Pamela and Thomas Sellner’s efforts to set aside a judge’s finding that they were in contempt for having refused a court order to surrender the animals at their roadside attraction in Manchester.

The contempt ruling calls for the Sellners to pay $70,000 in fines. If payments are not made toward the fine, the Sellners will have to serve a one-day jail sentence for each animal that was not recovered from their zoo, for a total of 140 days.

Court records indicate no payments have been made on the fine.

The penalty stems from a finding that the Sellners falsified records and deliberately defied a 2019 court order that they relinquish custody of all the animals in their care.

That 2019 order grew out of a series of lawsuits filed in state and federal court by a group of Iowans and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. They sued the Sellners in 2016, alleging numerous violations of Iowa’s animal neglect laws. A judge eventually 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 Iowa District Court Judge Monica Zrinyi Wittig.

In ruling last fall that the Sellners were in contempt, Wittig wrote that the couple’s mistreatment of animals at the zoo was orchestrated and 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 Sellners appealed the contempt ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court, arguing that if it was allowed to stand, it might “cripple” Iowa’s agriculture economy.

In December, the justices agreed to stay enforcement of the order until it decided whether to review the matter. This week, the court rejected the Sellners’ request for the court to hear their appeal, and it lifted the stay on enforcement of the contempt ruling.

In rejecting the Sellners’ appeal, the court made no comment on the merits of their case, but noted that their attorney had failed to conform to court rules by filing briefs in the case that were “significantly” over the allowed length. Doing so, the justices observed, “impedes the court’s ability to efficiently review and act on filings.”

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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.