Zoo owners, facing ‘financial ruin,’ argue for house arrest instead of jail or fines

By: - May 31, 2022 3:54 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)

The owners of eastern Iowa’s shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo are hoping to avoid jail time and a stiff financial penalty for contempt of court.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Supreme Court 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.

With their appeals exhausted, the Sellners recently filed a motion with the court, asking the judge in the case to modify a payment plan related to the fine or let them serve their jail sentence at home.

The couple argues  that like many farmers, they “are asset rich but are cash poor,” and a requirement that they pay $1,000 per month toward the contempt fine would “cause significant hardship on their farm as well as their daily living expenses.”

The alternative to paying the fine — jail time — would “leave their farm without anyone to care for the livestock and crops,” they state in their motion. The fine would also leave then “destitute and in financial ruin,” they add, and they are proposing the monthly payments be lowered to $100 per month.

If the court chooses to keep the monthly payments at $1,000, the Sellners argue, they should be allowed to forgo any payments and serve the ordered jail time at home while under house arrest.

Animal welfare advocates oppose changes

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which helped initiate the civil case that resulted in Cricket Hollow Zoo being shut down, is opposing the idea.

“The Sellners are at it again,” lawyers for the ALDF argue in a formal resistance to the Sellners’ motion. They argue the couple has provided no evidence that $1,000 monthly payments would create a hardship and they say house arrest “would be no punishment at all” for contempt.

“After all, house arrest would mean allowing the Sellners to serve their sentence at the same location where they shockingly mistreated hundreds of animals for years, willfully disobeyed this court’s injunction order, and where they already spend much of their time,” the ALDF lawyers argue.

The court has yet to rule on the Sellners’ motion. At a hearing last week, Pamela Sellner argued that five bears and two cougars she had refused to turn over in December 2019 are now located at a wild animal sanctuary and so the contempt finding against her and her husband should be purged.

The ALDF argues otherwise and says the couple’s own records show the animals now at the sanctuary are not the same animals that the court tried to remove from Cricket Hollow Zoo in 2019.

Sellners could face $691,000 in other costs

Aside from the penalty for contempt, the Sellners may be facing an even bigger financial liability.

In December 2019, after they lost the court battle to keep the zoo open, the ALDF and other plaintiffs who initiated the case asked the court to award them attorneys’ fees of $539,800, plus expenses related to the relocation of zoo animals, all to be paid by the Sellners. The court has yet to rule on that motion.

Last week, an attorney for the plaintiffs filed notice with the court that in addition to the $539,800 in attorneys’ fees, the plaintiffs are now seeking reimbursement for expenses totaling $150,937.

If all of those fees and costs are approved by the court and assessed to the Sellners, the couple would be looking at a liability of almost $691,000.

The contempt-of-court case 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 the lawsuits filed by the ALDF beginning 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 Ackley.

In ruling last fall that the Sellners were in contempt, the judge 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.

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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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