Zoo owners lose battle to reduce fine for contempt of court

By: - August 3, 2022 1:35 pm

An Iowa judge has denied a request to reduce a $70,000 fine imposed against the owners of eastern Iowa’s shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits.)

An Iowa judge has denied a request to reduce a $70,000 fine imposed against the owners of eastern Iowa’s shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo.

In May, zoo owners Pamela and Thomas Sellner asked the court to reduce the fine they face for contempt of court. The contempt finding stems from a court ruling that the couple deliberately violated a 2019 court order that they surrender the animals at their roadside attraction in Manchester to a wildlife rescue organization.

The ruling calls for the Sellners to pay a fine of $70,000 or serve a one-day jail sentence for each animal that was not recovered from their zoo, for a total of 140 days.

The couple’s attorney, Joey Hoover, said Wednesday he has advised the couple to begin paying what they can to avoid jail.

“Unfortunately, we have pretty much exhausted all of our legal remedies at this point,” he said, noting that Iowa Supreme Court has already declined to review the matter. “I’ve advised them, ‘Pay what you can,’ and that way the argument can’t be made that they’re just ignoring the judge’s order.”

Hoover said the Sellners “understand the reality of the situation and their plan is to do the best that they can to pay the fine.”

Hoover had asked the court to modify a payment plan related to the fine or let the Sellners serve their jail sentence at home while under house arrest. The couple, he argued, was “asset rich but 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 Animal Legal Defense Fund, which helped initiate the civil case that resulted in Cricket Hollow Zoo being shut down, opposed the motion.

Iowa District Court Judge Monica Zrinyi Ackley recently ruled against the Sellners, stating that the court would not reduce the fine already imposed through its order of contempt.

With contempt orders of this kind being fairly rare, it’s not clear how the case would proceed if the Sellners don’t pay begin paying the $1,000 per month stipulated in the order. The contempt order from last year provided that if those payments were not made beginning in October 2021, the court would “order that the (Sellners) be taken into custody to serve the jail sentence.”

Court records indicate that to date, the Sellners have not paid anything toward the court-ordered fine. In addition, the Sellners appear to owe the court system more than $4,400 in fees.

“In our experience, and from our discussions with the clerk’s office, this kind of (contempt order) happens so rarely,” said Brandon Underwood, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “We’re still exploring exactly how to procedurally enforce the Sellners’ obligation to either comply with the order for payment or go to jail … Obviously, this is a fine, so it’s money that belongs to the state.”

The court recently denied a motion to have the Sellners pay $539,800 in attorneys’ fees for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the other plaintiffs in the case. The court has yet to rule on the plaintiffs’ request for payment of $151,000 in other costs associated with the litigation.

The 2019 court order that the Sellners surrender their animals grew out of lawsuits filed by the ALDF beginning in 2016, alleging numerous violations of Iowa’s animal neglect laws. Ackley eventually 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 Cricket Hollow Zoo, they found many of the animals were missing, hidden, dead or sold. That triggered the contempt-of-court proceedings.

In ruling last fall that the Sellners were in contempt, Ackley 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 her 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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