Activists Take a Stand for Embattled Zoo’s Lions

     MANCHESTER, Iowa (CN) — Animal rights activists who won a court battle to remove a roadside zoo’s tigers and lemurs now hope to relocate the zoo’s African lions, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
     The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a plaintiff in this case along with five Iowa residents, has had its sights on defendant Cricket Hollow Zoo’s African lions since before it won its landmark victory in February 2016 against the zoo and its owners, Tom and Pamela Sellner.
     In that case, U.S. District Judge Jon Scoles found the zoo was in violation of the Endangered Species Act because it did not provide suitable habitats, intellectual stimulation or adequate veterinary care to its tigers and lemurs, all of which the judge ordered removed from the zoo.
     In June, Scoles approved relocation of the tigers to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Centerpoint, Indiana, and the lemurs to Special Memories Zoo in Greenville, Wisconsin, according to court documents.
     The African lions were not removed from the zoo because they had not yet been added to the endangered species list when the case went to trial in October 2015. The Fish & Wildlife Service added African lions to the protected species list the following January.
     The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s new litigation claims that visitors to Cricket Hollow Zoo witnessed “a female lion retching in her enclosure, a lioness repeatedly ramming herself into her cage fencing, enclosures strewn with fly-laden meat and feces, and flies feasting on the ears and noses of the African Lions.”
     The animal rights activists are particularly concerned about the lioness Njarra, according to a media release from the organization.
     A zoo visitor took video of Njarra two weeks ago after seeing that she “was shivering, could not stand or walk properly and was panting so hard he feared she was hyperventilating,” according to the 29-page complaint.
     The ALDF is demanding that Njarra be removed from the zoo immediately.
     “Absent emergency court intervention, we fear that Njarra is likely on her way to the same tragic and irreversible fate that befell Raoul, Casper, Luna, and Miraj—four endangered tigers who all died soon after falling ill due to lack of veterinary care,” said ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells in a written statement.
     Wells added that the non-profit would be willing to pay for Njarra’s transportation to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, where she can receive veterinary care and rehabilitative treatment.
     Since 2012, the zoo’s lion population has dwindled from four to two, according to visitor reports and United States Department of Agriculture records.
     “Defendants appear dangerously close to causing the death of yet another endangered big cat, and are incapable of saving the African Lioness’s life or providing palliative care to ensure a comfortable and humane death,” the complaint alleges.
     Although visitors report deplorable conditions for all 300 animals at the roadside zoo, the Endangered Species Act provides the legal framework needed to prosecute this case and the one that came before it. The Act applies to threatened and endangered species both in the wild and in captivity, making it a federal crime to harass, hunt, shoot, wound or otherwise harm protected species.
     According to the complaint, perhaps as many as 15 endangered animals have died at the zoo since 2005, including four endangered tigers that the court concluded had died from lack of timely and appropriate veterinary care in the previous litigation.
     “Defendants lack the resources to pay for adequate veterinary care for the Zoo’s animals, including the African Lions,” plaintiffs argue. “Indeed, the record in the prior litigation revealed that defendants spent less than $700 total on veterinary care in 2014 for all of the Zoo’s animals, or approximately $2.33 per animal.” (emphasis in original)
     “We’re confident that the judge is going to rule in our favor with respect to the lions because all of the evidence the judge heard in October regarding the tigers applies equally to the lions,” Jeff Pierce, an attorney with the organization, said in an interview. “It’s the same lack of care that affected the tigers and that persuaded the judge that the defendants were violating the ESA as to the tigers; there’s very little chance the judge could reach a different result.”
     Pierce hopes the judge will expedite the process so that at the very least, a veterinarian can perform an inspection of the lions, he said, adding that the claimants continue to be on “high alert” and “wracked with anxiety” over the conditions at the zoo.
     The zoo has also come under fire from its licensing agency, the USDA, for repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The citations mainly concern inadequate enclosures for the animals and chronic sanitation issues. The USDA has also ordered the Sellners to increase staffing at the zoo, but it continues to operate with just its two owners, who both have outside jobs. In June of 2015, the zoo’s license was suspended for 21 days for its failure to address these infractions.
     The ALDF has also sued the USDA for continuing to license the zoo, but it lost that court battle in March. The non-profit’s challenge to a loophole in Iowa law that allows owners licensed by the USDA to keep wild animals without adhering to the state’s strict registration requirements is currently pending review with the Iowa Court of Appeals.
     In addition to violation of the Endangered Species Act, plaintiffs are suing the Sellners for the unlawful possession of a protected species.
     They are represented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Daniel Anderson of Wertz, Dake and Anderson in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
     The Sellners did not respond to after-hours voice mail requests for comment.

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