Animal Rights Group Sues Over Conditions at Wisconsin Roadside Zoo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CN) – Animal rights advocates sued a Wisconsin roadside zoo Wednesday claiming squalid living conditions for hundreds of the zoo’s animals, including two endangered tigers.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a nationwide legal advocacy organization for animals, claims the Special Memories Zoo in Greenville, Wisconsin, maintains cramped, filthy housing for its 200-plus animals in violation of the Endangered Species Act and Wisconsin public nuisance laws protecting captive wild animals.

This photo, taken from the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s lawsuit against Special Memories Zoo in Wisconsin, shows leopards in small enclosures. The ALDF sued over conditions at the roadside zoo in federal court.

According to the ALDF’s 37-page federal complaint filed Wednesday, “this case is about the mistreatment and inadequate conditions of captivity of numerous animals at an unaccredited animal exhibition facility.”

The group, which wants the court to enjoin the zoo’s illegal activities, goes on to state that “photographic evidence, visitor observations, former employee testimonials and expert analysis indicate that the animals kept by Special Memories Zoo are experiencing both physical and psychological suffering as a direct result of the deprived conditions imposed on them by Special Memories Zoo.”

The ALDF’s suit names the zoo, its two owners and its manager as defendants. The group is represented by in-house counsel from its Chicago office and attorneys from Madison-based firm Michael Best & Friedrich.

In a statement Wednesday, the ALDF’s executive director Stephen Wells condemned the zoo’s treatment of its animals as “not just cruel but illegal.”

“The Endangered Species Act and other laws exist to protect animals from exactly this sort of mistreatment,” Wells said. “We will pursue every legal avenue to ensure these animals are transferred to reputable sanctuaries where their needs will be met, in accordance with the law.”

The advocates say “visitors have observed other sick and injured animals held in cramped, filthy cages without access to clean water. Ring-tailed lemurs have been observed without sufficient food or psychological enrichment. Endangered gray wolves are forced to live in small, muddy enclosures. Black leopards, lions, Canada lynx, Japanese macaques, and other animals suffer in similarly inhumane and illegal conditions.”

At the center of the suit are two endangered tigers, Tanya and Teagan. The ALDF claims the two are “kept in small cages…where witnesses have observed algae in the cages’ water tanks, food infested with maggots, and the straw used for bedding left soiled and unchanged for up to months on end.”

This past September, the ALDF offered to transfer Tanya, Teagan and all of the zoo’s other animals to humane, legally sound sanctuaries at no cost to the zoo. Tony Eliseuson, senior staff attorney with the ALDF, said in an interview Wednesday that the zoo “did not specifically engage with us on our effort to rehome the animals in sanctuaries,” leaving legal action as the group’s only recourse.

Arrangements to move the animals were never made even though the ALDF offered to handle all the logistics and costs of the transfer, which Eliseuson estimated would run into six figures.

Eliseuson expressed hope the zoo will take the ALDF up on its offer to rehome the animals but failing that said the advocates will rely on the courts to “swiftly move to get these animals living better lives.”

Special Memories Zoo, which is currently closed until spring, could not be reached for comment on the suit Wednesday.

The ALDF claims Special Memories Zoo’s various violations have already drawn the attention of federal authorities. According to its statement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the zoo multiple times for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including citations for dirty enclosures, food contaminated with rodent droppings, lack of drinking water and not having enough trained staff. A USDA report from 2016 stated that an employee at the zoo was bitten by a bear while interacting with the animal improperly.

The advocates said Wednesday the Badger State zoo’s problems are not unique, pointing out that “roadside zoos dot the American landscape, able to operate due to lax enforcement of existing laws on both a state and federal level.”

The ALDF has had success suing roadside zoos before. In 2018, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit unanimously upheld a 2016 lower court ruling which found that the Cricket Hollow Animal Park in Manchester, Iowa, violated federal law in its substandard care for four tigers and three lemurs at heart of that suit.

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