ST. LOUIS (CN) – The Eighth Circuit on Wednesday delivered what animal rights activists say is a precedent-setting ruling against a controversial Iowa roadside zoo, finding that endangered animals living in captivity deserve the same protections as animals in the wild.
A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Cricket Hollow Animal Park in Manchester, Iowa, neglected four tigers and three lemurs, keeping the big cats in filthy enclosed spaces with flies buzzing around their heads and the lemurs in isolation.
In a 17-page opinion penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Wollman, the St. Louis-based appeals court upheld an Iowa federal judge’s finding after a four-day bench trial that the zoo and its owners, Tom and Pamela Sellner, violated the Endangered Species Act and failed to meet the standards of care required by the Animal Welfare Act.
By some estimates, about 200 animals live at the zoo and menagerie. In the past, the facility has housed tigers, lemurs, wolves, cougars, monkeys and birds.
In 2014, Tracey Kuehl and other visitors to the zoo joined the Animal Legal Defense Fund to sue the zoo after they said they observed tigers and lemurs living in inhumane conditions.
Four tigers – Casper, Luna, Miraj, and Raoul – had died at Cricket Hollow because they received substandard care, according to their lawsuit.
After a four-day bench trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles ordered the Sellners to move the tigers and lemurs to another zoo and said Cricket Hollow could not keep endangered species unless the owners would treat the animals appropriately.
In appealing the district court’s decision, the Sellnes argued that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to sue, and that even if they had standing, the zoo had not violated the Endangered Species Act.
Judge Wollman disagreed on both points, finding the treatment of both lemurs and tigers at the zoo constituted “harassment” under the Endangered Species Act.
Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells welcomed the court’s decision.
“The court’s decision affirms that endangered animals enjoy the same protections whether in captivity or the wild,” Wells said in a statement. “The Eighth Circuit’s ruling puts roadside zoos, circuses and private owners on notice that they can no longer ignore endangered animals’ unique biological and psychological needs.”
The group’s staff attorney Tony Eliseuson said the trial court’s decision and Wednesday’s ruling affirming it were “significant” and “groundbreaking.”
“It sets a blueprint going forward to guide other district courts that are dealing with these types of cases as to how they should apply the Endangered Species Act to captive, wild animals, and it does it in a very favorable way for plaintiffs and the animals,” Eliseuson said in a phone interview. “There are sadly thousands of animals that are languishing in roadside zoos and private homes in the United States and the Animal Legal Defense Fund is going to continue to file lawsuits against these facilities that do not meet the standards of care required by the Endangered Species Act to make sure that the animals move to a proper sanctuary environment.”
Cricket Hollow chose to move the lemurs to Special Memories Zoo in Greenville, Wisconsin, and the tigers to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund objected, but the Eighth Circuit panel upheld the lower court’s decision to let Cricket Hollow choose the placements despite the animal group’s misgivings about the new homes.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Richard Goldberg of the U.S. Court of International Trade, sitting by designation, agreed that the trial court did not abuse its discretion but called the court’s reasoning “problematic.”
“In sum, strict adherence by the district court to its own order regarding [U.S. Department of Agriculture] licensing may have resulted in the lemurs being relocated to the facility less responsive, on the whole, to their complex social, psychological, and environmental needs,” Goldberg wrote.
The Eighth Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs were trying to close the zoo down by obtaining close to $240,000 in attorney fees and costs, and denied their request for those fees. The lower court judge, Scoles, was concerned that if he agreed to the request, private animal owners would face a wave of litigation from animal rights groups who wanted to shut them down.
Wollman said he was concerned that the plaintiffs would “fashion the Act into a weapon to close small, privately owned zoos.”
Last December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked Cricket Hollow’s license and hit the Sellnes with a $10,000 fine, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The Sellners and their attorney Larry Thorson did not immediately respond Wednesday to requests for comment.