Zoo to Surrender Tigers & Lemurs It Mistreated | Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 2, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 2, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Zoo to Surrender Tigers & Lemurs It Mistreated

MANCHESTER, Iowa (CN) - A roadside zoo must surrender its tigers and lemurs to suitable facilities because conditions there violated the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Jon Scoles found Thursday that the Cricket Hollow Zoo's violations "are pervasive, long-standing and ongoing."

Whereas the lemurs suffered from "social isolation, lack of environmental enrichment, and inadequate sanitation," the tigers were deprived of adequate veterinary care and adequate sanitation, the ruling states.

Between June 2013 and July 2015, five tigers died at the zoo, according to the ruling. Two of the big cats had even died in the same month.

"If an exhibitor chooses to keep endangered species, it must assume the obligation - and the cost - of providing such care," Scoles wrote. "I believe Cricket Hollow's failure to provide timely and appropriate veterinary care has delayed or prevented adequate treatment, thus resulting in 'injury' to the tigers."

Judge Scoles noted that, when zookeeper Pam Sellner consulted with her vet about the tigers, she did so over the phone. In one case, according to the ruling, the vet did not visit a sick tiger until he came to the zoo to euthanize it. In another case, he was never told of a tiger's illness or her death.

The court also slammed Cricket Hollow for keeping a pair of ring-tailed lemurs in one cage, with a ruffed lemur housed by itself.

Testifying about the lemurs at a trial in October, the Duke Lemur Center's Peter Klopfer said the isolation these animals faced would leave them "permanently stressed."

In the wild, ruffed lemurs and ring-tailed lemurs like those found in the zoo "never live alone," and instead live in groups of eight to 20, Klopfer said.

"Because living in relative isolation disrupts the lemurs' normal behavior patterns, I believe the housing arrangement at Cricket Hollow constitutes 'harassment' and therefore a 'taking' with the meaning of the Endangered Species Act," Scoles wrote.

Speaking about the ruling in an interview, Jeff Pierce, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, called the judge's findings on isolation promising.

Such precedent could be helpful to other actions the ALDF has pending related to an elephant in San Antonio, a chimp in Baton Rouge and an orca in Miami, Pierce said.

Judge Scoles said Cricket Hollow also denied its lemurs environmental-enrichment opportunities.

"The evidence suggests the lemurs received very little in the way of environmental enrichment," he wrote, rejecting claims by the Sellners that they had provided the animals with perches and branches, along with PVC tubes stuffed with peanut butter and nuts.

Judge Scoles also found that the lemurs and the tigers were both plagued by a build-up of feces and other grime in their cages, though zookeepers Pam and Tom Sellner had claimed to clean the enclosures "daily."

"Despite the Sellners' best efforts, cleanliness throughout the Zoo has been a chronic problem," Scoles found. "I believe the Sellners care about the animals housed at Cricket Hollow, and it is clear they are extremely hard working, but they are simply unable to keep up with the demands of caring for 300 animals."

Aside from the Sellners, Cricket Hollow Zoo has no other employees, and Pam and Tom also run a large dairy farm. Tom is employed full-time as a welder as well.


Judge Scoles held the trial on the zoo's Endangered Species Act violations in October, four months after the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended its license for 21 days.

The Sellners charge $5 admission at the zoo, with all the profits going to the care of and food for the animals.

Judge Scoles said Cricket Hollow and the Sellners have 90 days to transfer their lemurs and tigers to appropriate, USDA-licensed facilities.

The ALDF has suggested suitable sanctuaries, attorney Pierce noted.

If the Sellners want to acquire any new endangered animals, they must first get court approval by demonstrating that they can care for the animals, Scoles said.

Although zoo's opponents at the ALDF had also complained about how Cricket Hollow was treating its wolf hybrids, Judge Scoles determined that the animals did not fall under the purview of the Endangered Species Act because they were the product of interbreeding with domestic dogs.

A group of wildlife advocates, led by sisters Tracey and Lisa Kuehl, brought the challenge against the Cricket Hollow Zoo in 2014. Joined by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, they complained that the Sellners made their animals "suffer in barren, cramped, dimly lit, poorly maintained and feces-laden enclosures."

As summarized in a 73-page ruling Thursday, Cricket Hollow smelled much worse than other zoos, boasting dirty cages; rotting food; stagnant, dirty water; and animals that appeared sick, including one vomiting lion.

Cricket Hollow has received numerous citations since 2005 for chronic issues with sanitation and has paid more than $10,000 in fines.

David Allen, an expert in zoo administration, told the court: "the Sellners do not have the financial resources to maintain a zoo in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act."

"There does not appear to be any money available to hire an adequate staff to care for the animals, nor is there money available for capital improvements to the facilities," Allen said, as quoted in the decision.

The ALDF's Pierce called Thursday's outcome "the first time a judge's decision has been so favorable to animals."

"We're thrilled that the judge read the law and the facts properly on behalf of the animals here," he said. "It's the first time that a federal court has found a defendant has violated the ESA regarding captive wildlife, and it's groundbreaking in several ways. ... So this ruling is good news for captive wildlife everywhere."

Though the ESA has always applied to animals in captivity, wildlife advocates have been bringing new litigation to raise awareness.

"The fact that these suits are new doesn't mean we are expanding or innovating the law," Pierce said. "Congress made it clear in the act itself that it would apply equally to animals in the wild and animals in captivity. What we're doing in bringing ESA suits on behalf of captive animals is responding to new science about the welfare of animals in captivity. These lawsuits reflect a change in the science and a change in how society thinks about the harm that captivity can inflict on animals that are really still wild by nature."

Pierce said his group also hopes to remove Cricket Hollow's captive lions, a species that regulators only added to the endangered species list after the case went to trial.

If the zoo does not cooperate to relocate the lions, Pierce said the ALDF is willing to litigate again.

Larry Thorson, an attorney for the zoo, did not return an email or voicemail seeking comment.

In addition to this Iowa case, the plaintiffs sued the government in Washington for renewing the zoo's license. Pierce said pending litigation between the USDA and the zoo under the Animal Welfare Act could result in the permanent revocation of the zoo's license.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.