Zoo owners avoid jail, say case against them could ‘cripple’ Iowa agriculture
Last September, the owners of Manchester’s Cricket Hollow zoo were ordered by an Iowa judge to pay $70,000 or five months in jail for refusing to return the animals to their roadside attraction.
Four months later, zoo owners Pamela and Thomas Sellner have yet to pay anything for that fine or serve jail time. The couple are taking their case to the Iowa Supreme Court and arguing that if a contempt of court ruling against them is upheld, it could “cripple our agricultural industry.”
The fine and potential jail time stem from a finding that the Sellners are in contempt for falsifying records and defying a 2019 court order ordering them to relinquish custody of the animals in their care. .
This 2019 order arose out of a lawsuit filed by a group of Iowans and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. They sued the Sellners, alleging numerous violations of Iowa animal neglect laws. A judge ruled against the Sellners and effectively ordered the zoo closed with many animals to be moved to wildlife sanctuaries in other states.
But when animal rescue organizations arrived at the East Iowa Zoo, they discovered that many animals were missing, hidden, dead or sold. This triggered contempt of court proceedings before District Court Judge Monica Zrinyi Wittig.
Judging the Sellners were in defiance, Wittig wrote that the couple’s mistreatment of animals at the zoo was intentional and that they “knew what they were required to do to comply” with his 2019 order, but had instead chosen to take “deliberate action” in defiance of that order.
The missing animals included five bears, two pumas, a camel, a fox, a wolf, nine guinea pigs and hedgehogs, 13 lizards, seven tortoises and tortoises, at least 55 birds and six kinkajous.
“The deception that was used to hide the animals was deliberate and with a great deal of planning,” Wittig said in her ruling.
Wittig ruled that one of the Sellners’ “accomplices” was the zoo’s designated veterinarian, Dr. Ivan Lilienthal, who signed documents endorsing meal plans and care plans that were actually written by Pamela Sellner. Sellner “continued this practice of falsifying records once the court order was entered,” Wittig found, adding that Sellner’s “conduct in mistreating animals” at the zoo was intentional.
Wittig ruled that for each of the 79 animals that weren’t at the zoo when rescue groups arrived there on Dec. 9, 2019, the Sellners had to pay a $500 fine, which totaled $39,500. The Sellners were also ordered to pay $500 for each of the 61 animals that could not be located when rescue groups returned to the zoo on December 12, 2019. That fine was $30,500.
If payments were not made on the $70,000 fine, the Sellners would have to serve a one-day jail term for each unrecovered animal, for a total of 140 days, the order says.
Sellners: Case threatens to ‘cripple’ Iowa agriculture
Shortly after that contempt ruling was issued, the Sellners asked the court for a reconsideration, arguing in part that the Iowans who sued them lacked standing to bring a contempt action against them once the animals had been removed from the zoo.
In court filings, the couple’s attorney said there was a “public policy” rationale for refusing to license such cases, as such litigation “could cripple our agricultural industry.” If a member disagrees with the way a farmer or other producer raises their animals, they could simply sue the farmer.
In previous court proceedings, Pamela Sellner called the ALDF an “animal rights terrorist group.”
In December, Wittig denied the Sellners’ request for reconsideration and warned the couple that if they failed to make the required payments, they could soon face another contempt of court charge.
By then, the Sellners were already late making the first of the scheduled $1,000 payments. ALDF lawyers wrote to Wittig and informed her that they had spoken to the Sellners’ lawyer and determined that the couple had no intention of making the payments.
In the meantime, the Sellners have filed a motion with the Iowa Supreme Court to block enforcement of the contempt order pending a decision on their request for a judicial review of the court’s ruling in district. The Supreme Court agreed to stay enforcement of the order until it decides to review the case.
On Monday, ALDF lawyers challenged the Sellners’ Supreme Court review request, arguing that the contempt findings and the fine were clearly justified. The Sellners, the ALDF argued, paid none of the $70,000 fine, “didn’t spend time in jail, and failed to take the opportunity offered by the district court to purge themselves But in keeping with their practice of appealing all findings against them, the Sellners are now challenging the contempt order, raising entirely baseless arguments.
The ALDF noted that Wittig has offered to reduce the fine and potential jail time if the Sellners turn over some of the animals that remain missing.
“The Sellners did not return a single animal,” ALDF lawyers told the Supreme Court. “They effectively accepted the very punishment they are now contesting.”