MANCHESTER, Iowa — A judge called conditions at a Manchester roadside zoo “deplorable” on the opening day of a trial that will determine whether it can continue to operate.
Iowa District Court Judge Monica Wittig delivered the harsh assessment Wednesday during the opening day of the nonjury trial regarding Cricket Hollow Animal Park. The trial being held at the Delaware County Courthouse is expected to last one week.
Four plaintiffs, with assistance from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, have sued the facility formerly known as Cricket Hollow Zoo, which is owned by Pam and Tom Sellner. The suit seeks to remove the Sellners’ animals and shut down the operation.
In addition to hearing testimony from multiple witnesses, Wednesday’s proceedings included a visit to the facility.
Upon returning to the courtroom afterward, Wittig turned to Pam Sellner and delivered a scathing assessment.
“I walked out (from the zoo) and the first thing I thought was, ‘I need to take at least two showers to feel comfortable,’” she said. “And it’s making me shake right now. It’s terrible.”
The commentary didn’t stop there.
She criticized the “horrible stench” in an enclosed reptile room, compared it to “an outhouse” and said she “gagged” upon entering.
Furthermore, she expressed concerns about animals that were pacing back and forth and ramming themselves against their enclosures.
She indicated that her visit would leave a lasting impression.
“I understand we’ve got seven days of trial, but what I saw today paints a picture 1,000 words can’t describe,” Wittig said.
Wittig’s comments were delivered midway through the testimony of Tracey Kuehl, one of the four plaintiffs who filed suit against Cricket Hollow.
Kuehl described making her first of three visits to the zoo in 2012. She recalled being immediately concerned about the stench at the facility, as well as the size of its enclosures.
She also observed a lion that was repeatedly ramming itself into the side of the corn crib in which it was contained.
“It was disturbing to me and really very shocking,” Kuehl said. “The thing that struck me was that (Cricket Hollow) was not anywhere close to what I had experienced at any other zoo.”
Kuehl lodged multiple complaints with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
After seven years and no substantive changes at the zoo, Kuehl said, she has grown increasingly frustrated.
“These animals have no advocacy,” she said. “There is no one speaking up for them. No one cares about them.”
However, the facility has faced repeated sanctions during that time.
The Sellners were sued in 2015 by ALDF, which accused them of violating the Endangered Species Act. As a result, three lemurs and four tigers were removed from the zoo.
The following year, two lions were removed as a result of another Endangered Species Act lawsuit. The Sellners also have been assessed multiple fines due to violations found by inspectors.
In December 2017, the facility lost its exhibitor license, and the Sellners were ordered to pay a $10,000 civil penalty.
Tracey Kuehl’s sister, Lisa Kuehl, also testified Wednesday.
She said she took multiple aerial photos of the facility. She specifically recalled one occasion where a major snowstorm had left sizable snowdrifts in the animal enclosures.
These drifts appeared to be so high that the animals could have ascended them and escaped their cages.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
The opening witness on Wednesday was private investigator Jeff Marlin.
He said he visited Cricket Hollow on three occasions between the fall of 2013 and the summer of 2016.
Marlin said he noticed what appeared to be dead piglets during his first visit. On the second, he saw a bear that was losing its fur.
He recalled seeing a seemingly sick lion on the third visit.
“There was a female lion that looked like it was going to die at any time,” he said. “It was skinny, emaciated and it could hardly move.”
A site investigation at Cricket Hollow late Wednesday morning lasted for about 30 minutes and included Wittig, as well as attorneys representing both the plaintiffs and the zoo owners. Wittig also permitted attendance by the Telegraph Herald.
Cricket Hollow Animal Park is home to turtles, rabbits, snakes, fish, baboons, a camel, bears and a wide variety of other animals. Inspections from state officials suggest there are about 300 animals there, according to the plaintiffs.
Jessica Blome, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said multiple animals were exhibiting signs of stereotypy, a condition where psychological distress can lead to repeated, ritualistic behaviors with no purpose.
A baboon swung facefirst into the fencing in its enclosure, landing violently on its back before getting up and repeating the action. A wolf rapidly walked in repeated circles, wearing a path in its enclosure.
Following Wednesday’s proceedings, Blome told the Telegraph Herald that she intends to call more plaintiffs to the stand. Veterinarians also will testify.
Pam Sellner and defense attorney Larry Thorson declined to answer questions from the TH after the day’s proceedings.
During an exchange with Wittig, Thorson indicated that Pam Sellner would be called to the stand at some point during the trial, which will resume this morning.