Court of Appeals upholds judge's decision closing Cricket Hollow Zoo for 'deplorable conditions'

Deputy Editor, Iowa Capital Dispatch

The Iowa Court of Appeals has ruled the owners of Manchester’s Cricket Hollow Zoo were not denied a fair trial by a judge who closed the attraction after citing the “deplorable” conditions she observed there.

The two owners of the Cricket Hollow, Pamela and Thomas Sellner of Manchester, had appealed a 2019 court ruling declaring the zoo to be a public nuisance. In briefs filed with the court, attorneys for the Sellners argued that the trial judge, Monica Zrinyi Wittig, “took an advocacy role” on the side of the animal rights groups that helped a group of Iowans sue to close the zoo by “criticizing and arguing with” the Sellners and their witnesses.

In their appeal, the Sellners cited comments made to their attorney by Judge Wittig shortly after all of the parties visited the zoo on the first day of trial.

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“I didn’t see healthy and happy animals today,” Judge Wittig told the Sellners’ attorney. “I saw a bear that looked like it was drugged. It had fluids seeping out of its mouth and nostrils. I saw a dog that looked like it was rabid. None of the animals was in any type of clean environment. I didn’t see a lot of water anywhere, other than what had been falling from the rain. I saw a great deal of mud. I saw a great deal of unsanitary, horrible, rusted containments for animals that needed to roam. I saw pacing. I saw banging up against chain-link fences. The facility has absolutely no walkway. I don’t find it safe for humans. I can’t imagine children being there.”

In ruling that those comments did not warrant a new trial, Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran, writing for the court, noted that all of the parties in the case had agreed to the on-site visit by Judge Wittig.

After the Sellners moved for a mistrial and asked the judge to recuse herself due to her comments, Wittig had noted that while the memory of the site visit could not be erased, it was “never the case” that the couple would be denied the opportunity to present their own evidence and added that she would be keeping an open mind.

“The court’s references to the site visit give us pause,” the appeals court’s decision states. “But the court ultimately allowed the defense to present its case and based the final order on the evidence.”

The Iowa Court of Appeals also addressed the question of whether Wittig’s questioning of witnesses during the trial was too adversarial, noting that Wittig “questioned certain witnesses in what might be described as an advocacy style.” The court noted there was no jury involved in the case, and that trial judges are generally given greater latitude to comment during such proceedings.

“We conclude the court’s questioning did not deprive the Sellners of a fair trial,” the Court of Appeals stated, adding that the better practice is for trial judges to exercise restraint because by questioning witnesses, the court becomes vulnerable to accusations of bias, prejudice or advocacy.

During the trial, Wittig had made other comments about the site visit, stating, “The smell was horrific. I mean, I understand you’ve got seven (scheduled) days of trial, but what I saw today paints a picture a thousand words can’t describe.”

Judge questioned USDA standards

When the Sellners’ attorney noted that the enclosures at the zoo meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspection standards, Wittig said, “If that’s the case, the USDA requirements are so pale in comparison to what they should be … It’s making me shake right now. It’s terrible … Our government is just sitting on its laurels and doing nothing. And there’s a reason that they exist. I pay my taxes for them to exist.”

In ruling the zoo was a public nuisance, Wittig said her decision was based on findings that Cricket Hollow Zoo was “injurious to the health of the animals and potentially to the invitees due to the poor care and living conditions of the animals.”

The case was initiated by zoo visitors Tracey Kuehl, Lisa Kuehl, Pamela Jones and Haley Anderson, who sued the Sellners and alleged the couple was violating Iowa’s animal neglect laws. They also claimed the zoo was a public nuisance due to its failure to “supply animals with necessary food, water, and veterinary care, and thereby causing them unjustified pain, distress and suffering.”

The Sellners had argued their conduct could not be considered a nuisance because none of their “neighbors, local law enforcement, or any local authority alleged they were creating a nuisance.”

Contempt of court charge is still pending

In a separate but related court matter, the Sellners stand accused of contempt of court for allegedly violating Wittig’s order requiring them to cooperate with rescue groups that were to take custody of the animals when the zoo closed.

Roughly 100 animals — five bears, two mountain lions, a fox, a wolf, a camel and a large variety of birds, turtles, hedgehogs, snakes and reptiles — were covered by the judge’s Nov. 24, 2019, court order but were not at the Manchester zoo when rescue groups arrived on Dec. 9, 2019.

The critical issue facing the court in the contempt proceedings is when the Sellners disposed of those animals. If they were sold or given away after Nov. 24, the couple could be found guilty of contempt of court. A trial on the contempt issue was held early this year, but a decision in that case has yet to be issued.The Iowa Court of Appeals has ruled the owners of Manchester’s Cricket Hollow Zoo were not denied a fair trial by a judge who closed the attraction after citing the “deplorable” conditions she observed there.

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