A decade after initial animal welfare violations and two years of legal proceedings, USDA revokes Cricket Hollow Zoo license, fines owners $10,000

A decade after animal welfare violations were initially documented and more than two years of legal proceedings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has revoked the license of Cricket Hollow Zoo near Manchester, Iowa, and fined owners Thomas and Pamela Sellner $10,000.

The USDA decision announced November 30 would appear to spell the end of operations at the troubled facility since the zoo must have a USDA license to continue to operate.

The facility obtained a federal license in 1999, and it had been routinely renewed by the USDA despite hundreds of violations found by inspectors dating back to 2005.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Tracey Kuehl, of Davenport, and Lisa Kuehl of Des Moines, in January of 2015 filed suit against the USDA for a "pattern and practice of rubber-stamping the renewal of the zoo's AWA (Animal Welfare Act) license each year, despite the zoo's serious and flagrant violations of applicable AWA standards. . ."

Subsequent to the ALDF lawsuit, the USDA in July of 2015 filed its own complaint against Cricket Hollow to revoke its license. A hearing on the revocation was held in Davenport last January.

"It is just unfortunate that it took citizen advocates six years to bring this to resolution when the USDA could have addressed this in 2006" Tracey Kuehl said of the Cricket Hollow license revocation. "They knew 11 years ago there were problems."

The federal charges of inadequate veterinary care of their animals and "repeated failures to meet minimum standards for animal facilities and husbandry" were at the heart of the USDA complaint against the zoo.

"The allegations in this complaint involve animal deaths, the failure to obtain adequate veterinary care for animals, the repeated failure and/or refusal to provide access to USDA inspectors for the purpose of conducting inspections to determine compliance with the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) and the Regulations and Standards, the failure to handle animals carefully, and repeated failures to meet the minimum standards for animal facilities and husbandry," according to the revocation filing.

"The record is clear that APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) inspectors found numerous AWA violations in many of the instances where they were successful in conducting inspections. . . It is also clear from the record that there were times the APHIS inspectors showed up at the respondents' facilities but were unable to conduct inspections because no one was able to let them onto the premises," USDA Administrative Law Judge Channing D. Strother, stated in his ruling.

The judge's ruling stated APHIS inspectors found deficiencies in compliance with USDA regulations regarding veterinary care on nine inspections.

The zoo also was the subject of two lawsuits involving Endangered Species Act violations. As a result of those federal lawsuits filed by the ALDF, Cricket Hollow was forced to give up its lions, tigers and lemurs. Those decisions have been appealed by the Sellners.

The ALDF and the Kuehls suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., which challenging the USDA's annual renewal of the Cricket Hollow Zoo license despite the numerous animal welfare act violations, initially was decided in the USDA's favor. However, it was appealed by the ALDF and the Kuehls and September 29 the appellate court reversed a key part of the lower court ruling and remanded the case back to the district court.

In the remand opinion, the appellate court had harsh words for the USDA's position.

"The mere fact that a regulatory scheme is generally consistent with the agency’s authorizing statute does not shield each agency action taken under the scheme from arbitrary and capricious review," the appellate court stated.

"The agency’s second argument, at least as currently articulated, is insufficient as well," according to the appellate court opinion. "USDA explained its decision to renew the Sellners’ license as being based on the Sellners’ compliance with the regulatory renewal requirements: filing an annual report, the application fee, availability for inspection, and the self-certification of compliance. But. . . an agency’s decision is arbitrary and capricious when its 'explanation for its decision . . . runs counter to the evidence before the agency.'"

CLICK HERE to download a copy of the USDA license revocation order.

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