Horrors of Cricket Hollow Zoo expose need for reform of state, federal enforcement agencies

Viewpoint by Tracey Kuehl, of Bettendorf, one of the seven plaintiffs who filed lawsuits filed against Cricket Hollow Zoo.

When Cricket Hollow Zoo was ordered closed by a district court judge Dec. 4, it was the end of a long-running tragedy for hundreds of animals that suffered from neglect and cruelty.

But the lengthy legal battle over operation of the roadside zoo near Manchester also exposed an equally despicable condition – apathy and neglect by government agencies charged with protecting those animals from deplorable conditions and mistreatment.

Regulatory inadequacies and lax enforcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Animal & Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) paved the way for more than a decade of animal suffering at the zoo.

For almost 20 years, the scope and size of the roadside attraction grew unchecked, bringing with it an increasing number of serious animal welfare violations.

From its beginnings as a small mobile petting zoo visiting local schools, the roadside zoo ballooned into a sprawling display of makeshift cages housing more than 300 animals by 2015.

Owners Pam and Tom Sellner applied for and obtained a USDA Class C Exhibitors License for their mobile petting zoo in 1995.

Despite the fact their business model changed considerably from a mobile petting zoo to a permanent facility housing hundreds of animals beginning in 2002, the USDA licensing never changed.

In fact, the same Class C Exhibitor License issued to zoos such as the Columbus Zoo, San Diego Zoo and Des Moines' Blank Park Zoo is the same one issued to an unaccredited menagerie like Cricket Hollow. There is no distinction made by USDA, no sliding scale between the calibre of facilities. The simple collection of an annual fee and the “understanding” by the owners that they must adhere to the minimum survival standards set forth in the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is all that is needed.

The mobile petting zoo business model changed in the early 2000’s when Mrs. Sellner purchased an inventory of animals including a camel and baboons from Bob Strange, a fellow roadside zoo owner that sold his park.

Animal inventories at Cricket Hollow, as confirmed through USDA inspection reports, began to show a marked increase and by June 2007, more than 274 regulated animals were identified on-site (1). In terms of numbers as well as species, these inventories fluctuated significantly through the ensuing years.

Despite passage of Iowa's “Ownership of Dangerous Wild Animals” law (Iowa Code 717F) in 2007, Cricket Hollow by 2010 housed 37 animals (16 different species) listed in Iowa Code as dangerous wild animals, including two lions, six cougars, three leopards, two tigers, four bears and 15 non-human primates.

The reason the roadside zoo could rapidly grow its inventory of the exotic animals was an exemption the Sellners lobbied for, received and was written into the law.

That exemption allows facilities with a USDA license and a permit from IDALS to be exempted from the Iowa Code, including restrictions on the types of animals that could be owned as well as the fees associated with owning such animals. Without the exemption, the annual fee for owning each large exotic cat would have been $300.

The increase in the number, species and husbandry complexities for upwards of 300 exotic animals resulted in a growing number of violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act as well.

Official USDA- APHIS inspection records dating from June, 2007 (2) through the most recently available inspection conducted July 16, 2019 account for 230 observed violations to the Animal Welfare Act. A total of 108 of those were repeated multiple times with seven classified as direct – meaning the health and safety of the animal was immediately at risk.

With all of these observed problems, why didn’t the regulatory authorities react?

USDA-APHIS issued its first official “warning ticket” in December 2004 for non-performance of the Animal Welfare Act regulations. It followed with an internal investigation for violations observed in 2005 and 2006. Subsequently, the agency agreed to a settlement December 20, 2016, fining the Sellner’s $4,035.

USDA-APHIS issued a second warning ticket in May 2011, again for non-performance of the federal regulations, and a second investigation was initiated April 2012. The report released in October 2012 found 25 substantial violations, and a citation was issued along with a second penalty of $6,857.

Observed violations continued to be documented by USDA-APHIS inspectors.

Additionally, livestock inspectors and compliance investigators from the state ag department began to accompany the federal officials.

Between June 2013 and May 2015, USDA-APHIS documented 86 new violations of the AWA.

In June 2015, USDA-APHIS suspended the zoo’s license for 21 days, and in July 2015 the agency filed its own formal complaint against Cricket Hollow seeking revocation of its Class C Exhibitors License.

Violations included inadequate veterinary care, inadequate staffing to care for the animals, mishandling of animals, inadequate food and water, substandard strength of enclosures, inadequate shelter for animals, improper or inadequate drainage of enclosures, and excessive accumulation of animal feces and waste.

APHIS conducted a hearing before a USDA administrative judge in late January 2017 and the judge ordered the the zoo's Class C Exhibitors License be revoked due to chronic and on-going violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

However, the order did not include any provisions for the removal and relocation of all the animals impacted by the decision.

Basically, APHIS was asking to revoke the license to exhibit the animals to the public, but was enabling the owners to retain the animals in the abysmal conditions that violated the minimal survival standards of the AWA. The Sellners have appealed this action and a final decision on license revocation is STILL pending as of December 2019.

Despite these enforcement actions based on violations, as well as new and continuing violations being observed, USDA-APHIS continued to renew the zoo's Class C Exhibitor License on an annual basis, essentially rubber-stamping approval regardless of performance.

Ultimately, it took the effort of private citizens to bring relief to the Cricket Hollow animals.

In October 2015, five Iowans working with the Animal Legal Defense Fund proved in federal court that endangered species held in captivity were covered by the provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act. As a result, the court ordered the removal of four tigers and two lemurs from Cricket Hollow to sanctuaries (sanctuaries which the Sellners were allowed to select).

This decision was appealed by the Sellners but the Court of Appeals in the 8th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling.

In the spring of 2016, the lemurs were relocated to Special Memories Zoo in Greenville, WI and the tigers to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, IN. However, two of the tigers died at Cricket Hollow before they could be removed to safety.

African lions were included on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2015, and a second suit under the Endangered Species Act was filed to seek transfer of the two lions from Cricket Hollow. The Sellners did not appeal the second decision and the animals were relocated to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, CO.

One lioness was so emaciated and ill with straw impacting her digestive system she could not be saved and died shortly after arriving in Colorado.

Within weeks of the removal of the lions and tigers, their cages were repopulated with five Kodiak bears, a traveling exhibition on loan from another roadside zoo, according to a post on Facebook by the Cricket Hollow owners.

Violations continued to build up at the zoo. Between the USDA’s court filing to seek revocation of the license in July 2015 and the most recent inspection report of November 9, 2019 the roadside zoo has amassed 59 additional violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

A third lawsuit, brought under Iowa’s nuisance law by four private citizens and the Animal Legal Defense Fund in October 2019 did bring relief to the remaining animals at the zoo.

On November 25, an Iowa District Court judge found the zoo to be a public nuisance and ordered all animals be removed immediately. The court order was appealed by the Sellners to the Iowa Supreme Court along with a motion asking for a halt on the removal of the animals. The state supreme court denied the stay, and the animals – at least some of them – were removed December 9.

Organizations mobilized to remove the animals found more than two-thirds, almost 200, had been removed from the zoo in violation of the court order. Other were found dead.

Work is now under way by the Animal Legal Defense Fund to find the missing animals, including the five Kodiak bears, two cougars, a large number of exotic birds and reptiles, large land tortoises and others.

So despite many inspections conducted by both state and federal authorities, resulting in citations, fines, and legal actions spanning 15 years, Cricket Hollow remained in business, continuing to neglect and abuse animals while placing the general public at risk of disease and injury.

The appeal of the 2017 USDA-APHIS license revocation action by the Sellner’s is still pending. USDA-APHIS continues to inspect the zoo and find violations of the AWA.

And, USDA-APHIS continues to issue an annual Class C License to the zoo and to collect a fee (regardless of performance).

The Iowa ag department continues to issue a state permit to Cricket Hollow and it continues to collect a fee as IDALS officials continues to accompany USDA officials to the zoo for joint inspections.

What the state and federal regulatory agencies have not done over the year is to actually enforce federal and state animal welfare laws.

Their lack of action has encouraged and abetted the neglect of hundreds of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Untold numbers of animals have perished throughout this 15-year saga of animal abuse.

In internal staff memos, state ag officials have shown their lack of concern in enforcing animal abuse and neglect laws. In an email obtain under a Freedom of Information request by bettendorf.com, IDALs inspectors described concerned citizens who observed the AWA violations at the zoo as members of the “complaint crowd” who were not to be believed. Curiously, IDALS encourages public input on issues regarding animals welfare via its website.

Most people wrongly assume animal welfare laws and their regulatory agencies responsible for enforcement are in place for the benefit of the animals.

This saga, however, demonstrates that only the hard work, and persistent effort and the courage of private, ordinary Iowans brought relief to neglected and abused animals.

For six years, a small group of citizens stood up for the zoo animals. With legal assistance of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, their efforts are what ultimately brought relief to the remaining animals at the troubled zoo – not the work of government agencies, the laws nor the enforcement officers charged with the responsibility for animal welfare.


Tracey Kuehl is from Bettendorf and one of the seven plaintiffs who filed lawsuits filed against Cricket Hollow Zoo.

(1) Since early 2017, complete USDA inspection report information previously available to the public through the agency’s public reading room is now restricted.

2) USDA inspection reports are now routinely available via the public reading room for three years or less.

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