Emails indicate bias by state ag department in inspections of troubled eastern Iowa zoo

The two Iowa agriculture department employees primarily responsible for inspecting the troubled Cricket Hollow Zoo have been critical – in emails to superiors and on social media sites – of citizens filing animal welfare complaints against the facility near Manchester.

In emails obtained by through a Freedom of Information request from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), one state inspector calls the citizens who reported concerns about animal care at the zoo as being part of "the complaint crowd," and suggests in a May 2013 email to his boss – the state's top veterinarian – that future complaints by the animal welfare activists will likely be unfounded.". . . she (the zoo owner) is well aware that they will probably be back and is making conscious efforts to make her facility completely ready for their visits. I am sure they will complain anyway," the inspector wrote to Dr. David Schmitt, the state veterinarian who reports to Iowa ag secretary Bill Northey.

Another inspector in the emails obtained under the FOI is alleged to have posted negative comments on the Iowa Animal Welfare Alliance web site forum stating: "When are you people going to get a real job? Get a life."

Asked about the biased comments by state inspectors, Dustin Vande Hoef, the ag department's spokesman, said: "The statements do not reflect the position of the department. We have and will continue to take all animal welfare complaints very seriously."

Neither Schmitt or Northey would respond to requests for an interview about the department's handling of Cricket Hollow Zoo complaints by staff members.

CLICK HERE to view photos taken by the Iowa ag department of the Cricket Hollow Zoo inspection in February 2013

Citing confidentiality of employee personnel files, Vande Hoef would not say if either of the inspectors were disciplined in regard to their comments/posting about animal welfare complaints against Cricket Hollow Zoo.

Other emails obtained from the ag department also indicate inspectors downplayed conditions they observed during inspections at the facility. In an exchange of emails about a February 2013 inspection of the zoo, one inspector suggests softening the content of the state report in order to avoid encouraging future complaints about the facility.

The inspector suggests in the email that the report should delete the comment "housekeeping could have been better."

Saying if the comment isn't clarified with what improvements need to be done at the zoo, the comment "will add fuel to the fire."

"My thoughts are to leave this statement out since you mentioned in the next paragraph about some bedding issues," the state inspector stated in the email.

The second state inspector responded stating he "only made casual mention of it because it did not affect the standard of care as far as causing adverse health or suffering and that's all we were there to judge. I can take it ("housekeeping could have been better") out if Dave (state vet Dr. David Schmitt) wishes and he hasn't already forwarded it on. Dave?"

The state vet wrote back to the inspector saying he had "already sent it (the inspection report) on, discussed the investigation and from the report I believe the case is closed."

It was during an inspection by USDA – also in February 2013 – that three violations were noted at the zoo involving sanitation and drainage issues. The violations were among 25 for which the zoo was cited between 2011 and 2013 and later fined nearly $7,000. The February 2013 violations found by the USDA's APHIS (Animal and Plant Helath Inspection Service) included:

  • Failed to ensure indoor and outdoor facilities were structurally sound and in good repair. On the above date (2/13/13), APHIS observed that the divider fence between llamas and barbados sheep was damaged and bowing into either enclosure with sharp wires.
  • Failed to provide a suitable method to rapidly eliminate excess water. On the above date (2/13/13), APHIS observed that most of the coyote enclosure had standing water. A low area in front of the quonset shelter inside the goat and barbados sheep enclosure was also filled with standing water.
  • Failed to remove excreta from primary enclosures as often as necessary to prevent contamination of the animals contained therein. On the above date (2/13/13), APHIS observed large accumulations of feces in three of the tiger enclosures, two of the lion enclosures and the primary enclosure of one wolf. A dark brown/black grime was seen on the walls and objects within the kinkajou and coatimundi enclosures. APHIS also noted that the bear enclosure continued to have animal waste and bedding materials ground into the substrate.

CLICK HERE to view photos taken by the Iowa ag department of the Cricket Hollow Zoo during the February 2013 inspection.

The zoo is currently under investigation by the federal agency. Meanwhile, the state ag department has yet to issue any fines against the zoo, and reports by state inspectors continue to paint a much different picture of animal conditions at the zoo than the federal reports and inspections.

The zoo has a federal permit allowing the display of wild animals, but the state also oversees the zoo operations charging a yearly fee for a license.

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