Federal, state inspectors paint opposite views of animal welfare at troubled eastern Iowa zoo

Animal welfare inspections by state and federal agriculture officials of Cricket Hollow Zoo paint almost opposite images of the troubled facility near Manchester, Iowa.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors have cited the small rural zoo for repeated major and minor infractions of animal welfare regulations dating back to 2011, but Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship inspectors speak glowingly of the facility in emails and reports obtained in a Freedom-Of-Information request by bettendorf.com.

State inspectors of the facility also refer with contempt to citizens who have reported bad conditions at the zoo, calling them "the complaint crowd," and suggesting to superiors they would file complaints even if none existed.

In an email from one of the state inspectors to his boss – Iowa's top veterinarian Dr. David Schmitt – he recounts he visited with the zoo owner "about her issues with the complaint crowd and she 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."

In the same May 15, 2013 email, Animal Inspector Doug Anderson reports to Schmitt that he and the District Veterinarian Dr. Gary Eiben had recently visited the zoo and that they "were pleasantly surprised on the condition of readiness for the May 25th (zoo) opening date."

"We went to Cricket Hollow today for a pre-emptive strike on the upcoming complaint season," Anderson wrote to Schmitt. "We did a complete walk-around. The large hoofed animals were out grazing in the pastures. The rest of the animals looked active, healthy, and happy."

Yet less than a month later, on June 12, USDA inspectors cited the facility for numerous animal welfare violations including:

  • Lack of adequate veterinarian care involving a capuchin monkey.
  • Failing to have potable water for dogs and cats as necessary to ensure their health and well-being.
  • Failure to keep non-human primate cages sufficiently clean to avoid contact with excreta.
  • Failure to store food and bedding to prevent spoilage and contamination.
  • Problems with primary enclosures which could allow animals (baboons and macaques) to escape.
  • Disrepair of numerous fences to protect the animals from injury and contain the animals.
  • Insufficent shade in the cage enclosures housing the lion and cougar.
  • Drainage problems resulting in standing water and mud so deep that Scottish Highland cattle "sink in the mud almost to the level of their 'knees'" in order to access food and water in the enclosure.
  • Lack of potable water for animals at all times, and unclean and unsanitary receptacles.
  • Failure to remove excreta from primary enclosures as often as necessary to prevent contamination of the animals, minimize disease and reduce odors.
  • Failure to have a safe and effective program for control of insects with the enclosure housing two tigers that has "a large number of flies" on the ground near the animal's food source.

The very positive comments and assessment of zoo conditions from the state inspectors in May 2013 also came just two weeks AFTER the USDA had fined Cricket Hollow $6,857 for repeated violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act stemming from inspections of the facility between August 2011 through February 2013.

USDA inspections of the zoo in July, September and October of 2013 also turned up many of the same violations cited in June, plus a number of new issues, including:

  • A female macaque exhibiting abnormal behavior because of psychological distress.
  • Lack of an effective program to control insects, external parasites affecting nonhuman primates and birds and mammals for the health and well-being of the animals.
  • Disrepair of a portion of the "perimeter fence surrounding the big cats, bears and wolves" which has "a section of fence that has become detached from the fence post and is sagging out from the facility."
  • Failure to clean feeders for coati mundi, wallaby, coyotes and potbelly pigs "which can lead to disease hazards for the animals."
  • No identifiable attendant present at all times when the public is allowed contact with animals.
  • A nonhuman primate biting at her tail and other parts of her body, exhibiting abnormal behavior of an animal in psychological distress.
  • Inadequate number of trained employees to maintain professionally acceptable level of husbandry practices.
  • Disrepair of housing for nonhuman primates with exposed insulation and several holes in the ceiling.
  • Fences and shelters not in good repair and posing an injury hazard to the animals.
  • No water in cage housing three chinchillas. ("The licensee provided water to the animals upon request. When given fresh water, all three chinchillas drank continuously for over a minute and appeared extremely thirsty," according to the USDA inspection report.) The lack of water for chinchillas was noted as a repeat and serious violation of the USDA's animal health regulations.
  • Failure to protect animals from cold weather. Three of four Meishan piglets died when the female was left outside when giving birth.

Contrast the USDA report findings with the one-page summary "report" filed by the state inspectors' visit Feb. 8, 2013.

In the February visit, inspector Anderson reported he had only two minor concerns – wet bedding for some of the animals in outside pens and water in bowls for small animals that were "nearly empty or frozen."

"We walked through all buildings and past all pens and observed the poultry, primates, small mammals, reptiles, exotics, large cats, livestock, birds, rodents and snakes," Anderson reported. "In a nutshell, all of the animals appeared to be thriving. They were well-fed, well-furred, alert and appeared content. Housekeeping could have been better."

The "complaint crowd" label used by the state ag inspector was aimed squarely at Tracey Kuehl, of Bettendorf, her sister Lisa, of Des Moines, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which is headquartered in California. Kuehl is the former director of the Bettendorf Family Museum and lives on her family farm, now part of Bettendorf.

The ALDF, the Kuehls, along with two other Iowans filed a lawsuit last June in federal district court against Cricket Hollow Zoo, and the owners Pamela and Tom Sellner.
The suit, brought under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), alleges the zoo is taking lemurs, tigers, gray wolves, servals and lions in violation of the endangered species act.

According to the suit, "the ESA-listed species physically and mentally suffer in their cramped and deprived conditions of confinement at the zoo," and that the Sellners "confine tigers and lions in small, barren cages, which also disrupt and impair the large cats’ normal and essential behavior patterns. . ."

The suit also contends "the lions are similarly mistreated: visitors have observed a female lion throwing up; flies swarm other lions, especially around the lions’ noses and ears; and one lion disappeared over the 2012-2013 winter."

The Sellners have denied all the allegations in court documents and the lawsuit is scheduled for trial late next year.

The Cricket Hollow Zoo obtained a Class C license to be allowed to display wild animals to the public in nearly 20 years ago. The zoo charges a fee for mostly small children to view the animals during the summer months.

Since the zoo has a federal permit, it is exempt from many state animal regulations. However, the state does issue a permit annually for operation of the facility, and could fine or deny renewal of its state permit.

However, that appears unlikely, given the current oversight by state inspectors who have yet to even fine the facility for the repeated violations cited by USDA inspectors.

"Since this is a USDA licensed and inspected facility, they most likely would be responsible for fines or license revocation for repeated violations," Iowa ag department spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef, said. "As part of our participation in inspections of this facility under Iowa Code 162.10A, we have not found the level of care provided to be such that it would cause adverse health or suffering of the animals, which would be necessary for us to revoke the facility’s permit."

Likewise, the USDA has the authority to inspect, investigate and close the facility, but to date, has only fined the owners. The zoo, however, is once again under investigation by the the federal agency, according to USDA officials.

"When they (USDA inspectors) find noncompliances, it is documented on the inspection reports," Dr. Elizabeth Meek, Assistant Regional Director for the Western Region of the USDA Animals and Plants Inspection Service, said. "The AWA (Animal Welfare Act) requires that facilities are given a period of time, which varies depending on the noncompliance, to correct that noncompliance."

"If it is not corrected, then it becomes a repeat noncompliance," Meek said." If a noncompliance is particularly grievous or the facility has a history of noncompliances that have not been corrected, we may open an investigation with Investigative Enforcement Services."

An investigation can result in a letter of warning, or the agency can issue a fine or stipulation. Permit revocations and suspensions also may be requested by USDA, and at that point an administrative judge determines if the zoo permit should be suspended or revoked.

A photo of one of the Cricket Hollow Zoo lines with flies massed on its nose. The photo is one of the exhibits submitted as part of a federal lawsuit filed by four Iowa residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) against the zoo owners Pamela and Tom Sellner, of Manchester, Iowa.

A photo of one of the Cricket Hollow Zoo lion cages. The photo is one of the exhibits submitted as part of a federal lawsuit filed by four Iowa residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) against the zoo owners Pamela and Tom Sellner, of Manchester, Iowa.

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