Iowa Private Zoo Owner Loses Their Appeal, Despite the Judge Behaving as an Activist

The owner of Iowa’s shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo lost their appeal last week after having their animals seized as part of a years long campaign against them by activist groups.

Pamela and Thomas Sellner of Manchester lost their animals, and their life’s work, after major attacks by the deceptively named People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a lawsuit by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, who alleged that the zoo was a “public nuisance,” despite there being no complaints from neighbors or local law enforcement.

The animal rights organizations do not believe that any animals should be in human care — except under their terms and control. So, they targeted this small private zoo that was started as a passion project by a family of Iowa farmers.

The Sellners appeared to face an impossible battle during their trial, as they claim Judge Monica Zrinyi Wittig was consistently hostile towards them and “took an advocacy role” for the animal rights group — even laughably holding up a photograph of a snake and asking if the cold-blooded reptile looked “sad.”

After visiting the zoo, the judge remarked, “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.”

It is unclear if a dairy farm has ever had a “nice” smell.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported, “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.’”

The Iowa Court of Appeals acknowledged the judge’s repeated inappropriate comments and hostile questioning of defense witnesses, but claimed that the Sellners still had a fair trial.

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

While there very well may have been unsatisfactory conditions at the zoo, one has to wonder why they wouldn’t just volunteer to help or pitch in for this family that clearly has a great love of animals — instead of spending millions to destroy them.

“It was a very sad day, to think that all the deceit and ignorance of your group can destroy people’s businesses and livelihoods,” Pamela Sellner testified. “I spent my entire life putting that (zoo) together for children, and then you came and stole it in a few days. All the money and hard work, and thousands and thousands of dollars in labor that we put into that to make  something nice for the people of my community — and you came in and stole it.”

Speaking to the Gateway Pundit, Pamela Sellner described years of abuse and intimidation by the animals rights activists — as well as their shocking behavior during the animal seizure.

In March of 2013, Sellner says that she received an “extortion letter” from the ALDF that said if she did not turn over her big cats to them they would sue her under the Endangered Species Act.

“We ignored it, and they did file a suit against us,” she explained. “We went to federal court and they told a lot of lies about us and we lost.”

Sellner said that they appealed twice and lost both times, so the organization came and took all of their tigers.

Soon, lions were added to the threatened list and the ALDF came and took her deceased son’s lion as well. The stress of the incident gave her a mini stroke, causing her to lose half of her eyesight.

One activist in particular, a woman named Tracey Kuehl, filed lawsuit after lawsuit and hired private investigators to go to the zoo. In an op-ed for the Des Moines Register, Kuehl wrote about the time and effort she spent trying to shut the park down. Some may argue that the amount of time and money she spent destroying them could have been better spent helping send volunteers to help maintain it to her liking.

Sellner told Gateway that the harassment was relentless, and that Kuehl’s sister is a pilot who would even fly over and take aerial photos of her property, which also includes a small dairy farm. The photos were released to the public, but the pilot had missed the zoo portion of the property entirely. You could not see any cages, but somehow, it sparked outrage anyways.

In 2019, Sellner was sued by the animal rights group for being a “public nuisance” and on the first day of the trial, everyone including the judge went to visit her property. She says it was a cold and windy day.

“Most of the ALDF lawyers came from California and weren’t dressed for the weather,” she said. “They walked through with their teeth chattering. It wasn’t quite time to hibernate the bears yet, but they were really groggy that day because it was so cold.”

Sellner explained that the judge was not supposed to talk to anybody during the walk through because the court reporter wasn’t there. So, everyone walked through silently. 

When they returned to the court, Sellner says that the plaintiffs began to complain that the animals were in “deplorable conditions,” and raising issues about enclosures even though they were up to USDA standards and had passed many inspections. The judge thanked them for bringing up concerns that she shared.

Instead of remaining impartial, the judge went on to go ballistic on Sellner, saying that the small private zoo was not up to the same standards as the “San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld,” which the judge said she had been to.

“I tried to explain to the judge that I have a small private zoo in the middle of an Iowa cornfield and could not possibly compare to SeaWorld or the San Diego Zoo,” Sellner told the Gateway Pundit. “She just went off on me. My lawyer was standing there with his mouth hanging open. My knees were like rubber or I would have run out of that courthouse and never went back.”

The next day, her lawyer moved for a mistrial, but it was denied.

Before the trial, the ALDF had sent an undercover activist from Utah to the park to photograph each animal and take inventory of what they had. “We just thought she was a regular guest at the zoo,” Sellner said.

“She made up something about every single animal in the park,” Sellner said. They filed for sanctions against her for the undercover stunt, since someone was already scheduled to come document and inventory the animals for the ALDF, but the judge let her testify anyways.

Sellner says that the woman did not even know what kind of animals she was talking about during her testimony, at one point mistaking a mule for a horse. 

“We knew that we would never win this stupid case no matter what because the judge was so clearly biased against us,” Sellner said. “She attacked all my witnesses, attacked the state inspector, and attacked my veterinarian. She chewed their butts up one side and down the other.”

At one point, Sellner says, the judge held up a photograph of one of the snakes from the reptile house and asked, earnestly, “do you think this snake looks sad?”

Following her own testimony on the final day, Sellner was told that the decision could take up to 60 days, but offered a deal in which they could compromise and just take all the large animals. She declined.

Prior to the judge’s decision, Sellner says that she moved many of the animals to new homes, because at that point, they were still hers. During that time, she would find out later, they were under 24-7 surveillance by a private investigator who was monitoring their home and park to make sure no animals were removed. 

Some of the animals, including the five kodiak bears and two cougars, were leased from other parks and were picked up by their rightful owners before the raid. This angered the animal rights group, who went after their owner out in Indiana and ended up being able to seize them too.

About three weeks later, the judge came back with her decision that the animal rights group could take all of the exotic animals — but spared her farm animals.

On the morning of the first raid, Sellner called the USDA saying that she was concerned about how it was going to play out with them when they came. She asked if they could send an official down there to monitor and make sure that it was done properly. The agency said no, but told her that when they go to take the primates, she should watch them and make sure that they do it properly.

“When they came out to take stuff, they started at the farm end,” Sellner said. “They took a lot of my farm animals first.”

When they got to the monkey building, Sellner went in to find that they had already taken the baboons and had moved on to the macaques. 

“They kicked me out and said ‘you can’t be in here,’” on her own property, she says. “I said, ‘this is my building, I can be in here,’ and they went and told the cops and the officers made me leave.”

She never got to watch how they tranquilized and took her primates.

Meanwhile, a man was reaching his hands into aquariums and pulling out axolotls and other soft skinned amphibians that are not meant to be handled in that way and tossing them into buckets. 

Sellner protested and said that nowhere in the order did it authorize them to take amphibians from the aquariums, but the man told her that he did not care what it said and that he was leaving with them.

“There were these people with them that had these ninja outfits on. You could only see their eyes. They had on black pants with these tall lace up boots and turtlenecks that covered up to their masks,” Sellner said. “And these ninjas were out there stealing my chickens. I said ‘chickens aren’t even USDA regulated, why are you in my chicken house?’ They claimed that some of them were heritage breeds and therefore they were entitled to them under the order.”

Sellner lamented, “they took everything, even every egg.”

She explained that they also took baby finches and pigeons and threw them into boxes. “You know they killed those babies, because they don’t know which bird was the mom. They were just throwing them in random boxes.”

Sellner also believes that they killed her snowflake eel.

“I found out later that they killed my two foot long snowflake eel that was very special to me,” Sellner said. “It was my pride and joy.”

“They also took my five foot caiman out of her water and paraded her outside in the December cold for photos before throwing her in their truck,” Sellner said. “They didn’t care about the animals, only the money they could get for them.”

The activists took her wallaby, which she says they killed within three days of having it.

“They claimed that I had starved it to death, but I know that isn’t true. They wouldn’t provide a necropsy or any photos of it. That wallaby was raised by its mother, it wasn’t hand raised,” Sellner explained. She believes that they broke its neck. 

They also stole her pet rabbits from the farm, including one that was used as an ambassador for children to play with when they came to visit. They brought it to a sanctuary in Des Moines, where Sellner says it was killed by a homeless man who took it from it’s cage, knocked it over the head, skinned it, and said “I’m going to have me some rabbit stew,” while the caretakers looked on and did nothing.

“I don’t know how many other animals they killed,” Sellner said. 

The group did not return until several days later. If the family had not checked the property for animals and fed and maintained them — many of the animals that they left likely would have suffered without food or water during this time.

“They went out in the field and rounded up all my breeding llamas that I’ve had since like the mid-80s. They had never been on exhibit, they were purely breeding stock for the farm. I had a bunch of heifers that they ran out through the fences. It was a disaster. They destroyed everything in their path on my farm,” Sellner said. “They went into my barns. They searched for ‘contraband animals’ and made me feel like a criminal.”

Sellner says that the judge changed her ruling four times during the raids, from originally only saying that they could take the exotics — then expanding to her farm, domestic animals, and even horses.

“She ‘graciously’ let me keep my family poodle,” Sellner said. “Why was my poodle even up for grabs?”

The group had also taken her cows and bull, which she raised a major stink over. Eventually, they were ordered to return them — but they had already castrated her breeding bull after having him for less than five days.

She took the issue to court and was awarded $2,800 for him, but the animal rights groups said that they will just hold on to the money since they intend to sue her for the $160,000 it cost them to take her animals from her anyways.

“They’re just so powerful,” Sellner said. She has received piles of death threats and hate mail from people who read the claims made against her and believe that she is a monster. “They’ve never been here, they’ve never met me, but they believe them.”

By the end of 2019, the animal right activists had already stolen her animals, Sellner said, so she was going to turn her USDA license in and reapply the following year. The USDA said that would be fine.

Several months later, the agency decided to revoke her license permanently.

Sellner is now facing a contempt charge for moving animals off the property before the animal rights groups could come take them.

In her op-ed for the Register, Kuehl concluded, “it should not fall on private citizens to take legal action to protect these animals.” It seems that is something both parties can agree with. Why are private organizations being allowed to seize anything from anyone?

“They don’t quit,” Sellner said. “Everything I worked a lifetime for is gone.”


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