Public Safety

Cricket Hollow Zoo owners face another lawsuit over mistreatment of animals

Suit claims two lions living in "deplorable" conditions

Njarra, an African Lion, relaxes in her cage at Cricket Hollow Zoo, a private zoo near Manchester in 2004. (Gazette file photo)
Njarra, an African Lion, relaxes in her cage at Cricket Hollow Zoo, a private zoo near Manchester in 2004. (Gazette file photo)

The owners of the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester face another lawsuit by a California animal rights group, who now is suing them for “endangering” the lives of two African lions.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and five Iowa citizens filed the new lawsuit Monday against owners Tom and Pam Sellner, who lost a previous lawsuit in February and were ordered by a federal judge to transfer their lemurs and tigers to other Midwest animal facilities, which can provide better care for the protected animals.

The defense fund first sued the Sellners for the mistreatment and trafficking of protected animals — the lemurs and tigers — but now the African lions residing at the zoo have also been classified as endangered species as of December. After the judge’s order in February, defense fund officials offered to pay for the removal of the lions to accredited sanctuaries if the Sellners agreed before the suit was filed.

On Monday, the defense fund went forward, filing a new lawsuit in U.S. District Court, claiming the Sellners are endangering the lives of the two threatened and endangered lions by forcing them to suffer in “deplorable” conditions without access to adequate veterinary care. 

The group is also seeking a preliminary injunction to immediately transfer one of the animals, a lioness named Njarra, who is exhibiting signs of severe respiratory distress and impaired mobility, in order to obtain emergency care for the animal, according to the suit. The defense fund wants to transfer both lions to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., where they will have “world-class” veterinary care, and it will pay for transfer and their care and rehabilitation.

As an alternative, the defense fund asks the court to permit a qualified veterinarian to visit and examine the lions at the zoo to determine the next steps for proper diagnosis and treatment. 

Larry Thorson, the Sellners’ attorney, didn’t reply to an email request for comment Tuesday.    

The lawsuit claims Njarra had been living with a male lion, but United States Department of Agriculture inspection reports indicate the male is no longer living at the zoo. The defense fund is investigating his disappearance.

According to one witness, Jeff Marlin, who visited the zoo on June 24, Njarra “just stood in one corner of her cage shivering even though she was in direct sunlight,” the suit claims. He also said the lioness couldn’t stand or walk properly.

“She was panting so hard that I feared she was hyperventilating, but she was too weak to move to the shade,” Marlin stated in the suit. “She just looked so sickly, we all thought she would die.” 

Stephen Wells, executive director of the defense fund, said in a statement on Monday that without emergency court intervention, “we fear that Njarra is likely on her way to the same tragic and irreversible fate that befell Raoul, Casper, Luna, and Miraj — four endangered tigers who all died soon after falling ill due to lack of veterinary care” at the zoo.

In U.S. Chief Magistrate Scoles’ 73-page ruling in the first lawsuit, he said the Sellners’ violations are “pervasive, long-standing and ongoing,” and if the endangered animals were not removed, then the violations likely would continue.

The Defense Fund brought the lawsuit on behalf of the same five Iowans in the second suit as in the first, claiming the Iowans who had visited the zoo were “distressed about the poor health and welfare of the animals.”

Scoles also said in the ruling that the social isolation, lack of environmental enrichment and inadequate sanitation provided to the lemurs violated the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, the tigers were “harmed” by the failure to provide adequate veterinary care and were “harassed” by the failure to provide adequate sanitation, Scoles noted.