Following their rescue from a rural Manchester zoo, more than 550 animals — ranging from black bears to saltwater fish — have been relocated to animal shelters, animal sanctuaries, a zoo and adoptive homes across Iowa and nearby states.
Staff from the nonprofit organization that coordinated two operations earlier this month at Cricket Hollow Animal Park said the undertaking was the largest and most complex they have conducted to date, tapping the resources of a dozen partnering entities.
“The only obstacle was trying to load everybody,” said Robyn Dobernecker, cruelty intervention coordinator with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. “Sixteen parakeets. The mule.”
The animals under ARL’s care largely had suffered from malnourishment and parasites, but staff members expect them to make a full recovery and most will be in new homes by Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, a legal battle continues between Cricket Hollow’s owners — Pam and Tom Sellner — and four plaintiffs, who are receiving assistance from the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The Sellners, who did not respond to a request seeking comment for this story, could face civil charges for failing to comply with a court order issued in November for the removal of all “exotic” creatures connected to the zoo, according to ALDF staff attorney Amanda Howell.
A second order clarified that any animal connected to the zoo was to be removed, but several remain missing, including a camel, a wolf hybrid, two mountain lions and five grizzly bears.
“This is clearly contempt of court,” Howell said.
The zoo has been in the spotlight in recent years for alleged violations of multiple animal welfare laws. Federal inspectors cited the Sellners multiple times and some animals previously were removed through the legal efforts of ALDF.
Upon notification of the court order in November, ARL staff spent weeks assembling carriers, vehicles and volunteers to remove animals from Cricket Hollow.
Teams determined during the first rescue, Dec. 9, that an estimated 60% of the animals previously inventoried were dead or missing from the property.
A second visit on Dec. 12 revealed new animals had been placed inside buildings rescue workers previously emptied. Those animals included two military macaws, a gecko, parakeets, coatis and sugar gliders.
Volunteers spent more than 12 hours loading animals into vans and trailers and shuttled them to locations across the state.
Farmyard and small animals traveled to ARL’s rescue in Des Moines, while the Blank Park Zoo accepted several cavies, skunks, opossums and baboons. Large carnivores and parrots traveled to animal sanctuaries in Colorado.
Carrie Spain, ARL’s Second Chance Ranch coordinator, said the horses, donkeys, llamas and mules located at Cricket Hollow showed signs of neglect.
“They came in thin (with) overgrown hooves,” she said. “Several of them have worms.”
Several of the female llamas are pregnant and the males are in need of castration, she said. Small mammals, including rats, mice and three cats, currently are under observation for respiratory infections.
ARL intends to rehome all animals and transferred many to nearby shelters and sanctuaries.
One pony will be used for animal therapy at Camp Courageous, a Monticello organization that provides recreational opportunities for people with special needs.
The Cricket Hollow operation is an exception to the handful of rescues ARL conducts annually, which typically stem from cases of animal hoarding.
But animal abuse or neglect that occurs at facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which Cricket Hollow was until 2017 — increases the challenge of enforcing state animal cruelty laws, according to Tom Colvin, CEO at ARL.
“There is a reluctance from local law enforcement to take action when they feel like it’s a federal place,” he said. “They could go on a premise and take a look at a bear in a corn crib or a baboon and they aren’t going to know if it’s properly cared for. … So, they have to rely on the USDA license-holder to say, ‘That’s how you do it.’ That usually ends the investigation right there.”
Colvin supports the strengthening of Iowa’s animal welfare laws through a proposal introduced this year that would clarify legal definitions of “abuse,” “neglect” and “torture” and increase criminal penalties for violators.
A bill that passed the state House in March requires approval in the Iowa Senate, and he is optimistic the governor would sign it into law.
But consumers can also pressure business owners with their pocketbooks.
“If you get onto a property like Cricket Hollow and you’re saying to yourself, ‘The sanitation is not good, there isn’t a lot of enrichment for the animals, it just doesn’t look right,’ don’t keep going back,” Colvin said. “Report it to the local law enforcement and then call the Animal Rescue League and let us know.”