- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

MANCHESTER, Iowa (AP) - It’s a sunny fall morning as Pam Sellner greets the dozen home-schooled children taking a field trip to her roadside zoo and shows them Consuela, a 2-year-old kinkajou.

As Consuela rests in her owner’s palm, the children pet the South American tree-dweller.

“There’s her long tongue that pollinates things in the rain forest,” Sellner tells the children. “She wants to meet everybody. How about it?”

She teaches the children how to mimic the throaty “chuffing” sound of a tiger so they can talk back and forth with Rajahn and Natasha, two tigers.

“It’s a pretty big deal when you’re a little tiny kid and a great bit 600-pound cat wants to greet you,” she said in an interview with The Des Moines Register.

These are the scenes Sellner recounts when she defends her embattled Cricket Hollow Zoo, the passion project she has run since 2002 on the 20-acre northeast Iowa dairy farm where she lives with her husband, Tom.

But Iowa animal rights activists tell a different story of the Cricket Hollow Zoo, claiming that the animals Sellner has amassed live in wretched conditions, their enclosures filled with feces and flies.

The activists’ concerns mirror reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose inspectors have documented a host of problems, from foul smells to rodent droppings in a room where food is stored, potentially exposing animals to disease.

The conditions have so incensed the nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund that it has sued the zoo, arguing that the care of lemurs, tigers and hybrid wolves violates the Endangered Species Act and that the animals need to be rescued.

The Des Moines Register reports (https://dmreg.co/1OrQkd3 ) the lawsuit has thrust the tiny Iowa zoo into a larger battle of ideologies over exotic animal ownership.

Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund fight to ban the private ownership of tigers, claiming the dangers of a cat getting loose are too great and that federal and local officials often lack the teeth to enforce animal welfare regulations.

One witness at the trial, California veterinarian Jennifer Conrad, testified the Sellners “do not care about these animals any more than to have them as trophies.”

Sellner and others argue that private ownership is a right that helps spread appreciation for animals.

Parked in front of the Sellner house is a red Chevrolet Silverado with a bumper sticker that depicts the mischievous character Calvin of the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip urinating on the word PETA, the international animal rights group that opposes all zoos.

Sellner concedes that her Cricket Hollow Zoo isn’t “perfect.” But she believes expert witnesses who testified against her at the trial vilified the zoo, even though they admitted at trial that they never visited it.

“I would say it’s a pretty bold statement for somebody under oath to say, ‘Those people don’t love their animals, and they’re nothing but trophies to them.’ Because that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” Sellner said.

What drives Sellner to buy and keep so many exotic animals?

“I guess I’m a crazy cat lady,” she says.

Her family has raised in their home many of the lions, tigers, cougars and bobcats that have lived at the zoo.

Njjarra, an 18-year-old lioness who now lives in a reconfigured corn crib, was raised by Seth Sellner, the couple’s son, who was killed in 2009 in a truck crash when he was 26.

The collection of more than 300 animals at the Cricket Hollow Zoo is a menagerie of big cats, two black bears, livestock, primates, hybrid wolves, coyotes, birds, reptiles and others.

It started in 1982, when Sellner went to an exotic animal swap with her infant son and set her sights on buying a llama.

“From there, it snowballed,” she said. “We went to cougars, we had a squirrel monkey that lived in the house, and we just kind of collected over the years.”

The first thing a visitor does at the Cricket Hollow Zoo is pay a $5 fee inside the Sellners’ original early 1900s vine-covered farmhouse. They bought the property after surviving the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Now it’s a converted “reptile house” that smells like a pet store, replete with boa constrictors, a caiman, pythons, an iguana, a chameleon, sugar gliders, a ferret, a variety of birds and other animals.

The issue of odor came up in the courtroom during testimony from a group of five Iowans who are named as plaintiffs in the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s lawsuit.

Tracey Kuehl, a former Bettendorf museum director, described a “fetid manure smell” that she noticed on her first visit to the zoo in June 2012. A persistent, farm-like odor lingers on the property.

For Sellner, that’s just part of living in the Iowa countryside. A neighboring farmer raises hogs, and the odor carries on the wind, she said.

“I don’t like it either, but you know what, they have the same right to farm over there as I do over here,” she said.

On an October visit, there was a sour smell inside the zoo’s education center, and flies buzzed in a glass enclosure that houses chinchillas, fennec foxes, turtles, porcupines, a parakeet, two macaws and other birds.

A USDA inspector documented the odor in a May report, writing that the building had a “strong, foul odor of fecal waste and ammonia,” and that the air inside was stagnant.

Sellner could fill a book with stories about the animals at her zoo, complete with observations gleaned from her years raising them (“Tiger cubs have to go out when your sofa’s moved when you come in from chores”).

There’s a 4-year-old baboon named Obi she raised by hand. He used to wear clothes and live in the Sellners’ home, but “now he gets to be a baboon again.”

“There’s a reason why when you’re a 50-something you don’t have babies, because every two hours around the clock, you had to give him a bottle and burp him and change his diapers,” she said. “They’re clingy. Little baby monkeys, you have to take them everywhere.”

But the young baboon’s health and well-being have been questioned by at least one veterinary medical officer with the USDA.

In a routine visit May 20, an inspector wrote that Obi was pacing and tossing his head back. These were signs of “abnormal behaviors associated with psychological distress,” wrote the inspector, Heather Cole.

Cole criticized the zoo in the report for providing only “minimal” enrichment inside the young baboon’s enclosure, in the form of a climbing structure and a ladder.

Reports from the USDA over several years consistently show the animals kept at the zoo are in danger, even if Sellner cares deeply for them, said Jessica Blome, an Iowa native and staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Blome and a team of attorneys brought up other safety concerns at trial, including a July 2011 incident when Tom Sellner was mauled by a tiger after leaving a gate open during a morning feeding. Doctors had to sew Sellner’s scalp back into place, and he could have died had the animal not been declawed, he told the Register at the time.

The attorneys also pointed to a log of 15 deceased animals at the zoo since 2005, questioning whether the tigers, lemurs, a hybrid wolf and a lion that died received adequate medical care.

A USDA inspector in October 2014 noted a thin tiger, Casper, that had a 6-square-inch untreated open wound on his leg. Casper died about a month later. His cause of death was listed as pneumonia.

Sellner believes she did the best she could for Casper, saying he was a rescue cat and was already in poor health when he arrived in Iowa in July of last year. But Conrad, the California vet who testified at trial, pointed to the death as evidence of substandard care.

“She loves her animals, and she does want to do right by them,” said Blome, the Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney. “We’ve never questioned whether she loves her animals; it’s just whether she can care for them properly. She just isn’t sure how to get there.”

Groups such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society of the United States argue that private owners such as Sellner just aren’t capable of giving exotic, potentially dangerous animals the care they need.

When things go wrong, tragedies can happen, such as in 2011, when sheriff’s deputies in Zanesville, Ohio, had to kill 49 animals, including Bengal tigers, lions and bears, that had been set free by their owner, who then killed himself.

A Washington Post report in September detailed dangerous conditions at other roadside zoos like Cricket Hollow on the East Coast.

The USDA in July filed an administrative complaint against the Cricket Hollow Zoo, noting violations such as fly-infested fruit in animal enclosures, that could end with revocation of the Sellners’ federally issued license.

An employee in the agency’s hearing clerk’s office said the status of such proceedings could not be made public until an outcome is reached.

Still, for Sellner, finishing the trial has finally allowed her to take a breath as the zoo completed its 2015 season at the end of October.

With the publicity and notoriety the lawsuit and trial brought, Sellner claims she’s received hate mail and death threats over the phone, by email and on the zoo’s Facebook page.

Sellner is sure that whatever the outcome of the trial, there will be an appeal, as she fights to keep Cricket Hollow Zoo open.

“God put me on this Earth to feed people and to educate people, and that’s what I do,” she said. “And I think I do a pretty decent job of it.”

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com

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