THE BLOG
02/24/2016 09:56 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

Endangered in the Wild, In Danger in Captivity

Cricket Hollow. It sounds like a storybook setting, somewhere you'd want to take your family for a picnic. In reality, you'd find a roadside zoo -- unaccredited tourist attractions that exhibit animals, often in the backyards of private citizens just off the highway -- barely holding it together, more horror than fairytale. Critically understaffed, unsanitary, and unfit for animals, the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa is finally being held accountable for its failure to provide basic care for animals.

On February 11, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Judge Jon Scoles issued an order that the zoo must transfer its endangered species to facilities that can meet the animals' needs. This victory sets a groundbreaking legal precedent for animals and will be life-changing for the four tigers and three lemurs who were the subject of the suit.

The details of their lives at Cricket Hollow are disturbing. Life in captivity can be miserable for many animals, especially at small, private roadside zoos like Cricket Hollow. In fact, you should bring a skeptical eye to all roadside zoos, especially ones that boast about their endangered animals.

"Pervasive, Long-Standing, and Ongoing"

Think of the effort and responsibility that goes into caring for a family cat or dog on a daily basis, then over the course of their entire life. Now imagine what it takes to provide adequate daily care for hundreds of animals at once, including many endangered species with complex biological, social, and intellectual needs. It's not surprising that roadside zoos can't provide even the bare minimum level of care for so many animals. Cricket Hollow Zoo never came close.

Tiny enclosures, rotting food, feces left to accumulate for weeks, and lack of proper shelter are just the beginning. This wasn't a temporary lapse in protocol; the laundry list of violations goes back to shortly after the zoo's founding in 2002. During official inspections many enclosures lacked fresh water. When water was available at all it was often full of debris and feces. The animals there lack basic requirements of health and safety, to say nothing of their deeper social and emotional needs. Judge Scoles characterized the violations as "pervasive, long-standing, and ongoing."

Take the lemurs, for example. They are highly social animals who need to live in groups of eight to ten. At Cricket Hollow, the animals take turns living in isolation, though they never have more than a pair to a cage and Lucy the red-ruffed lemur has lived alone for sixteen years. Their lives are undoubtedly miserable. Their treatment is essentially torture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with licensing zoos and holding them to basic standards of animal care set forth by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). In Cricket Hollow's case, as with far too many others, the USDA and local and state authorities have not effectively protected the animals trapped at the zoo. The USDA's repeated renewal of Cricket Hollow's exhibitor's license, after years of unresolved violations and fines, exemplifies its failure to enforce the law. It was clear to ALDF and concerned local citizens that something more needed to be done. In June 2014, ALDF and a group of Iowans filed suit against zoo owners Pam and Tom Sellner for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA), under the citizen suit provision. Without this important provision, endangered animals would depend solely on a flawed regulatory and enforcement system for their protection.

The court agreed with ALDF and the plaintiffs regarding the USDA's shortcomings, but the citizen suit lawsuit is just one step in ALDF's quest to fix a broken system. ALDF has also sued the USDA for arbitrarily continuing to renew the Cricket Hollow Zoo's license in spite of its terrible treatment of their animals and historical violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

A Promising Precedent

Judge Scoles' order to move the tigers and lemurs is a new shot at life for the individual animals. It also represents a groundbreaking moment in animal law. The lawsuit was made possible by the citizen suit provision of the ESA, which lets anybody file a lawsuit regarding ESA compliance. The provision is actually a critical element of the Act, as these citizen suits are one of the most efficient mechanisms by which the ESA is enforced. The decision regarding Cricket Hollow is the first time a citizen suit has been used successfully to rescue captive endangered animals under the ESA, and confirms that endangered animals in captivity must receive the same protections as their counterparts in the wild.

With this victory on the books, individuals and groups across the nation will be empowered to pursue justice for endangered animals suffering in squalid conditions like those at Cricket Hollow and other roadside zoos where animals are treated as objects for display instead of the valuable and complex creatures they are.

ALDF currently has other Endangered Species Act lawsuits pending before federal courts, including a lawsuit on behalf of Lucky the elephant, who lives in isolation at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas, and Candy the chimpanzee, who lives in isolation at the Dixie Landin' amusement park in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. ALDF has also joined other conservation groups to sue the Miami Seaquarium for isolating Lolita the orca. Many will recall the documentary Blackfish, which exposed the suffering orcas in captivity endure as a result of being separated from their families in the wild.

With their court ordered transfer from Cricket Hollow, the tigers and lemurs should be free of the mental and physical suffering they have endured. ALDF is working to ensure that they are rehomed to a facility that's better set up to meet their needs. But it's hard not to think about all the other animals who still live under inhumane conditions at Cricket Hollow Zoo, which retains its license for the time being. ALDF is now reviewing its options to force the Sellners to rehome their African lions, whom the U.S Fish and Wildlife Services determined were threatened species under the Endangered Species Act just three months after the Cricket Hollow Zoo trial.