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ALDF appeals judge's ruling on Special Memories Zoo legal fees

The remains of a fisher in an enclosure at Special Memories Zoo in 2018. The zoo closed in 2020.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is appealing a judge’s ruling that Special Memories Zoo is not liable for paying more than $70,000 in legal fees.

In Feb. 2020, the ALDF sued the Wisconsin roadside zoo for violations of the Endangered Species Act and state nuisance laws.

The late Gene Wheeler, his wife Dona and head zookeeper Gretchen Crowe were accused of neglecting hundreds of animals. The cruelty included a failure to provide animals with suitable food, water or shelter, documents indicate. Animals received food that was rancid, infested with maggots and contaminated by live or dead rodents, according to court records.

The ALDF’s lawsuit sought to move the animals from the zoo to accredited sanctuaries.

In March 2020, Special Memories Zoo announced that Gene had cancer and they said they were permanently closing the zoo. Days later, a barn on the property caught fire and 35 animals were burned alive.

On May 25, 2020 a barn caught fire at the zoo.

Authorities investigating the fire found the decaying corpses of 18 additional animals that were not involved in the fire.

Numerous dead animals were found at the property where Gretchen Crowe, left, and Dona Wheeler, right, lived.

During police questioning, Crowe admitted she had not checked on those animals since January, more than two months earlier. The cause of the fire was undetermined and authorities declined to press charges against Crowe for the 18 animals that were left to die.

The animals remaining at the zoo were quickly sold to other roadside zoos, where many of them disappeared. Gene passed away in June 2020.

In Jan. 2021, the ALDF was awarded default judgement in the case and Dona and Crowe were permanently banned from ever possessing or exhibiting animals, other than personal pets, again or working with any business that does.

Also in Jan., the ALDF filed a request for legal fees, asking that Dona and Crowe pay the nonprofit animal welfare group $72,172.56 in fees and costs.

Under the Endangered Species Act, district courts may award the costs of litigation to any party when the party seeking fees obtains “some success, even if not major success.”

The zoo’s lawyer, Andrew Micheletti of Sitzmann Law Firm, argued that Special Memories Zoo should not have to pay legal fees. He said Dona has breast cancer and paying legal fees would be a burden on Dona and Crowe.

In Feb. 2021, the Special Memories Zoo property with all of the buildings and intact cages was listed for sale with an asking price of $799,000.

A billboard advertises the now-closed roadside zoo.

Last month, District Judge William Griesbach declined to award the ALDF legal fees, stating the fees would be “a heavy financial obligation on Ms. Wheeler and Ms. Crowe.”

Legal fees have been awarded to animal welfare groups that brought lawsuits against roadside zoos in two recent cases.

In June, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was awarded $733,997.70 in legal fees for their lawsuit against Tim Stark and Wildlife In Need in Charlestown, IN.

In October, PETA was awarded $57,949.28 in legal fees for their lawsuit against Tri State Zoo in Cumberland, MD. The award follows a previous order for fees bringing the total that Tri-State must pay PETA to $114,605.05.

Court records indicate the ALDF said they should be awarded legal fees because they have accomplished the purpose of their case against Special Memories Zoo, but they did so at great expense.

“Every hour [ALDF] spent responding to [Special Memories Zoo’s] unusual litigation tactics was an hour that could not be spent responding to animal cruelty elsewhere,” documents say.


ALDF notice of appeal:

Download PDF • 153KB


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