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ALDF seeks $71K in legal fees from Special Memories Zoo

Special Memories Zoo owner Dona Wheeler and zookeeper Gretchen Crowe shown in body cam footage surrounded by photos taken by police of dead animals at the roadside zoo.
Dozens of dead animals were found on the Special Memories Zoo property in March, 2020.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is seeking $72,172.56 in legal fees and costs for their lawsuit against Special Memories Zoo, including owner Dona Wheeler and head zookeeper Gretchen Crowe, for violations of the Endangered Species Act and Wisconsin nuisance laws.

In January, the ALDF was awarded default judgement in the case against the troubled roadside zoo, a judgement which includes reasonable legal costs and attorney fees. According to court documents, the amount of legal fees the ALDF is requesting is less than half of the actual cost they incurred in their lawsuit, which alleged SMZ starved some of their animals to death.

Other violations at the roadside zoo include failing to provide animals with suitable food, water, or shelter. Some of the animals were fed food that was rancid, infested with maggots, and contaminated by live or dead rodents, documents say. The animals were given water that was contaminated by rodents, filled with excrement, and resembled a “watery sludge topped with an oily residue.”

Animals lived in cramped enclosures that did not protect them from the elements, causing them to freeze to death.

After the ALDF filed their lawsuit, a barn caught fire at the zoo’s winter facility in March 2020, burning many animals alive. Dozens of animals not involved in the fire were found in various states of decomposition on the farm, and zookeeper Crowe admitted she hadn’t checked on those animals in “a few months.”

According to court documents, the ALDF had made numerous attempts to settle the lawsuit with SMZ, which would have allowed the zoo to avoid paying legal fees. If SMZ had agreed to a ban on the possession of wild animals, and had provided information on the location of the animals that the zoo sold during the lawsuit, the ALDF would have dismissed their claims.

Instead, SMZ further increased the cost of litigation by making numerous false statements and attacking one of the ALDF’s witnesses.

According to documents, the zoo made claims they were shutting down because zoo owner, Gene Wheeler, now deceased, had been diagnosed with cancer. However, Gene was diagnosed with cancer on March 12, 2020, and the zoo had begun shipping animals to DeYoung Zoo in Wallace, MI, on March 2, ten days before Gene’s diagnosis, according to transfer documents.

Some of the SMZ animals, including a black leopard and two wolves, have disappeared from DeYoung Zoo, and zoo owners Bud and Carrie DeYoung refuse to say what happened to them.

SMZ has until Feb. 11 to respond to the ALDF’s requested legal fees and cost.

According to court documents, every hour that the ALDF spent on the lawsuit was “an hour that could not be spent responding to animal cruelty elsewhere.”

Full court documents:

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