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Appeals court overturns ruling in Special Memories Zoo lawsuit

Dona Wheeler (left) and Gretchen Crowe will be required to pay fees and costs to Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled today that a District Court judge abused his discretion when failing to require the owner and manager of a now-defunct

Wisconsin roadside zoo to pay legal fees and costs to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and they vacated the decision and remanded it to the District Court.

Special Memories Zoo was a roadside zoo that was owned and operated by the late Gene Wheeler, his wife Dona, and manager Gretchen Crowe, that operated out of Greenville and Hortonville, Wisconsin.

ALDF sued Special Memories Zoo in February 2020 under the citizen suit provision of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In a brief, ALDF said they obtained evidence that the conditions at Special Memories Zoo were so horrific that some of the animals in the zoo’s care starved or froze to death.

“Endangered and threatened animals such as lemurs, tigers and lions were kept in squalid and cramped cages, had obvious injuries, lacked clean water and showed signs of distress,” court records say.

The lawyer for Special Memories Zoo, Andrew Michelletti, filed a response denying the allegations. A month later, he submitted a letter to the court stating that the zoo is rehoming their animals and ceasing operations because Gene was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“Due to his health complications and this lawsuit, and the recognition that the ALDF will only continue to pursue claims against the zoo even if my clients prevail in this action, my clients have made the difficult decision to rehome its animals, in particular, the endangered and threatened animals,” he wrote.

Six days after Michelletti filed the letter, a fire broke out in a barn at the Special Memories Zoo’s winter quarters, killing 35 animals. Authorities investigating the fire found the decaying corpses of an additional 18 animals on the property that were not involved in the fire.

In body cam footage submitted in court, Crowe admitted to a sheriff’s investigator that she hadn’t checked on the animals that were found deceased in nearly three months. She also told the investigator that the zoo was rehoming all of the endangered or threatened animals due to ALDF’s lawsuit.

Gene died several months later. No one was charged for the fire or for the decaying animal corpses found on the property.

The surviving animals were quickly sold to other roadside zoos across the country to circumvent ALDF’s efforts to place the animals at sanctuaries. Special Memories Zoo then moved to have the case dismissed as moot. District Court Judge William Griesbach denied the motion because he said Dona and Crowe had not submitted evidence that the animals had been irrevocably transferred or that their ownership interests had terminated.

Griesbach ruled that the parties engage in limited discovery on the issue. Special Memories Zoo shared some information in discovery and then announced that they no longer intended to provide discovery or defend themselves in the lawsuit. Many of the animals have never been located.

Griesbach entered default judgment in favor of ALDF, finding “the defendants did violate the [Act] and that the operation of the zoo constituted a nuisance,” documents say.

Griesbach also entered a permanent injunction banning Dona and Crowe from possessing or exhibiting animals other than their pet dogs and from participating in any business or entity that possesses or exhibits animals.

ALDF asked Griesbach to award the nonprofit $72,172.56 in fees and costs for their successful lawsuit against Special Memories Zoo. Last October, Griesbach declined to award legal fees to ALDF, stating that ALDF played at most only a minor role in shutting down the zoo and that the fees would be “a heavy financial obligation on Ms. Wheeler and Ms. Crowe.”

ALDF appealed the judge’s ruling. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of ALDF today, stating in their opinion that Griesbach abused his discretion in not awarding the fees and his reasons for denying a fee award were insufficient.

In the decision, the Appeals Court wrote that the extent to which the ALDF’s lawsuit contributed to the zoo’s closing should only contribute to the amount of fees awarded, not whether to award them. They noted that a significant reduction in the fee award would not be appropriate in this case where the relief was complete and the causation was clear.

“Any adjustment [of the fee award], however, should recognize ALDF’s complete success and its clear role in contributing to the defendants’ change of conduct.”

The Court of Appeals vacated the decision and remanded it back to the District Court who will determine the fee award Dona and Crowe will be required to pay to ALDF.

The decision in Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Special Memories Zoo is significant because it affirms that prevailing parties are entitled to the award of fees and costs under the citizen suit provision of the ESA.

An attorney for ALDF said the decision is a major victory because it incentivizes other attorneys–whether they work for a nonprofit or not–to file lawsuits to protect animals.


Download the full court opinion:

0035 - - Filed opinion of the court by Judge Jackson-Akiwumi
. We VACATE the decision and R


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