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Documents shed light on location of Special Memories Zoo animals

Onyx, a black leopard missing from Special Memories Zoo

Newly obtained documents reveal the last known location of the animals that remained at Wisconsin’s Special Memories Zoo (SMZ).

Early last year the troubled roadside zoo was facing a lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) for violations of the Endangered Species Act and public nuisance laws. The lawsuit argued that the zoo kept their animals in cruel and inhumane conditions.

Court records indicate many animals perished at the roadside zoo in filthy enclosures without access to food, water or veterinary care. The ALDF sought to move the animals from the roadside zoo to accredited sanctuaries.

In an effort to thwart the lawsuit, SMZ announced they were closing the zoo and quickly began selling their animals.

Then, late in the evening of March 24, 2020, a fire broke out at the zoo’s winter location, burning 35 animals alive.

Officers investigating the fire found an additional 18 decaying animal carcasses on the property that were not involved in the fire.

The cause of the fire remains unknown but authorities could not rule out arson.

The Outagamie County District Attorney’s Office declined to charge zookeeper Gretchen Crowe with animal neglect for the decaying animal carcasses found on the property.

In January 2021, a judge awarded the ALDF default judgement in the case and permanently banned the zoo, its owner Dona Wheeler and zookeeper Crowe, from ever possessing or exhibiting animals other than household pets again or working with any business that does so.

The judge has not yet ruled on whether the roadside zoo will be responsible for paying the ALDF $72,172.56 in legal fees, costs and expenses.

The abandoned SMZ property and the empty cages once filled with suffering animals are now listed for sale.

Despite the lawsuit wrapping up, there have been many concerns about what happened to the surviving animals at SMZ.

Newly obtained documents from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection illustrate a timeline of wildlife trafficking across the U.S. implicating numerous roadside zoos, animal dealers and transporters.

1/13/20 - SMZ sends two otters to Hovatter’s Wildlife Zoo in West Virginia.

3/2/20 - SMZ sends two red ruffed lemurs to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

3/5/20 - SMZ sends two lions, two wolves and nine ringtail lemurs to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

3/11/20 - SMZ sends two Syrian brown bears named Black Claw and White Claw to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

3/12/20 - SMZ sends a Tonkean macaque named Katie, snow macaques named Cheri, Sweetie and Beachie, black bears named Becky and Bonnie, and a black leopard named Onyx, to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

3/24/20 - Shortly before midnight, a barn catches fire at the SMZ winter location. 35 animals are burned alive.

3/25/30 - Authorities investigating the barn fire find 18 decaying animal carcasses on the property.

3/25/20 - SMZ sends a spider monkey named Cindy Lee to DeYoung Zoo.

3/25/20 - SMZ sends two geoffroy's cats, two binturongs and one squirrel monkey to Saginaw Tropical Animals LLC, an animal dealer in Michigan. Carrie Cramer of DeYoung Zoo transported the animals.

3/25/20 - SMZ sends two aoudads to Animal Adventure Park in New York.

3/25/20 - SMZ sends two Canadian lynx to East Texas Zoo and Gator Park with the address of Franklin Drive Thru Safari, Texas.

3/26/20 - SMZ sends 27 animals with Coleman Phifer, an exotic animal transporter out of North Carolina. Those animals included Siberian lynxes named Natasha and Boris, bearded dragons named Mario, Carl, Damien and Sunny, two redtail boas, a ball python named Noodle, a blue tongue skink, two leopard geckos, two cornsnakes, three blue and gold macaws named Baby, Angel and Brody, two blue fronted Amazon parrots, a goffin cockatoo named Peaches, a nanday conure, a mini macaw, spider monkeys named Moe and Jenna, bobcats named Guy and Annie, and one painted dahl sheep.

3/31/20 - SMZ sends two rhesus macaques and two java macaques to East Texas Zoo and Gator Park with the address of Franklin Drive Thru Safari, Texas.

4/9/20 - SMZ sends two vervets to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

4/22/20 - SMZ sends two hamadryas baboons to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

5/6/20 - SMZ sends two tigers to DeYoung Zoo in Michigan.

Roadside Zoo News previously learned SMZ sent a giraffe named Jericho to East Texas Zoo and Gator Park. Jericho was later sent to Chalk Bluff Park, TX. The dates of Jericho’s transfer are unclear but the transfer may have occurred at the same time that other animals were being purchased from SMZ and transported to East Texas Zoo and Gator Park.

Animal Haven Zoo, WI, also admitted to purchasing numerous livestock-type animals including mini donkeys and mini ponies from SMZ in 2020.

Animals that were at SMZ at a January 2020 inspection whose location remains unknown include two white-headed capuchins, two two-toed sloths, four North American porcupines, three patas monkeys, one alpaca, four groundhogs, two fishers, one raccoon, three brown capuchins and three Eastern grey squirrels.

Numerous animals have also disappeared from the location they were sold to. Particularly of note are Onyx the black leopard and two wolves named Jeanie and Robbi that were sent to DeYoung Zoo, where they quickly disappeared. DeYoung Zoo refuses to say what happened to them.

The former owner of a goffin cockatoo named Baby that disappeared from SMZ has also been searching for her, but the documents shed little light on where Baby could be located, as she was sold to an animal dealer named Coleman Phifer and was likely resold. Inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture attempted to inspect Phifer’s facility in April and June 2021, but Phifer was unavailable to allow inspectors access to conduct an inspection.

Roadside Zoo News will continue searching for the animals that have disappeared from the troubled roadside zoo and remain unaccounted for.


SMZ animal transfer documents:

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SpMem-outCVI-2019-2020 (2)
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