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Roadside Zoo keeper shares horrific memories of animal neglect at Special Memories Zoo

The first time I went to Special Memories Zoo I thought it was such a cool little zoo. They had a baby Bengal tiger just lying on the ground in the petting zoo in the sun, and I was hooked. I was only eighteen at the time and I didn’t realize that that wasn’t a good thing until years later. Either way, that’s what made me decide to apply at Special Memories Zoo. I didn’t even fill out an application, I just talked to Dona and asked if they needed help, she said they did and I was hired.

It was fall, so they were just getting ready to move the animals from the zoo to the farm. They had me start at the farm cleaning pens. If I had known any better I would have just left as soon as I saw the condition of the barns and pens and how they had been left from when they moved the animals to the zoo earlier that spring.

The monkey pens at that time were all elevated pens, about three feet off of the floor. The food and poop and bedding that had been under the animals before they moved was six inches from the bottom of the pen. The smell was overwhelming.

Gene told me they hadn’t had much help, and he had a heart condition and Dona had breast cancer and basically insinuated that those things were the reason things were in such bad shape. Since I have always loved animals, and was so excited to be working at a zoo, I never questioned it.

The other barns weren’t any better. I remember cleaning a duck pen that was about six feet tall by four feet wide, and it was about two feet from the top with poop and straw. They had just been leaving it year after year and putting new straw on top of the old. I remember thinking it was excessive, and it took me and Gretchen and another lady that worked there at the time, three hours to clean that one pen.

Gene put me in charge of cleaning the whole farm in time for the animals to come back from the zoo. He told me he wanted it to be “so clean he could eat off the floors”. I remember kind of smiling about that because it wasn’t anywhere near that at this point, and if that was his expectation then why was it left so bad? Anyway, that was just the beginning. I ended up cleaning the whole farm, and then I didn’t work through the winter that year.

I came back in the spring and Gene told Gretchen to teach me how to do everything. I was taught how to clean the pens every morning, and feed the whole zoo, and just all of the day to day things at the zoo. I only worked part time then because I had another job as well. I worked from 7-12 each day and I loved it. Working with so many amazing animals was my dream job.

Since I wasn’t there for too long each day, things seemed great and like they had it together. I actually got along with Gretchen in the beginning, before I knew what kind of person she really was.

I worked through that summer and then went full time that fall because Gene kept telling me he wanted me to be a forever employee and wanted me to work through the winter. I was totally attached to all of the animals at this point, and I fully intended to work at the zoo for as long as it was open.

That fall though, and through the winter, I started to see the truth about that zoo, and what kind of person Gretchen Crowe actually is. These things I’m about to share still haunt me, and I still feel guilty for leaving, even though I know I had to for my mental and emotional health.

The first incident was with a dead wallaby. It had died for some unknown reason, and I told Gene right away that it had died. He never looked at it but told us to put it in the barn hallway, out of the pen from the others, and Gretchen would take it out to the “burial spot” at the back of the property.

When I came to work the next day, the wallaby was still laying there. Three days went by and it still wasn’t taken care of. I offered to take it out myself because seeing a dead animal every day wasn’t easy for me, and it shouldn’t be easy, but Gene insisted that it was Gretchen’s job and she would do it. That went on for a week. I finally got sick of it and told Dona I refused to go into that barn to feed the animals until it was moved because it was gross and traumatic. The next day it was gone so I was happy to feed in that barn again.

About a week later, a coworker and I decided to open some doors we discovered leading to an outside camel pen. There were two inside doors, and then a two foot by five foot (approximate) space, and then a metal sliding door that led out into the pen that the camels were in that year. We figured it would be easier to feed them that way, since we could just bring their grain and hay through those doors, instead of having to go all the way around the barn outside. We had never noticed or used those doors before that day.

When we opened them, there was the dead wallaby. Gretchen had hidden it between the doors instead of disposing of it properly. We were sick. We told Gene right away and he made her take it out back and yelled at her a lot and we thought it was a one-time thing and was taken care of.

We were feeding the camels again one day, and their hay bin was a ground level trough. I was spreading the hay out for them and my foot hit what I thought was a root. I moved it and uncovered it with my foot. It turned out to be the head of a curly horned sheep that had passed away and Gretchen was supposed to put out back, again by the body pile, and instead she had hidden it in the camel pen by their food.

I found a squirrel monkey skeleton in the machine shed that had died about a year before. I took her skeleton out back and disposed of it properly. I let Gene know and he yelled at Gretchen again and that was it. It had broken my heart when she died, and having to see her again in that condition was very traumatic.

I found buckets of old meat and fruit hidden in the machine shed that Gretchen would hide to make it seem like she had fed the big cats (bobcats, lynx and wolves) and monkeys but she never did. This went on the entire nine years I was there. I told Gene every time I found it and he would yell at Gretchen and that was it. If I had to guess, that had happened about 100 times over the course of the nine years I worked at Special Memories Zoo. Definitely a common occurrence.

One summer, I could smell something rotting in the machine shed. By now I knew Gretchen would regularly hide dead animals in there instead of disposing of them. So I went looking around and found about 12 dead animals in different stages and years of decomposition. They were in the back of the machine shed in the left hand corner, behind a boat that someone paid to keep there.

I could not get to the body pile easily at all, and I discovered the only way she could get them back there was to fling the bodies really far over the boat, and they’d land in the corner in a pile behind the boat. The fact that she could be so careless and terrible with the animals that had died was horrifying. It made me so sick to pull out so many dead animals, some that I recognized, some that seemed to have been there for years, even before I started working there.

I had to go into the whitetail deer pen next to the monkey shed and pull them out through a hole under the building. It was terrible. I showed Gene right away and he yelled at Gretchen, made her take them out back to the body pile, and that was it. I figured by this point, with how often she was hiding dead bodies and meat and fruit, that they would certainly fire her, but they never did.

Gretchen was also in charge of giving all of the animals their shots and medicine. Gene would brag about how great she was at it. She always used whatever needle she could find laying around; used or dirty, it didn’t matter.

She did this with the white tailed deer they had at the farm as well. Each time we had to tranquilize the deer she would find whatever needle was lying around, and use that same old needle for each of the deer that she gave medicine to, as well as the meds they used to wake them back up. There would be ten to fifteen deer each time, and each time it was an old dirty used needle. She told me “it didn’t really matter,” and she “didn’t get along with neat freaks.”

She would also say she gave medicine to an animal but never did. I noticed it and then started counting the pills each day and she was never giving them. I told Gene and he yelled at her and she got mad at me but nothing ever changed. She still didn’t give any animal their medicine so I just started doing it and she never noticed. She would always yell back at me and say “bite me” and storm off.

She often would get mad when confronted and take off in her truck and not speak to me for days. If for some reason Gretchen had to feed the animals because one of us had off, she never would. We would come back and the monkeys would beg for water and even if we fed them first they wouldn’t even eat because they needed water first.

Once I figured that out, as soon as I got back after a weekend, I would always water first and then again after feeding. They always drank it all.

When Gretchen would “help” water the monkeys, she would open their water holder and pull out their water bottle, and if it had even two ounces out of a 16oz water bottle left, she wouldn’t fill it, she would just put it back. When I confronted her about that she would say they “had water.” Which yes, ok, there was some water in their bottle, but obviously not enough until the next day, or even the next few hours.

Anyone with common sense would know that, and especially someone that takes care of animals for sure would know that. And it should make you feel sad if any animal is begging for water, it’s a basic need, and she literally never cared.

Each time she “helped” we would go around behind her and redo everything because she just literally never fed or watered properly at all. When she noticed we were doing this she would yell and scream but we just did what was best for the animals.

We weren’t concerned in the least about how Gretchen felt because we weren’t going to allow her to neglect the animals. Our job was to take care of the animals, and she just didn’t do it, and didn’t care about the harm she was causing.

Every time I told Gene to fire Gretchen, he would tell me that she really didn’t work for the zoo but that his kids had hired her to basically babysit him because he had had like three heart attacks or something and she knew CPR so she was really only there for him.

When I said, ”OK then don’t let her do any zoo stuff or take care of any animals at all because she’s heartless and literally doesn’t care about them or their welfare,” he told me that she might as well do some work since she was getting paid. So it was basically just a ploy, and no matter what she did or how terrible she was, they were never going to get rid of her.

I lost all respect for Gene and Dona, and realized that they only had a zoo because of the attention people get for having exotic animals. Not one of those three people cared about the animals. It was sickening.

I worked there for about four years and then I left for personal reasons. I left on a good note, even though there were so many things I hated about that place.

About 5 or 6 months later I got a call from another man that worked there. He told me that a zebra, the two oryx they had and about 15 of the monkeys had died for sure, and he was sure there were more that had died. I was sick because I knew it was from neglect. Gretchen was the only one taking care of the animals at the farm and the zoo that winter.

I felt so guilty that I decided to go back. When I got back I was devastated. So many of the monkeys I loved had died. I knew it was neglect, but was told it was a carbon monoxide leak. They told me the hoofstock had all died from pneumonia. It was terrible. They literally lie about everything.

I ended up working every day and most weekends. If I didn’t work a weekend I would come back and all of the animals would be mostly out of food and always out of water. I came back and would consistently find meat and fruit hidden in the machine shed by Gretchen to make it look like she had fed the animals over the weekend.

I begged Gene to watch her feed to make sure she was actually doing it. He would do it once, and then believe her when she said she was feeding. Even when he did watch her to make sure, she would scream and cry the whole time and whine in a baby voice about how it was “bullshit that he didn’t trust her.” She never did feed when she was left alone and Gene didn’t actually care. I couldn’t understand how they kept her all those years doing the same terrible things, and she never got fired.

I was scared to take any time off at all because I knew the animals would suffer. I started cutting up fruit for the monkeys so all Gretchen would have to do was walk down the monkey room hall and put it in their bowls when I was gone. Their bowls hung on the outside of their cages and were held on with hose clamps. All she had to do was walk down the length of the monkey room and scoop fruit into their bowls. I figured that was easy enough that she would do it, but no.

Most of the time I would find the empty fruit bucket in the sink in the monkey room. At first I thought she was actually improving and feeding them, but then I would find the fruit I had cut up rotting and hidden in feed bags or a different bucket hidden in the machine shed.

Also, the meat buckets for the big cats and wolves would be empty and I would find it hidden in feed bags or different buckets in the machine shed. She always used the same hiding spots like I wouldn’t notice, but I always found it.

Even in the summer when it would rot and I would smell it and find it for sure, she still did it. It literally took more effort for her to find a feed bag, dump the fruit or meat into it and hide it, than it did for her to just walk down the hall and feed the animals that were counting on her.

I feel like she had to get some kind of pleasure out of making the animals suffer like

that. There’s no reason she would be hiding the food to make it look like she fed. No excuse at all. That’s why I feel like she has to enjoy hurting them because why else would someone do that? I made it as easy as possible for her, for the animals sake, and she still wouldn’t feed or water the animals.

I would always let Gene or Dona know when I found things wrong at the zoo and make them aware of what was going on and they would yell at Gretchen and nothing else would happen. She would be allowed to feed on her own the very next day sometimes.

I eventually found out that when she got into trouble she would write them notes saying that she felt like hurting herself, so every time they would back off. I never saw the notes but Gene and Dona both told me she did this.

So no matter what she did, if they yelled at her, she would threaten to harm herself and then they would leave her alone. I asked Dona “if you really think she’s wanting to harm herself, why haven’t you gotten her some help or alerted her parents?” And she told me that “It would kill Gretchen’s mom if she knew that she was suicidal or knew the truth about Gretchen’s behavior with the animal neglect, so she couldn’t.”

I realized they were never going to make her take care of the animals properly because they just didn’t care. They never got her professional help or took her off of animal duty. This bothers me for so many reasons.

First, if you feel someone is a threat to themselves, you need to get them some help. Second, I feel like they knew she wasn’t serious and just wanted a reason to keep her around, with the excuse that she would hurt herself if they fired her. Third, you can only let that go on for so long. If someone is hurting or mistreating or neglecting your entire zoo full of animals, that should bother you enough to keep her away from them. Fourth, if she’s really just there for Gene’s health, and is neglecting the animals, and proving over and over that she doesn’t care about them anyway, then they’re just using that all as an excuse to keep her around.

She can babysit Gene if they need her to, but knowing she’s that neglectful makes both Gene and Dona Wheeler just as neglectful and they should be held responsible for that. And finally, there are people who really suffer with wanting to self harm, so I feel like Gretchen using something like that, to get out of getting into trouble, is incredibly upsetting and wrong. There is nothing OK about that at all.

I think I worked there for about a year when a snow macaque came back to us from another zoo because he had eaten a pencil and gotten really sick. He ended up being one of my favorites but he ended up dying from his injury because it punctured his bladder. I was very upset that he died.

Gretchen offered to bury him and since I was upset, I let her. At this point, I was the only one disposing of any animal that died because I didn’t trust her and so Gene made it my job to dispose of the dead animals. Anyway, I figured she would take care of him and didn’t think anything of it, because it was one animal, one time, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask. I was wrong.

Later, when Gene and Gretchen were on a trip to Missouri to the exotic animal auction, I found the snow macaque hidden in a feed bag, in the machine shed, under a tractor. His whole face was rotted off and he was very decomposed because it was still hot out. I lost it completely and couldn’t stop crying.

It was so traumatic losing him in the first place, but to see him all rotten, broke my heart. I decided I’d had enough and had to quit. Dona wasn’t home and Gene and Gretchen were still at the auction so I left a note for Dona. I said what had happened and that I couldn’t understand how they had someone like Gretchen still working there, when they knew about all of the awful things she was capable of doing and had already done.

I had also come back from a weekend off and found a dead spider monkey in one of the pens. She was with a male and he was still alive and well. I figured she had died that morning so I took her out, but when I picked her up, a bunch of fluid drained out of her nose and mouth and I could smell that she had been dead for a couple of days. She had just been left in there with her mate.

Gretchen was always afraid to tell Gene when animals died, even if it was from natural causes, because she said he would always get mad at her. I knew she had noticed this monkey and left her. I let Gene know she had died and that she was rotten and he said, “That happens in about an hour,” which is total nonsense. He clearly just didn’t want to have to blame Gretchen for it.

I couldn’t believe how many times he defended her, even when we all knew it was nonsense. Gretchen didn’t care that this monkey had died, she didn’t care that she saw her dead in the cage for two days, and she just kept walking by her. She didn’t care that her mate was still in there with her. She didn’t care that he could have eaten her. Thank goodness he didn’t because I have enough trauma from that particular incident and the others that if that had happened, I don’t know how I would have handled it.

Anyway, I told Dona all of that in my letter because it made me sick and I couldn’t work for people that allowed that behavior. I got a call that night from Gretchen begging me to come back to work. I was the only other employee there in the off season, at that point, and she knew Gene would be mad. I asked if Gene got my letter and she said “No, Dona knows, but Gene doesn’t, and we don’t want to tell him because we’re worried about the stress it will put on his heart.”

So Dona and Gretchen wanted me to come back and keep Gene in the dark, claiming it would affect his health, instead of making Gretchen leave or do her job or stop hiding dead animal bodies or neglecting animals. I said I would come back the next day, but that I wasn’t hiding it from Gene. I told Gretchen she needed to be honest with me about the spider monkey that was left to rot in the cage with her mate.

She told me the spider monkey had died Friday night, and she saw her, but didn’t want to tell Gene because he would get mad. So she just left her in there with her mate all weekend just rotting. She didn’t care that the monkey had died, or that her mate was in with her the whole time she was laying there rotting. I don’t know how someone is that heartless or disgusting, especially when they work at a zoo. I was so appalled and disturbed.

I asked about a snow macaque monkey I had found rotting in the machine shed — and she said she didn’t know why she hid dead animals but that voices sometimes told her to. She wanted to take care of him properly but the voices stopped her.

I came back and told Gene I would stay but that Gretchen couldn’t work with the animals besides cleaning. He got mad because he said I was giving him an ultimatum, and that when I threaten to quit that it hurts him and not Gretchen because then he’s short staffed, so it hurts his business.

Nothing at all about how Gretchen shouldn’t be doing those terrible things, or that she’s causing stress and trauma to other people and animals. He was only upset about me threatening to leave because he would be short staffed.

Never once did they fire her, or hint at firing her, and she knew that. She knew no matter what she did, they didn’t care and would keep her forever. I really couldn’t deal with it anymore. All the dead rotting animals and neglect that just got ignored over and over.

I told Gene to ask Gretchen about the dead spider monkey, so he did and she told him the truth, that she had found her dead and just left her there to rot. Gene said, “well I knew that” and that’s it. So, he knew she was lying from the start, and never planned to do anything about it at all. I quit again that day. I was so done, and said I was never going back.

I ended up talking to someone that knew a police officer and she said she would take my story and share it with him. She did, and nothing ever happened.

I heard through the grapevine that the police officer had alerted Gene and Dona that someone was talking to the police about their zoo. I realized that they were friends with him and that nothing would ever be done to help the animals. I felt helpless and totally betrayed.

Gene and Dona Wheeler are wealthy people, so I don’t know if they pay the police to overlook things, or pretend things aren’t happening, or what is going on, but they certainly give them a lot of free passes, and it’s not ok.

I never even thought to alert the USDA because even though those inspections are supposed to be totally unplanned, Gene and Gretchen always knew when they were coming and would have everything looking really nice when they showed up.

Regarding the USDA; they told me it was always a surprise visit and they were never supposed to let them know when they were coming, but for some reason the zoo always knew and would have us do extra cleaning and stuff to make sure everything looked great. I didn’t mind the cleaning, it just always bothered me that the USDA people were letting them know when they were coming, which was wrong. So I have no confidence in the USDA.

Gretchen told me several times that they would purposely tell the USDA people that they were out of town often, and didn’t want to miss them when they came, which could lead to a violation. So, the USDA inspectors started giving them a heads up to accommodate that, which is sickening and wrong on all of their parts. These agencies exist to help the animals, and I feel like they all failed the animals at Special Memories Zoo.

Also, when I would find dead animals I would tell Gene and Dona, “If the USDA finds dead animals she’s hiding all over you’ll be shut down and aren’t you worried about that?” And they both just scoffed and said, “They wouldn’t shut us down for that.”

After I left, I started hearing stories again about animals dying at the zoo and I realized, since the authorities thought it was a joke or no big deal, that I was the only hope for those animals. I called Gene on a Thursday and played nice and asked to come back to work at the zoo.

It was winter at this point. He said yes and asked if I could come in on Monday. I said yes. He also warned me that someone they didn’t know had been talking to the police about them so I’d have to watch out for that. I said I would, but that’s also how I found out the police had told them about all the things I told him about! Ridiculous.

The next night I got a call from Gene asking if I could come in to work again on Saturday instead of Monday. He told me that he had gone to the zoo to check on things with Gretchen and found all of the meat that she was supposed to be feeding to the lions and tigers hidden in the otter house. Gretchen was literally right next to the tiger cages, but instead of feeding the animals, she hid the meat in the otter pen.

The zoo was closed and the only animals there in the winter were the lions, tigers, bears — that hibernate — the otters and the reptiles. She wouldn’t even feed that tiny handful of animals.

Gene himself said that he found about ten buckets of hidden meat and cleaned it all up himself so I wouldn’t have to do any of that. He offered me a 50 cent per hour raise to come back and said Gretchen wouldn’t be feeding the animals ever again because he couldn’t trust her.

I knew that wasn’t true, and that it wouldn’t stick, but I had already decided I needed to do what I could for the animals, so I went back the next day.

Nothing had improved. The pens were disgusting and clearly hadn’t been cleaned while I was gone. The animals were all out of food and water and it was just terrible. I cleaned everything up throughout that week and basically never took a day or weekend off. I was too scared to leave the animals in Gretchen or Gene’s care.

Sometimes I felt like Gene actually cared about the animals, but when it came to helping them or defending them or standing by Gretchen, he always chose her. I still don’t know why.

I was told on holidays that I could just have off, like Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years, that the animals would be fine for a day without food and water. That wasn’t the first time they had said that either. They told us that constantly over the years. I always came in anyway because that was terrible.

I came in each day and fed the animals at the farm and then went to the zoo to feed there because she couldn’t be trusted to do it. Her other job was to feed the whitetailed deer at the farm. She never did and would yell at us if she caught us feeding them, so we’d have to feed them on the sly.

Eventually, that job was given to me as well, and Gretchen was put in charge of cleaning the pens. She did ok for a while, and then stopped.

Her parents eventually started cleaning at the farm in the winter. I am allergic to bird dander, so when the bird room got too gross I would have to ask her to clean it, or I said she would have to feed in there until it was cleaned.

So she would “feed,” but I would have to check after her every time to make sure she did it. If the bird in the cage had the tiniest bit of food or water left, no matter how dirty it was, because parrots are messy and will put their food into their water to soften it, she wouldn’t change it or feed them. She would just say they have enough.

I had to make Gene buy me masks so I could clean and feed in there myself. I eventually found out that the reason she never cleaned in there was because the USDA didn’t have any jurisdiction over birds. So, since the USDA couldn’t check the bird room, she didn’t care if it got dirty or if the birds were taken care of properly.

Gretchen liked the attention of working at a zoo but didn’t care at all about the animals.

Gretchen was super inappropriate about animal care as well. I once asked if she thought the female sloth was in heat, because of the way she was acting, and Gretchen just reached up, without a glove, and felt the sloth’s vagina and looked at her hand and said, “There isn’t any blood, so she isn’t.” I wanted to puke.

She also helped Gene and Dona take care of the bottle fed monkeys in the house and would tell me about showering with them and that they would nurse on her. Gene and Dona also bought her a munchkin kitten, which is a breed of cat, that she also said would nurse on her.

I walked into Gene and Dona’s house one day because I always left them notes on animal updates or care or feed that we needed. Gretchen was home alone, sitting on the floor, surrounded by the dogs — 2 boxers and 2 shih-tzus — and had her pants down. I pretended not to notice because I was very alarmed and when I turned to go out I saw her pull them up. I don’t know what she was doing, but it can’t be good.

I would also find her stashes of unused tampons in the monkey room, so I can only assume that at some point she was changing her tampons out there. I never felt like anything was sanitary with her around. She would also get her period and bleed through her jeans instead of taking care of it.

She told me that when she would get her period while driving the train for the train ride at the zoo, that she wouldn’t have time to go to the bathroom to take care of things between train rides, because Gene would get mad at her if she was late for the train. So she would just knowingly bleed through her pants. She acted like that was totally normal behavior. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just take care of it and if he got mad, who cares? So, there would be menstrual blood all over the tractor seat which other people would use. It was disgusting.

Gene ended up signing up to get expired meat and bakery from Walmart. Gretchen would eat the soggy Lunchables from the bins of meat throughout the day. I don’t feel like that’s normal. Gene also told me to give the bears only cakes and bakery from Walmart because that was more of their normal diet, which is ludicrous, so I would feed them fruit and healthy things on the sly.

If they caught anyone doing that we would get yelled at. Before the bakery came into play, the bears got hard dog food and fruit. Not totally healthy, but healthier than just cake and cookies. Eventually the bears got sick of all of that sweet stuff and would leave it in their dish and not eat it.

Gene and Gretchen would try to make us just leave them unfed until they ate it all. They said if they got hungry enough they’d eat it. It was sad. So again, I’d have to secretly feed them. They would complain about the feed bill, but if you can’t feed that many animals the correct food, then don’t have them. If they’re in your care, you need to take the best possible care of them.

Gene used to tell us to feed the monkeys only a handful of food because their stomachs are small so I would always have to sneak them enough food. I constantly had to beg them to buy food for the animals on time so they didn’t have to go without.

One summer there was a sick baby reindeer that was showing signs of illness in the morning, so I told Gene and Gretchen about her. I asked them to call the vet and Gretchen said she would.

Hours went by and she was getting worse and worse. Gretchen was running the train for school groups and just kept putting it off.

The reindeer ended up dying on the floor where Gretchen dropped her while she was running the train. She literally did not care. Gene didn’t care either. When I told them she was dead they said, “That happens. We don’t know what she was born with and it’s just a reindeer.”

The point of calling the vet is to see what she has! Also, if they had called the vet, she could have been treated with meds or humanely euthanized instead of suffering for hours on the floor. We put her on a blanket and tried to help her the best we could but she absolutely needed a vet and they never cared that she died.

The same thing happened with a female mini Zebu cow at the farm. I knew she was sick, and Gene and Gretchen were making parrot toys at the zoo, which they often did in the winter. Gretchen told me she would check in on her when she got back to the farm. The zoo is 10 minutes away.

As the day went on I would check on her in between feeding the animals at the farm. It was winter, and she was getting worse very quickly. I called them again and asked them to call a vet and they said they’d come take care of her soon. Gene also had the meds to euthanize animals and they didn’t even come put her out of her misery that way. They never did anything at all and she ended up passing away fighting for breath.

It was extremely traumatic for me to watch and if I had had the means to euthanize her I would have, just to put her out of her misery. Even though it would have broken my heart I would have done it because watching her slowly die was way worse. I don’t get why they didn’t care that she was dying and they were so close, but it was an inconvenience and she was just a cow.

Unless a monkey or a big cat or something expensive was sick or needed help or died they would say, “Well, at least it’s just a (cow, pig, goat).” They never got sad or upset when an animal died unless it cost a lot of money. Even then, they would just buy a new one as soon as possible. It was so upsetting to work for people who didn’t care about the animals’ welfare, but everyone that I told wouldn’t believe me because the owners and Gretchen lie and put on a good show.

Another summer there was a camel giving birth during zoo hours as well. They had us rope off the area to give her some privacy. She was in labor for hours but never progressed so I asked them to call the vet again. Gene said no, she didn’t need it and she ended up dying while trying to give birth. They didn’t care.

There was an employee that one of the black bears didn’t like. She couldn’t get the bear to go into the catch pen to feed her, so Gretchen said she would just feed them because she wasn’t afraid to go in by them. When she opened the door the bear attacked Gretchen’s leg and left a big wound. She kept bragging about how she would never go to the hospital because she didn’t want the bear to get put down. Her leg got infected and was oozing pus out of the side of her jeans for over a week.

This incident happened at the farm when the zoo was closed for the season. I took off one weekend in the fall and when I came back most of the animals were really low on food and water.

When I got to feeding in the bird room, which was located in a metal room in a metal machine shed, I walked in and noticed right away that about 35 out of the 40 parakeets were dead and all of the zebra finches were dead in the bottom of their cages. They were in 2 separate pens — one for finches and one for parakeets.

The rest of the birds in the bird room had no food or water either. It was clear that she hadn’t fed or watered them in days, and it took its toll on the little birds and they all died. I was so sick over it, so I went and got Gene right away. He came and looked and then walked out.

I was yelling about it because Gretchen clearly had not fed or watered the birds all weekend and he said, “I can’t call you a liar and I can’t call her a liar” because she was denying it when he confronted her.

She never got in trouble for it and they weren’t at all upset that so many birds had died due to their neglect. After that incident I tried so hard to not ever take any days off.

I was constantly worried about the animals. I was worried because they still let her feed and take care of baby animals, give meds, etc., even though they knew all of the terrible things she was doing.

I ended up having daily panic attacks because of the stress of it. Some days I would have to call in to work because I couldn’t manage to leave the house or had been in the emergency room with a panic attack the night before.

That meant Gretchen would be taking care of the animals while I was gone, which made my panic disorder worse. I went to the doctor and they told me I should quit my job because that was definitely the source of my panic attacks. That made my panic attacks worse, as well, because I knew if I quit they would only have Gretchen at the farm during the winter. They somehow still trusted her or were too lazy to hire someone else.

Gretchen would always reassure them that she could do everything, but she wouldn’t and Gene and Dona knew that. They would all get really offended when I would recommend they hire some more help and just say, “Gretchen can do it.”

She lived with them and did everything for Gene. She answered his phone, trimmed his nose hair, tied his shoes, got their mail and all of that. Then, when I was gone, they wanted her to do all of that plus feed the entire farm and zoo. She would say she could and even though they knew she wouldn’t, that was their plan. I don’t know what kind of relationship they all had, but it wasn’t normal for sure.

That’s why when I had days off I worried so much, because I knew for sure nothing would be cared for. I knew I needed to leave because it was such a toxic environment, but I loved the animals so much so I felt I had to stay. I didn’t know about the Animal Legal Defense Fund at the time or I would have tried to turn to them for help.

When we would catch monkeys to move them into crates Gretchen would slam the net onto their fingers so they would have to let go of the fence. If that didn’t work, she would scrape the net along the fence with their fingers pinched in between until they let go. I started netting the small monkeys as much as I could so that that wouldn’t happen to them.

This happened before I started working there but Gene and Gretchen told me about it and it still makes me ill and highlights what kind of people they really are. They said one of their baby monkeys, I believe it was a snow macaque, got out of its pen and climbed on a little girl and she got scratched, but the mom said it was a bite.

She reported it and the authorities required Gene and Dona to put the monkey down. There were two snow macaques the same age that looked very similar, and Gene and Gretchen said they should have swapped the two monkeys because they didn’t like the one that hadn’t gotten out and scratched the girl as much as the one that had. Just really heartless.

We had two blue monkeys, a male and a female, and Gene insisted on putting them together to try to breed them because they’re very expensive and apparently babies would be worth a lot — up to $50,000.

As soon as we would put them together, the male kept biting holes in the female instead of breeding her. He put a huge hole in her back, and as soon as it was healed he put them together again “just to see what happens. He bit a hole in her again and almost killed her. Gene did this three times before I begged him to just let them live separately because the male clearly had no interest in breeding. He finally left them alone but it was so hard to witness. She was getting severely hurt each time and that wasn’t important to him.

Kenni the white tiger had a permanent limp and when people would ask about it Gene and Gretchen would say that she got cortisone shots every month to help with it when, in reality, she never got any medical attention of any sort.

Each year they would put the warm climate animals outside way too early in the year. Gene would say that they had to be put outside at the zoo because visitors expected to see them even though those animals are not built for Wisconsin early spring temperatures. Same thing would happen in the fall. Gene would leave all of the animals in their outside pens well after the first frost.

Gene and Gretchen like to use their health issues as excuses for neglect and abuse.

When something died from natural causes they would just say, “Well, we don’t know how old it was,” even if it was an animal that had been born at the zoo. No autopsies were ever performed on any dead animals and the only time they showed even a bit of emotion about the death of an animal was when it was an expensive one that would cost a lot to replace.

The vervet monkeys ended up having 8 baby boy monkeys. Baby monkeys are incredibly cute and cool little animals but the only thing Gene would say is, “I wish she would have a girl for once so we could actually get some money for them at the auction.” It’s upsetting to see someone with so many amazing animals in their care only thinking about their monetary value.

There were two separate occasions when Gretchen left the tigers’ door open at the zoo and one of the tigers got out. Gretchen was on her phone texting while cleaning and just left the door open and then she opened the catch pen when she was done cleaning their pen.

Tanya the tiger came out and was in the fencing around the cage by the otters. Gretchen was yelling for my help so I went to see what she needed and saw the tiger out. She was just walking around, not being aggressive or anything, so we went behind her and got her back in her pen.

I told Gene right away and he was very upset. He took her off of cleaning the tigers, bears, and lions because those were her jobs and they became mine for a while. About a month went by and he gave those jobs back to her because she was “doing so well.”

About 2 months later I was teaching another girl how to clean pens in the morning and I heard Gretchen yell, “I did it again!” When I looked down the path, Tanya, the orange tiger was walking on the path towards the back of the zoo. I closed the door to the pen I was cleaning and left the girl I was training safely behind that door. I went by Gretchen and started trying to get Tanya back behind the fence. In the meantime, I realized that there was a school group of children already in the zoo. I called another girl and told her to get all of the kids into a safe place and not to let anyone out until I called her.

We got Tanya back in and everyone was safe. I started yelling at Gretchen because it was terrible that it had happened once, but twice was just not OK. She was crying and begging me not to tell Gene (because of his heart condition) and I told her that he needed to know because it’s a huge danger and people could have been hurt. She told me the first time wasn’t as bad because Tanya was never on the trail.

She just doesn’t care if what she does harms people or animals, as long as Gene isn’t mad at her. I did tell Gene and he acted upset, but never took her off of cleaning. He just stayed by her while she was cleaning for like a month and that was it. They really didn’t care that it had happened or that it was dangerous at all. I told Gretchen that if she cared about Gene’s health so much, then she should do her job the right way and take care of the animals and then he wouldn’t get mad. She never did that.

I think the incident that affected me the most was when the zoo was closed for the winter. It was probably March at this point, so still very cold. I was in charge of feeding the zoo again because Gretchen just wouldn’t do it.

Each year the pond in the otter exhibit was drained in the winter to avoid freezing and cracking. There were two male river otters and I went in to feed them one day and couldn’t find one of them. I ended up finding him at the bottom of the pond.

There was about 2 feet of freezing water that he was stuck in and it was too low for him to get out. He was shivering so bad and crying. If he had been tame I would have climbed down into the pond and pulled him out but since he wasn’t I found a broom handle and reached down for him and after about ten minutes he was able to hold on tight enough for me to pull him up and out.

He just laid there shivering and crying. I went and got Gene and Gretchen and we put him in a crate in some dry straw. We brought him into the reptile house which was the only heated building at the zoo in the winter/spring. That’s where he stayed for about a week. He had blisters on the pads of his feet from being waterlogged and trying to climb out of the pen so each day I would put spray on them. We couldn’t bandage them because he was not tame.

He was getting better but had a long way to go. I remember feeding him and taking care of his feet and being happy that he was on the mend and that I had gotten to him in time to help him. I left after work and when I came back the next day he wasn’t in the reptile room any longer.

I called Gene and Gretchen and they told me they had put him back outside in his pen. It couldn’t have been more than 35 degrees out and I was sick to my stomach. They told me that animals do better with healing out in their natural environment and that he was basically healed and he would be fine.

I went and checked on him immediately and he was dead in his pen.

It broke my heart remembering him begging for me to help him out of that pond. I was so excited that he was getting better but he had a long way to go and for no reason, Gene and Gretchen, with no logical explanation whatsoever, threw him back out into the cold and it killed him.

Their reasoning for it wasn’t based on facts, or science, or common sense, or anything else that a person who loves animals would think was a good idea. I still don’t know why they did it. Maybe he was taking up too much space, but they clearly know nothing about animal care or healing or existence in general. Because of how heartless they are he ended up dying in a cold, wet, dirty otter cage.

It was basically me fighting for the animals’ lives every day after that. I lost all hope that they would actually change or care about the animals.

The summer of 2013 Gretchen randomly quit the zoo. Gene told me she had left a note saying she had met a man in the Netherlands online and was going to live with him. We were all so happy at the zoo! Everything ran smoothly and was taken care of and while she was gone it was amazing.

Gene moped around and we could tell he was basically just lost without her. He kept saying he would never let her come back, but I knew if she wanted to, he would let her right away. I don’t know why, but I know that no matter what Gretchen does, no matter how many things she kills or starves or hurts, Gene won’t care. He will always defend her.

Gene was talking about her one day and I told him if he ever let her come back to the zoo I would have to leave. My panic attacks had calmed down when she left and I was not going to jeopardize my health for Gene’s zoo any longer. If she came back I was done.

He swore she would never be allowed to come back. Dona told me that if Gene ever let Gretchen come back she would leave him. I felt better hearing Dona say that and really hoped that she meant it, but I still knew Gretchen would be back because it was all she knew and did. Also, she lived with Gene and Dona.

Gretchen was gone for a month when she called Gene and asked if she could come back. He said yes right away, and I put in my two weeks’ notice that same day. When he told me she was coming back I broke down crying because I knew I had to leave and more animals would be hurt.

We had just gotten the baby giraffe (Jericho) and I knew I couldn’t get more attached to him. I asked why he would ever let her do that and he said he felt sorry for her and he wouldn’t let her by the animals if I would only stay. I said I just couldn’t because he never kept his word and she did horrible things and he didn’t care. He got mad at me for saying that but it was completely true. I talked to Dona about it and why she was being allowed to come back and she just threw up her hands and wouldn’t talk about it. I was sick.

Gretchen came back the next day and Gene and Gretchen came up with a story about how she had been on her way to the airport to meet a guy in the Netherlands, but her friends talked her out of it. Then they came up with a worse fake story, that she had actually gone to the Netherlands and the guy tried to use her for sex trafficking. Gene said that he had to pay this man to get Gretchen back and that is why he had to help her.

I never believed a word of it, he just wanted us to believe that he was doing a good thing. In reality, he just wanted a reason for her to be back at the zoo. He didn’t care that she would continue to hurt and neglect animals.

The day Gretchen came back she slept out in Gene’s office all day. Gene became like a crazy person and was frantically following all the employees around at the zoo to make sure we weren’t talking about Gretchen. It was really creepy. He even got mad at his granddaughter for talking to me about the animals while I was feeding.

I realized I had to go right then, not in two weeks. I finished feeding at the zoo, got my stuff, gave Dona my keys and told her that Gene was being crazy and that I couldn’t work for people that allowed their animals to be hurt by Gretchen, and I left.

I hope that telling someone all of this will make a difference. I honestly believe it will take someone more than the officials of Greenville to make that happen. I think they will continue to believe Gene, Dona and Gretchen’s lies because they don’t want to accept that there’s a problem.

I heard stories of abuse and neglect of the animals after I left. I’m thankful to the employee who shared the pictures she took of the entire bird room being neglected and dead. I almost puked when I saw the pictures because it’s traumatic and terrible and I recognized a lot of those parrots, and my heart broke. But I feel like that had to happen for this all to come to light.

I didn’t know who to tell that could make a difference when I was there. I had been collecting pictures for proof, but when I started having such bad anxiety I couldn’t keep pictures of dead rotten animals on my phone any longer.

When the goats and baby kangaroo went missing, my first thought was that they had been in Gretchen’s care and she neglected them to death. I know Gretchen came up with a story for Gene and Dona about how they had been stolen.

In order to steal a baby kangaroo out of a mother kangaroo’s pouch, you need two people and you have to know how to do it. The general public would never have known how to do that. I absolutely know that whole story was a lie. The pictures had just come out of the dead birds in the bird room and the animals in terrible condition at the farm. I believe they did that stunt to take the pressure off the bad publicity. I believe she starved the goats and hid them on the property somewhere.

The baby kangaroos were usually in their mother’s pouch for about five months and then would start peeking their heads out. Gretchen would have us watch for that and once they had fur Gretchen and I would pull them from the pouch and Dona would bottle feed them in the house and usually sell the males to other zoos.

Females were raised in the house and then brought back out to the pen when they were bigger. Their reasoning for that was the large male kangaroo would sometimes pull the baby out of the mother’s pouch so he could rebreed the mother and it would usually kill them. I had seen it happen, some babies were big enough to save and some were already dead when they were found. I believe that is what happened to the missing kangaroo.

I know a stranger wouldn’t have been able to enter that pen with the big male kangaroo without getting hurt. And I know the monkeys, which are housed in the same barn as the kangaroos, would have made such a loud ruckus because they do not like strangers and the Wheelers and Gretchen would have heard it.

So I firmly believe that story is a lie. It would take two people to get a baby out of the pouch, one to hold the mother’s tail and one to pull the baby, so even if an ex employee had come with someone to steal a kangaroo there would have been enough noise from the monkeys to alert the Wheelers and Gretchen.

I believe that the male pulled out the baby and it died and Gretchen hid it, and the goats were probably neglected and died and she hid them somewhere on the farm. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were hidden in the machine shed.

I hate that so many animals were hurt because of Dona and Gene Wheeler and Gretchen Crowe. I am appalled that those three people could hurt and neglect animals they were supposed to care about. Gene and Dona are just as guilty as Gretchen because they knew about all of the terrible things she has done and they did nothing to stop her.

I also want to add that Gretchen got her wildlife rehabilitator’s license at one point so she could take care of the wildlife that people brought to the zoo. Gene had the pens so they figured they should do it. Gretchen never took care of the animals people brought in. She put them in crates at the zoo, which I believe is illegal because they were in the room with the zoo animals, and the employees took care of them.

There were two crows, a song bird of some kind, a baby coyote, and a raccoon that I remember. Eventually she started bringing the animals to the farm in the summer when the zoo was open. I went there and checked on them one day because I knew she wouldn’t be taking care of them and I discovered a dead raccoon that was so rotted it was falling through the bottom of the cage.

When I told Gene about it and he yelled at Gretchen, she got mad at me and told me it was none of my business and that no one was even supposed to be out there by her rehab animals.

She didn’t care that she had let it die or that it was rotting through the cage. She was mad at me for checking on them. Something is clearly wrong with her to be that heartless and see it and not take responsibility or change her actions.

I heard of the fire at the Wheelers residence and my first thought was that Gretchen had started it for insurance reasons for the Wheelers. She is that type of person. Or, she may have started it because the news came out about the zoo closing so instead of it being closed because of the neglect, she could say the barn burned and the animals died so they had to close. They’re very much about saving face and will lie about anything.

I also want to address Gretchen’s excuse about not checking on the animals for months because “the gate was frozen shut.” There are three other ways to enter that pen. Two of them you can see in the pictures of the barn fire. They’re both sliding doors, the smaller sliding door is the door that we were going out of to feed the camels and found the dead wallaby hidden there. The third door is a regular door around the front side of the barn towards the road. They’ve never all froze, so she had several other ways to check on that pen of animals if she had wanted to.

And that’s the problem, she doesn’t care about the animal’s welfare so she didn’t check. Also, when I worked there, every winter you had to deal with frozen gates and locks, so we would dig them out to make sure we had access to each pen. And if any animals are in your care, it is your responsibility to make sure you do whatever needs to be done to make sure those animals are healthy.

The fact that an entire pen of animals died and she used that as an excuse is appalling. The fact that the cops just accepted that is unreal. It is your duty to make sure they’re doing well, and that everyone is healthy and safe and to make sure none of them need medical attention or have pneumonia, which is common in Wisconsin animals that live outdoors. That whole ordeal is sickening.

And I know if an entire barn full of animals I cared for and loved had just burned alive in a fire, I would be falling apart. Not showing off my new vehicle and showing no emotion whatsoever, like in the body cam footage. Gretchen Crowe does not and has never cared about the animals at Special Memories Zoo. She openly admits to neglecting them for months, and they all died, and no one is doing anything? That is horrifying.

Oh, and saying they didn’t have help is insane. People wanted to work in the winter, but since Gretchen always told them she could just do it, they never hired extra help. So that excuse is crazy as well.

Whenever Gretchen was approached about her negligent behavior she would just whine and cry about it and not change.

Gene and Dona Wheeler had every opportunity to make the changes that would keep their animals safe but refused to do so. They intentionally placed Gretchen in charge of animal care even though they knew that she had been responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of their animals.

Instead of taking care of their animals and employees, Gene and Dona Wheeler allowed all of their animals to die or be neglected and their employees suffered significant emotional trauma because of it.

Gene and Dona Wheeler and Gretchen Crowe are not good people. They should never own animals again. They shouldn’t have had them in the first place. I truly believe they only had them for the attention you get from having exotic animals.

I don’t know what kind of relationship they all had, but I do know that they let Gretchen get away with mistreating the animals over and over. They absolutely knew about it because I told them about every single incident and they never fired her. They’re just as responsible as Gretchen and they all need to be held accountable.

I know I’m repeating myself, but Gene and Dona Wheeler absolutely knew about all of the terrible things Gretchen Crowe did at their zoo. They have no excuse for keeping her employed and letting her abuse their animals. They cannot say they didn’t know it was happening because I told them about every single event I witnessed and had to go through.

They purposely chose to keep her employed knowing the animals would suffer for it. They let all of their good hearted, animal loving employees get frustrated and leave or they fired them because Gretchen didn’t like them. People who would take care of their animals no matter what. They chose Gretchen.

All of the other employees I worked with there felt just as guilty as I did for leaving, so they stayed to try to help the animals, even though they were often mistreated by the Wheelers and Gretchen Crowe. They tried to help because of their love for the animals and they were never taken seriously when they told the Wheelers the terrible things that Gretchen was doing. Gretchen’s animal abuse and neglect was constant. She never got better or tried to do better, she was just allowed to be terrible and never fired for it.

I still have flashbacks and nightmares and I feel so guilty for leaving. My family could see how much stress it was causing me and begged me to leave and my doctors told me I needed to leave, but I still tried to stay out of love for those animals.

Compassion fatigue is a very real thing and when it started to mess with me physically I knew I couldn’t stay any longer, because no matter how hard I tried, or how much I took on, or how easy I tried to make it for them, they still chose to let Gretchen abuse their animals. I wasn’t going to make a difference because they just chose to turn a blind eye to her abuse.

Gretchen shouldn’t be allowed to own any animal ever again. She doesn’t have the capacity for love or compassion for an animal. Writing this was extremely difficult because it’s like reliving the experience all over again, but I felt like this was the last thing I could do for the animals to try to get some justice for what they have endured at the hands of Gene and Dona Wheeler and Gretchen Crowe.

My panic attacks stopped about a year after I left the zoo, but the scars on my heart from the things I witnessed at Special Memories Zoo will never heal.


Note from the editor: This is a true account of a former employee of Special Memories Zoo in Greenville, WI. The zoo is now closed. This story was first published as a 20 part series at


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