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Gretchen Crowe and Dona Wheeler agree to settlement for lawsuit that shut down Special Memories Zoo

The former zoo keeper for Special Memories Zoo, Gretchen Crowe, and former owner, Dona Wheeler, have agreed to pay a settlement to Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) for the organization's successful Endangered Species Act lawsuit against them.

ALDF is seeking $130,197 in legal fees and costs from the former owner and manager of the now-shuttered Wisconsin roadside zoo after an appeals court overturned an earlier ruling denying an award of fees for their successful litigation.

Police records dating back to 2008 indicate employees reported that the zoo restricted animals' food which caused them to starve to death and the zoo orchestrated mass burials of the neglected animals on the property. USDA inspection reports describe animals living in filth, some with no access to drinking water.

ALDF brought a lawsuit in Feb. 2020, asking for all of the animals at Special Memories Zoo to be placed at accredited sanctuaries and for Wheeler and Crowe to be prohibited from owning or exhibiting animals.

One month later, the zoo’s attorney wrote a letter stating that due to the zoo owner’s illness “and this lawsuit” they were closing and they began selling some of the animals. Days later a fire broke out in a barn on the property, causing the death of 35 animals.

Authorities found 18 animals decaying on the property that were not involved in the fire. Crowe told a deputy she hadn't checked on the animals for more than two months.

In body cam footage, Crowe admitted that “due to this lawsuit” all of the threatened and endangered animals were gone.

Special Memories Zoo moved to have the lawsuit dismissed, which Judge William Griesbach denied. The zoo then announced that they no longer intended to defend themselves in the litigation.

Griesbach entered default judgment in favor of ALDF, entering a permanent injunction that bans Wheeler and Crowe from possessing or exhibiting animals other than their pet dogs. Griesbach declined to award legal fees and costs to ALDF.

ALDF appealed the ruling. The U.S. Court of Appeals sided in favor of ALDF and overturned the ruling.

The appeal’s court noted the two primary motivations behind overturning the ruling was the body cam footage of Crowe admitting the zoo got rid of their endangered animals because of the lawsuit and the letter submitted by the zoo’s attorney stating that “this lawsuit” was one of the motivations behind closing the zoo. Those key pieces of evidence show that ALDF’s lawsuit was a contributing factor to the zoo ceasing to operate, thus affirming the award of legal fees and costs.

ALDF was originally asking for an award in the amount of $72,172. With the legal fees and costs from their appeal added in, they asked to be awarded $130,197, to be paid equally by Crowe and Wheeler.

Special Memories Zoo’s attorney has been in settlement discussions with ALDF over the past two months.

According to a letter submitted to the court today, the parties have agreed on a “Confidential Settlement Agreement.”

The details of the settlement agreement will likely will not be made public.


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