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Judge rules Special Memories Zoo not liable for ALDF's attorney fees

A judge has ruled that Special Memories Zoo is not liable for paying $70K to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Nine months after a court case against Wisconsin’s defunct Special Memories Zoo ended, a district judge has declined to make zoo owner Dona Wheeler and zookeeper Gretchen Crowe pay the Animal Legal Defense Fund more than $70,000 in legal fees, stating the fees would be “a heavy financial obligation on Ms. Wheeler and Ms. Crowe.”

In a 6-page order, U.S. District Judge William Griesbach concluded that “ALDF played at most only a small role in causing Special Memories Zoo to cease doing business.”

The late Gene Wheeler, his wife Dona and head zookeeper Crowe, were accused of neglecting hundreds of animals at their now closed roadside zoo, causing numerous animals to starve to death or to suffer and die without veterinary treatment.

In Sept. 2019, ALDF filed their intent to sue Special Memories Zoo for violations of the Endangered Species Act and public nuisance laws. In Feb. 2020, ALDF filed their lawsuit against the roadside zoo.

In March 2020, Special Memories Zoo announced Gene had cancer and they said they were shutting down the zoo. Days later, a barn on the property caught fire and 35 animals were burned alive.

On March 24, 2020, 35 animals were killed at the Special Memories Zoo. The cause of the fire was undetermined.

Gene, Dona and Gretchen were all home at the time of the fire and in close enough proximity that police records indicate their home sustained heat damage.

When authorities arrived at the zoo to investigate the fire on March 25, 2020, they found the decaying corpses of 18 additional animals that were not involved in the fire. During police questioning, Crowe admitted she had not checked on those animals since January, more than two months earlier.

Police found 18 dead animals on the property owned by Gene and Dona Wheeler and managed by Gretchen Crowe.

The cause of the fire was undetermined and authorities declined to press charges against Crowe for the 18 animals that were left to die.

The animals remaining at the zoo were quickly sold to other roadside zoos, where many of them disappeared. Gene Wheeler passed away in June 2020.

In Jan. 2021, the ALDF was awarded default judgement in the case and Dona Wheeler and Gretchen Crowe were permanently banned from ever possessing or exhibiting animals other than personal pets again, or working with any business that does.

In Feb., the Special Memories Zoo property with all of the buildings and intact cages was listed for sale with an asking price of $799,000.

Also in Feb., the ALDF filed a request for legal fees, asking that Dona and Crowe pay the animal welfare group $72,172.56 in fees and costs.

The zoo’s lawyer, Andrew Micheletti of Sitzmann Law Firm, argued that the Special Memories Zoo should not have to pay legal fees. He said Dona has breast cancer and paying legal fees would be a burden on Dona and Crowe.

“The great victory they obtained is only because an elderly woman with breast cancer and a former employee of Special Memories Zoo who now lives with her parents were unable to afford to fight the fraudulent allegations,” Micheletti said in court documents.

In his Oct. 2021 ruling, Judge Griesbach sided with the roadside zoo and he questioned whether closing Special Memories Zoo furthered the goals of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In his order, Griesbach cited the Cricket Hollow Zoo case, calling it ironic that following a four-day bench trial in 2018, the district court ordered that Cricket Hollow Zoo’s endangered lemurs be transferred to an appropriate facility licensed by the USDA, and the facility they were transferred to was Special Memories Zoo.

Griesbach used the Cricket Hollow Zoo case as an example of why awarding fees to the ALDF would be inconsistent with the ESA’s purpose.

Cricket Hollow Zoo was shut down in 2019, after years of litigation by the ALDF. Last month, Cricket Hollow Zoo owners Tom and Pam Sellner were found in contempt for intentionally violating a court order and removing more than 100 animals before rescuers arrived. The Sellners were ordered to pay $70,000 in fines or face jail time.

Griesbach noted that “ALDF is not dependent upon fee awards in order to bring such lawsuits,” and “an award of attorneys’ fees and costs in this case would be inappropriate.”

The Greenville, WI, location of the Special Memories Zoo remains for sale. In a sad twist, the location is being used for a Halloween charity event called “Paranormal Zoo,” that runs from Oct 22-30 and boasts a haunted hayride through the shuttered roadside zoo.

Court documents indicate the animals at Special Memories Zoo experienced both physical and psychological suffering as a direct result of the deprived conditions imposed on them by Special Memories Zoo. Judge Griesbach’s ruling ensures that once again, Dona Wheeler and Gretchen Crowe will face no repercussions for their cruel and deliberate mistreatment of animals.


Oct. 2021 court ruling:

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