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Roadside zoo starved animals, deprived them of water and burned them alive

Screengrab from body cam footage of Gretchen Crowe (left) and Dona Wheeler.

On the evening of March 24, 2020, the sun started to disappear over the hills of Hortonville, Wisconsin, and darkness began to set in. Gretchen Crowe, the only remaining zookeeper at Special Memories Zoo, began to load animals into the barn for the night. Her short, unwashed hair was hidden under a snow cap as she locked the camel, bobcats, coatimundi, pigs and other animals into their final resting place.

Just 50 feet from the entrance of the barn where Gretchen was working, another structure referred to as the “lean-to” housed cows, goats, sheep and other farm animals. Gretchen ignores those animals, as she has the previous two months. Her set of keys jangles as she locks each enclosure and then locks the barn door, ensuring each animal is double-locked inside the barn. Then she walks up to the house she shares with zoo owners Gene and Dona Wheeler, to eat supper.

Just days before, a lawyer representing Gene, Dona and Gretchen submitted a letter to the judge in a federal court case brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund; the lawsuit alleged neglectful conditions for the animals at the roadside zoo. The letter submitted in court said Gene had spent the previous two days in the emergency room. Due to his health complications and the ALDF’s lawsuit, the zoo announced they were shutting down and rehoming their animals.

Gretchen, who had spent the previous 24 years working at the zoo and living with the owners, was about to lose all of the animals, and also her home. At 39 years old, she was going to be single, unemployed and living with her parents.

Middle aged and plain looking with poor hygiene, the only thing that ever brought any sort of attention to Gretchen were the exotic animals at the zoo, and now she was about to lose them. But if Gretchen Crowe couldn’t have the animals, no one could. She wasn’t going to leave the Special Memories Zoo without making sure everyone understood just how angry she was.

To understand where Gretchen’s anger comes from, we must look back to her teenage years, when she began visiting Gene and Dona’s game farm. Gene took an immediate liking to young, underage Gretchen. Not only was Gretchen a hard worker and easily influenced, but she could also be bribed with baby exotic animals.

Gene began filling his Hortonville property with animals, and hired Gretchen on as staff when she was only 15-years-old. Before long, she was living with the married couple. Gene owned a piece of property in nearby Greenville, so he began keeping the animals there during the summer, and the Special Memories Zoo was born.

It is unclear when Gene took the first step to begin an intimate relationship with Gretchen, but they often took long trips to exotic animal auctions together where they shared a hotel room. Hastily glimpsed text messages shared between the two indicate Gene would promise to buy Gretchen any animal she wanted, if she would be intimate with him. He couldn’t give her real babies, but he could give her a baby tiger, a baby giraffe, a baby baboon. Dona turned a blind eye to the obvious affair.

Gretchen became entangled in a life she could not sustain. She began asking Gene for more and more exotic animals. The animals relied on her and were the main source of love she could feel in her life. She was a God to them. The animals were the only thing she could control. She lived with Gene and Dona who paid for her car, her food, her rent, her animals, her life. Gene and Dona owned her and she was their slave doing everything from animal care, to clipping Gene’s toenails.

Perhaps that feeling of power as a God over the animals is what caused Gretchen to begin starving them to death. Police reports indicate the first documented starving event at the zoo occurred in 2008. Several sources reported to police that there was a mass burial taking place of the starved animals on the zoo’s property. However, officers failed to substantiate the claims.

The second documented starving incident occurred in 2015 when a zookeeper walked into the bird room that Gretchen was supposed to be caring for and witnessed approximately 100 birds dead in their enclosures. The keeper reported the deaths to the USDA and to the Outagamie County Sheriff’s office. The zoo claimed the deaths were accidental, the result of a space heater that failed. However, none of the cages contained food or water and the dead birds were allowed to rot in their cages for months.

Other former zookeepers also witnessed Gretchen starving the animals to death, including another bird starving incident, and reports of Gretchen hiding the animals' food on the zoo property rather than feeding it to them. Often, animals would go days or weeks without being fed. These incidents were reported to Gene and Dona, but not to authorities.

In 2017, a newly hired keeper stumbled upon the decaying corpses of two badgers locked in cages. Despite photographing, documenting and reporting all of the neglect she witnessed, the USDA found the keeper’s reports to be unfounded.

Numerous zookeepers reported the animal neglect occurring at Special Memories Zoo but time and time again the animals at the roadside zoo were failed by the individuals and organizations tasked with protecting them.

In 2015, USDA officials themselves witnessed primates at the zoo who were severely water deprived. Once the primates' water bottles were filled they immediately began drinking and didn’t stop until they emptied them. After refilling the bottles a second time, the primates again immediately began drinking. The USDA cited the zoo for a direct violation of the Animal Welfare Act. However, violations are only a written warning, and no other action was taken against the zoo for the incident.

Gene and Dona were wealthy and had many influential friends in the area. As a local business owner, Gene had befriended many of the area law enforcement officers. For her part, Gretchen suffered from a suspected personality disorder that left many people afraid of her.

Because Gretchen had exclusive access to exotic animals, people were drawn to her. However, she would often bully other zoo employees, talking down to them and once even physically pushing an employee. She would block employees from cleaning cages or caring for animals, leaving her in control of the animals’ welfare. Then she would play on her cell phone rather than feeding and watering animals or cleaning their cages.

When employees quit, Gretchen continued to harass them, visiting their jobs to threaten them or having Gene call their new employer. A former employee received an anonymous death threat and a cease and desist letter from Special Memories Zoo. Gretchen was so angry about an employee reporting her animal cruelty that she is suspected to have faked the theft of a baby kangaroo and four baby goats in 2015, which likely died from neglect, in order to try to pin the made up crime on a former keeper. Indeed, Gretchen’s behavior toward both humans and animals was horrendous.

Perhaps most disturbing was Gretchen’s inability to feel empathy toward the animals, and her practice of refusing to discard the corpses of animals after they had passed. Gretchen frequently declined to obtain veterinary care for severely injured animals and in 2015 refused to obtain medical care for a goat with a broken leg. After walking on the broken leg for two weeks, the goat laid down and could no longer walk. It died after being trampled to death by the other goats. Gretchen left the decaying corpse in with the other goats for days.

Gretchen was known to allow the corpses of dead animals to rot in the same enclosure as live animals for weeks or months at a time. When Gretchen was forced to remove the corpses, she had a habit of hiding them in various places around the farm, rather than properly disposing of them. A keeper was horrified to find out that Gretchen drove around with the decaying corpse of a coatimundi in the back of her truck for two weeks.

Dona, left and Gene pose with Tanya Tucker.

In 2018, the ALDF, an organization working to advance the interests of animals using the legal system, partnered with country music singer Tanya Tucker to shed light on the neglect occurring at Special Memories Zoo. Gene, Dona and Gretchen were fans of Tanya and gave the country singer a private tour of the zoo during their off season. Tanya used the opportunity to collect evidence to share with the ALDF.

In 2019, the ALDF filed their intent to sue Special Memories Zoo unless the zoo agreed to allow the organization to rehome all of the animals to accredited sanctuaries at no charge. The zoo declined the offer, and quietly began rehoming the animals. By February 2020, all of the zoo employees had been let go and only Gretchen remained caring for the animals. She had not checked on the animals in the lean-to structure since January.

In March 2020, Special Memories Zoo publicly announced they were closing and would be rehoming the animals. Gretchen seethed with rage. No one was going to take her animals from her. She decided March 24, 2020, would be a day quite different than all the others.

That evening, Gretchen relaxed with Gene and Dona after dinner. At around 10:30 pm, Gretchen let her dog outside. Within an hour of Gretchen exiting the house with the dog and then returning inside, the barn on the property was on fire.

A neighbor first spotted the blaze and called it in. More than 35 animals were burned alive before firefighters could contain the fire. Dona and Gretchen told officers they believed the fire was intentionally set by the ALDF due to the ongoing lawsuit. However, they admitted Gretchen had the only key to the barn and had been the one to lock the animals into the barn for the night.

As firefighters worked to control the blaze, they also entered the attached lean-to structure that had not been damaged by the fire. There, they found more than a dozen animal corpses in various stages of decay. They called in the police to investigate the suspected animal neglect. The State Fire Marshall was called in to determine whether the fire was caused by arson.

Officer Mike Fitzpatrick of the Outagamie Sheriff’s Office, a long-time friend of Gene, Dona and Gretchen, arrived around 1 p.m. March 25 to investigate the fire. Fitzpatrick was the same officer involved in a previous incident at the zoo in 2015, when Gretchen accused a former employee of stealing four baby goats and a kangaroo.

Officer Fitzpatrick immediately hugged Dona when he arrived at the scene of the fire, and officers complimented Gretchen on her new car. Dona and Gretchen showed little emotion, as if the horrific burning death of the animals had not affected them.

Not all of the animals in the barn were killed in the fire immediately. Several animals were left to suffer with horrific burns, receiving no veterinary treatment. In body cam footage, a pig is observed more than 13 hours later, still wandering the property with significant burn injuries. Gretchen seemed almost joyful as she asked officers to shoot the dying pig that still had smoke coming off his or her body; officers declined to euthanize the pig.

Officers searching the Hortonville winter location of the Special Memories Zoo had a difficult counting the amount of animal corpses they found.

Approximately 15 corpses were found in the lean-to, which was unaffected by the fire. Two young goats were found decaying in an outdoor enclosure. The empty shell of a large tortoise with its unattached leg next to it was decaying in a shallow stock tank.

Officer Fitzpatrick questioned Gretchen privately in his squad car, and for the first time Gretchen cried, realizing she could be in serious trouble for abandoning the animals in the lean-to and for the barn fire.

“I wish I had gone in there more often,” Gretchen told Officer Fitzpatrick in body cam footage. “I wish I had looked but I didn’t because I never have. I’ve never gone everyday and looked in all the buildings. They’ve always been just fine. I’m just telling you, I wish I would have, because if I had noticed something dead or something sick I would have done something about it.”

Officers declined to arrest Gretchen and the Outagamie County District Attorney declined to bring charges. The cause of the fire was listed as undetermined and the animals' deaths were ruled accidental, possibly caused by botulism infected feed, according to veterinarian Dr. Thomas Young. Young made that diagnosis without conducting any medical tests and instead relied on the position the corpses were found in, which he referred to as a "sleeping position."

Gretchen was kicked out of the Wheeler’s home after the fire. She lives in a trailer on her parent's property and works at a gas station.

Gene passed away a few months after the fire. Dona works part time at a school cafeteria. The Greenville location of the Special Memories Zoo has been abandoned and is up for sale.

The ALDF’s case against the troubled roadside zoo wrapped up in 2021. Dona and Gretchen are permanently banned from ever owning or exhibiting exotic animals again, or from working with any organization that does.

The location of many of the zoo’s animals that were rehomed remains undetermined and Roadside Zoo News is still working to try to find them.

And although the Special Memories Zoo is now just a memory, for those who know the true story of this horrific roadside zoo, our memories will always be filled with nightmares.


Editors note: The information in this article was obtained from police reports, fire reports, USDA reports, court documents, and interviews with former employees, relatives, visitors and officials. Click here for more information.


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