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Special Memories Zoo owner and manager agree to pay Animal Legal Defense Fund $130,000

The owner of the Special Memories Zoo and the head zookeeper have agreed to pay $130,000 to Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) for the organization's successful Endangered Species Act lawsuit that shuttered the zoo.

Dona Wheeler and the late Gene Wheeler owned the roadside zoo, located in Greenville and Hortonville, Wisconsin. Gretchen Crowe was the head zookeeper and lived with the Wheelers. Click here to read more about Special Memories Zoo.

Screengrab of Gretchen Crowe (left) and Dona Wheeler.

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 the zoo owners and manager to be permanently prohibited from owning or exhibiting animals.

The roadside zoo was repeatedly accused of starving animals to death and burying or burning the dead animals' corpses. USDA inspection reports describe animals living in filth, some with no access to drinking water. Rodents and maggots often infested the animals' living quarters.

Photographs submitted in ALDF's lawsuit show dozens of animals that died, with their corpses left to rot in enclosures for weeks or months.

One month after the lawsuit commenced, the zoo’s attorney wrote a letter stating that Gene had been diagnosed with cancer and due to that diagnosis “and this lawsuit” the zoo was 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 those 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. Gene died a few months later.

Roadside Zoo News started a petition to have Crowe criminally charged with animal neglect. Prosecutors declined to press charges.

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 Dona and Crowe from possessing or exhibiting animals other than their pet dogs.

Griesbach declined to award legal fees and costs to ALDF, stating that at most the organization only played a minor role in the zoo's closure. ALDF appealed the ruling. In August 2022, 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. The legal victory is significant because it incentivizes other attorneys to file lawsuits to protect animals.

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

According to documents submitted in court yesterday, Crowe and Dona have agreed to pay ALDF the full fee award.

The location of many of the surviving animals at the zoo that were sold has never been determined. The settlement agreement signifies the end of a long and tragic history of animal cruelty at the Special Memories Zoo.


Editor's note: Roadside Zoo News was started by a former Special Memories Zoo employee who spent five years reporting the animal mistreatment occurring. She submitted a declaration and evidence in ALDF's lawsuit. All of the work we do is in memory of the animals at Special Memories Zoo who suffered and died in horrific conditions; may they rest in peace.


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