On the two year anniversary of a barn fire that killed 35 animals at Special Memories Zoo and led to the discovery of the decaying corpses of 18 additional animals, the debate over whether former zoo owner Dona Wheeler and former zookeeper Gretchen Crowe are liable for paying legal fees to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) continues.
Special Memories Zoo was a roadside zoo that was owned and operated by the late Gene Wheeler, his wife Dona, and manager Crowe, that operated out of Greenville and Hortonville, Wisconsin.
ALDF sued Special Memories Zoo on February 12, 2020, under the citizen suit provision of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In a brief, ALDF said they obtained evidence that the conditions at Special Memories Zoo were so horrific that some of the animals in the zoo’s care starved to death or froze to death.
“For example, an elderly lemur huddled in a corner with his head down for nearly a week before dying,” ALDF wrote in a brief. “The dead body of a newborn lemur was observed in a capuchin cage being tossed around by a male capuchin.”
ALDF asked for all of the animals at Special Memories Zoo to be placed at accredited sanctuaries, and for the zoo owners and manager to be prohibited from owning or exhibiting animals.
On March 18, 2020, the lawyer for Special Memories Zoo, Andrew Micheletti, submitted a letter to the court stating that the zoo is rehoming their animals and ceasing operations because Gene was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Micheletti wrote in the letter that even if the zoo were to fight the ALDF’s claims, the ALDF would continue pursuing litigation until the zoo’s “legal expenses become too exorbitant to continue fighting.”
Late in the night of March 24, 2020, a fire broke out in a barn at the Special Memories Zoo’s winter quarters, burning alive 35 animals.
Both zoo owners and Crowe were sleeping in a house adjacent to the barn on the night of the fire.
Authorities investigating the fire found the decaying corpses of an additional 18 animals on the property that were not involved in the fire. Crowe admitted to a sheriff’s investigator that she hadn’t checked on those animals in nearly three months.
The surviving animals were quickly sold to other roadside zoos across the country to circumvent ALDF’s efforts to place the animals at sanctuaries. Crowe told an investigator that they were rehoming the animals “in an effort to get the ALDF to back off.”
31 animals, including the vast majority of the endangered and threatened animals, were sent to the DeYoung Family Zoo in Wallace, Michigan. An estimated 16 animals sent to DeYoung Zoo have since disappeared, records show.
The cause of the barn fire was undetermined and authorities declined to press charges against Crowe for failing to care for the 18 additional animals that were discovered dead on the property.
Gene passed away in June 2020. Shortly after, the Special Memories Zoo property and cages were listed for sale for $799,000.
In January 2021, Judge William Giresbach awarded default judgment in the lawsuit to ALDF.
“The Court hereby finds that the defendants did violate the ESA and that the operation of the zoo constituted a nuisance,” documents say.
Griesbach banned Wheeler and Crowe from possessing or exhibiting animals other than their pet dogs and from participating in any business or entity that possesses or exhibits animals.
The ESA has provisions for courts to award attorney fees to the prevailing party in a citizen suit. ALDF asked Griesbach to award the nonprofit $72,172.56 in fees and costs for their successful lawsuit against Special Memories Zoo. In October, Griesbach declined to award legal fees to the ALDF, stating in his decision that the fees would be “a heavy financial obligation on Ms. Wheeler and Ms. Crowe.”
ALDF appealed Griesbach’s ruling, citing two recent lawsuits brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In 2021, PETA was awarded $696,091 in attorneys’ fees and expenses under the ESA and $37,907 in costs in their lawsuit against Wildlife in Need in Charlestown, Indiana. Also in 2021, PETA was awarded $57,949 under the ESA for fees on appeal in their lawsuit against Tri-State Zoo in Cumberland, Maryland. In 2022, PETA’s motion for fees in the district court was granted and Tri-State Zoo was ordered to pay PETA $1,284,049.11 in attorneys’ fees, expert fees and costs.
In response to ALDF's appeal, Micheletti submitted a brief blaming ALDF’s lawsuit on a “disgruntled former employee who had been terminated for failing to do her job taking care of the animals.”
A declaration submitted in the lawsuit indicates the employee that Micheletti referenced actually resigned from her position after repeated attempts to improve the care and conditions of the animals at Special Memories Zoo. The employee also reported her concerns, along with photographic evidence, to both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Outagamie Sheriff’s Department. The USDA found the former employee’s complaints credible and cited Special Memories Zoo with four non-critical violations and a direct violation. The inspector found feed storage areas infested with mice, primates that had went without water to drink for more than 24 hours, and animal enclosures contaminated with urine and rotting feces.
Micheletti argued that ALDF should not be awarded legal fees because “the closure of Special Memories Zoo was not the result of ALDF’s claims, but due to Gene Wheeler’s illness from cancer and his passing.”
The Cavalry Group, an organization that supports roadside zoos and puppy mills and opposes legislation designed to prevent animal cruelty, submitted an amicus curiae brief in the lawsuit, insisting that the endangered species that were at Special Memories Zoo are not protected by the ESA because they have not been managed to preserve genetic integrity and have no conservation value.
“The United States is home to thousands of captive animals that are otherwise listed as endangered or threatened,” The Cavalry Group wrote in their brief. “The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of these individual animals have no role to play in the conservation of their respective species.”
ALDF argues that the ESA does protect endangered animals in captivity and they asked the judge to reverse the district court’s order and award legal fees to ALDF.
“There is little doubt that ALDF’s lawsuit drove the Special Memories Zoo defendants’ decision to stop confining ESA-protected animals in cruel and unlawful conditions,” ALDF wrote.
The next step in the appeal is oral arguments during a judicial hearing.
Full court records: