MANCHESTER, Iowa (Iowa Media) — The Iowa Court of Appeals has ruled the owners of the Cricket Hollow Zoo did receive a fair trial and upheld an order closing the zoo and allowing animal rights groups to rescue hundreds of exotic animals.
The owners, Pamela and Thomas Sellner, appealed a 2019 ruling that declared the zoo to be a public nuisance due to animal neglect, ordered a permit for the animals to be relocated, and barred the Sellners from obtaining more animals in the future. The appeal stemmed from a lawsuit filed by animal rights groups claiming the zoo failed to supply animals with necessary food, water, and veterinary care, violating Iowa’s Animal Neglect Law, and causing the animals unjustified pain, distress, and suffering.
The couple argued they did not receive a fair trial after the judge, Monica Wittig, “took an advocacy role” on behalf of the plaintiffs through the questions she asked during the trial and the way in which she asked them. They claimed Wittig’s questions “were framed in an adversarial manner.” They also mentioned Wittig’s comments after all of the parties agreed to a visit to the zoo on the first day of the bench trial.
“The court’s references to the site visit give us pause,” the ruling states. “But the court ultimately allowed the defense to present its case and based the final order on the evidence.”
Because this was a bench trial and not a jury trial, the judge is allowed greater leeway to comment during such proceedings.
“We conclude the court’s questioning did not deprive the Sellners of a fair trial,” the ruling says. “That said, “the better practice is for the trial judge to exercise restraint and avoid the fray as by questioning witnesses ‘the court
becomes vulnerable to a multiplicity of criticisms; bias, prejudice or advocacy.’”
In a separate but related issue, a ruling has not yet been issued on whether the Sellners could be held for contempt of court for allegedly getting rid of many of the animals before the advocates got there to remove them. Among the more than 100 missing animals: five grizzly bears, two mountain lions, a camel, a wolf, a fox, and several species of birds, snakes, and reptiles.
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