Court: Zoo Animals Protected by Endangered Species Act

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 13, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court said a family-owned zoo violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to care properly for its tigers and lemurs.

In Kuehl v. Sellner, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision to send several exotic animals at the zoo to a better facility. It was a victory for animal rights activists, who said the decision means endangered species living in captivity deserve the same care as animals in the wild.

But the appeals court also denied their request for $239,979 in attorneys fees. In other words, taking care of tigers and lemurs can be very expensive.

Endangered Species

Cricket Hollow Animal Park, a roadside zoo in Iowa, was owned and operated solely by Tom and Pam Sellner when Tracey and Lisa Kuehl visited in 2014. The zoo housed about 200 animals, including tigers and lemurs.

Joined in a lawsuit by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Kuehls sued the Sellners for making the animals "suffer in barren, cramped, dimly lit, poorly maintained and feces-laden enclosures."

Five tigers had died there in previous two years, and a judge concluded the zoo keepers gave inadequate care to the animals. He ordered the Sellners to move four tigers and three lemurs to a licensed facility.

"If an exhibitor chooses to keep endangered species, it must assume the obligation -- and the cost -- of providing such care," Judge Jon Scoles said.

Cost of Care

On appeal, the Sellners said they did not break the law and that the plaintiffs lacked standing. The Eighth Circuit said the trial judge did not err.

Stephen Wells, director of the animal legal defense fund, said zoo owners can "no longer ignore endangered animals' unique biological and psychological needs." Staff attorney Tony Eliseuson said the appellate decision set a precedent for how to apply the Endangered Species Act.

"It sets a blueprint going forward to guide other district courts that are dealing with these types of cases as to how they should apply the Endangered Species Act to captive, wild animals, and it does it in a very favorable way for plaintiffs and the animals," Eliseuson said.

Under the ruling, however, the plaintiffs will literally have to pay for it.

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