For years, Tanya and Teagan, two endangered tigers, have drawn crowds to the Special Memories roadside zoo in Greenville, Wisconsin. People paid for tickets to gather around their cramped cages. Those same people took pity on the animals for their algae-choked watering holes, rotten food, and unchanged enclosure bedding. Now, the tigers might find a way out.
The big cats’ living conditions, along with those of 200 other animals, is now the subject of a lawsuit by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “It is in the animals’ best interest to be placed in reputable sanctuaries where they can live in naturalistic environments,” said ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells. “With clean food and water, and the medical and psychological care they require.”
ALDF’s lawsuit accuses the zoo of violating the Endangered Species Act, as well as public nuisance laws. “The Endangered Species Act and state cruelty laws exist precisely to protect animals like Tanya and Teagan from the suffering they experience at Special Memories Zoo,” says Wells. The Animal Legal Defense Fund is offering the Special Memories Zoo an opportunity to surrender the animals for relocation to new facilities, at no cost.
Special Memories Zoo, according to a ALDF press release, has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations multiple times in the past. These ranged from, “housing animals in polluted enclosures,” to having “food contaminated with rodent droppings,” the press release states. At least one employee was reputedly injured after improperly interacting with one of the zoo’s bears.
ALDF senior staff attorney Tony Eliseuson says problem facilities often stack up violations because animal welfare laws and regulations, “are very laxly enforced.” Particularly in recent years, under President Trump, “there’s been a massive down-tick” in the number of citations for violations of the Endangered Species Act, and fewer inspectors on the ground.
Unfortunately, Eliseuson told Wisconsin Examiner, “even for facilities that get cited repeatedly with very serious violations, there’s very, very rarely any enforcement action taken by the USDA. And, in fact, we’ve had a case where we’ve had to sue the USDA a couple of times to finally get them to institute enforcement proceedings against a facility that had been cited for years and years and years.”
Eliseuson says that the zoo hasn’t yet responded to a letter from the ALDF giving notice that it intends to file a lawsuit. “I hope they reach out to us,” he says, “I hope they realize, when they read our letter and see all of our evidence, that they are just not competent to care for these animals.” Ultimately, the group’s goal is to relocate the zoo’s animal population to well-vetted sanctuaries.
In addition to endangered tigers and wolves, Special Memories Zoo houses lemurs, bears, at least one giraffe, monkeys, otters, badgers and other species.
According to a Courthouse News Service report, three lemurs were transferred to Special Memories Zoo from another questionable facility. In 2018, the Cricket Hollow Animal Park in Manchester, Iowa, was ordered by a judge to surrender all endangered species it held. The animal park was another case for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which cited the deaths of four tigers at the Cricket Hollow Animal Park. Their names were Casper, Luna, Miraj, and Raoul.
The lemurs’ journey through sub-par zoos isn’t unusual. Eliseuson says hundreds of similar facilities operate nationwide, accumulating violations while facing few consequences. Animals are sometimes shuttled from place to place when lawsuits and violations catch up to facilities.
PETA also filed its own complaint to the USDA in 2017 over the transfer of three two-week-old lion cubs to Special Memories Zoo. The animal rights organization noted that the cubs weren’t yet able to regulate their body temperatures and had underdeveloped immune systems. Due to the risk posed to the cubs, PETA argued the Special Memories Zoo violated the federal Animal Welfare Act. Special Memories Zoo aimed to acquire the cubs from the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, another facility with a history of violations.
Special Memories Zoo didn’t respond to the Wisconsin Examiner’s phone calls for comment.