Troubled Zoo: A Tiger King Connection PART 1
GREENVILLE, Wis. (WFRV) – Tucked away off Highway 15 is the site of the now-closed Special Memories Zoo. The location housed hundreds of animals from tigers and lions, to birds and goats. Visitors were able to see all different types of species up close and personal.
That was until the zoo shut down at the end of their 2019 season.
Several ex-employees spoke to Local 5 about their experiences.
“I had been taken to the Special Memories Zoo many times in my youth with my family,” said Bethanie Gengler, who worked there in 2014 for just under a year. “I thought it was the coolest place ever because you could get up close with the monkeys and the different animals.”
Other ex-employees included Haley Lin who worked there in 2017 as a zookeeper. Rachael Williams was hired in 2012 and worked there for three years, and Amy Miller was hired in 2013 and spent four years at the zoo.
All the ladies say they took their jobs to get more experience in caring and understanding animals for their careers moving forward.
But they say things started off strange from the get-go.
“There wasn’t any written instructions on how to feed the animals or how to take care of them,” Haley said. “I actually came up with my own on a Google Doc.”
“It just seemed like a ragtag, in-shambles kind of operation,” Rachael added. “Even at 16, I knew that this probably wasn’t what regular zoos looked like on the inside.”
Troubled Zoo: A Tiger King Connection PART 2
The zoo was regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who is charged with doing yearly animal welfare inspections. Although the USDA regulations do not require an inspector to schedule inspections in advance, the regulations do require a facility’s representative to accompany inspectors.
On some past occasions, Special Memories zookeepers in charge were not around when the USDA arrived to complete the inspection.
During one attempted inspection in March of 2007, the USDA inspection report states the “licensee did not have a responsible person available to conduct an animal welfare inspection. The dealer’s facility was not able to be inspected for compliance with the Animal Welfare Act regulations and standards and to ensure the health and well-being of the animals.”
Another inspection in 2011 stated the same thing. “A responsible person must be available to accompany the inspector on an animal welfare inspection.” Local 5 did not obtain the actual inspection records for 2007 to 2014, other than the two attempted inspections.
In 2015 when Bethanie decided to quit, she filed a complaint with the USDA about all the things she witnessed – sending them pictures of the conditions and the animals.
“[There were] feces under enclosures. I think it was 6 inches high with mold growing on it,” Bethanie said. “[There was also] rodent droppings infesting the feeding areas.”
“It got to the point where there was green algae in the water bottles that we would fill,” said Haley.
“All the hoofstock, all the farm animals and stuff – they had horrible, horrible hoofs,” Amy said. “They were always overgrown.”
“Eventually the animal, would just eventually die,” Bethanie said. “They would succumb to their illnesses.”
“In some instances, they would kind of just be gone the next day,” Haley added. “We wouldn’t know where they were.”
“What people don’t realize is how many of those animals that they came and saw that just disappeared,” said Bethanie.
The USDA went to conduct an inspection at the end of April 2015. But once again, “a responsible adult was not available to accompany APHIS officials during the inspection process.”
However, the USDA was able to conduct an inspection the following month, citing Special Memories for things like “contaminated feed,” “soiled bedding,” and “lack of adequate water for non-human primates. After the water bottles were filled, we observed that each affected animal immediately went to the water bottles and were drinking nonstop for a minute each.”
The USDA inspection went on to say that “the amount of time the animals drank suggested that they were very thirsty.”
“The water is a huge deal, animals can not go very long without water,” Bethanie said.
The USDA filed an official warning of violating federal regulations, stating that “a sufficient number of adequately trained employees shall be utilized” and “potable water must be provided in sufficient quantity to every nonhuman primate housed at the facility.”
Special Memories Zoo owner Dona Wheeler addressed those issues to Local 5 back in 2015.
“There really aren’t any major issues,” Dona said. “If there were major issues, the USDA would be at your door and every animal you see here in my zoo – couple hundred of them, 300 – would all be gone.”
In the midst of the 2015 inspection, the zoo made national headlines for stolen animals in May, when reports surfaced around a baby kangaroo and baby goats being stolen.
According to an interview with the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office, Gretchen Crowe was the zoo’s longtime keeper and was responsible for the day-to-day operations.
“If you took [the animals] just bring them back,” Gretchen said to Local 5 back in 2015 after the animals were reportedly stolen. “Our main concern is the animals. We just want them to be healthy and we want them back.”
Haley also questioned the zoo’s safety for employees.
“I felt like we weren’t given the proper safety equipment working with some of the monkeys,” she said.
In a USDA inspection in February of 2016, it showed that “an employee was bitten on her hand by a black bear and required stitches. The zookeeper stated that they have training procedures in place for all employees and this employee did receive the training. However, there is no documentation to verify that adequate training has been provided to the employee.”
For the lack documentation to evidence employee training, the zoo was given a month to correct the issue by.
Bethanie, Haley, Rachael and Amy say that they wanted to report poor conditions, but struggled with wanting to keep their jobs and help save the animals.
“You almost feel this guilt,” Haley said. “You feel like you have to stay there because if you don’t, then you feel like the animals aren’t getting some of the care that they would want, or that they should have.”
“I don’t like to admit I was there at a time when it wasn’t being run properly because we all did care. All the zookeepers cared very, very much,” said Rachael.
“Do I report them [and] lose my job? Do I quit? Or do I just keep coming everyday because at least when I’m here, I can make sure they have food and water everyday,” Bethanie asked herself.
However, the zoo did clean up its act. During an inspection in May of 2018, it states “no non-compliant items [were] identified during this inspection.”
In addition, there were concerns over some zoo acquisitions.
“After I had quit, Special Memories Zoo had purchased three lion cubs from G.W. Zoo, the zoo featured in ‘Tiger King,’” Bethanie said.
A certificate of veterinary inspection from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry shows that Special Memories Zoo acquired two, 2-week-old lion cubs from Joe Exotic with G.W. Zoo in Wynewood, Oklahoma in January of 2017 – the zoo featured in the hit Netflix documentary, Tiger King.
“They actually got animals from him,” Amy said. “They had at least two lions from him.”
Special Memories purchased another 2-week-old lion cub from Exotic in April of 2017.
The USDA states that “newborn and infant nondomestic cats four weeks (28 days) of age or younger have special handling and husbandry needs…and should be housed with their mother for as long as possible after birth to promote good health.”
Tony Eliseuson is with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).
“We’re an organization formed by lawyers in the 1970’s with a mission to advance the legal interest of animals through the legal system,” he said.
The group started investigating Special Memories in 2015, and sent a notice of intent to sue the zoo in September of 2019.
“We’ve also sued both of the owners, Gene and Dona Wheeler, and the zoo manager Gretchen Crowe – who our understanding is responsible for the day-to-day operations at the zoo,” Tony said. “We’re suing them for violating the Endangered Species Act with regard to all the endangered animals such as tigers, lions, grey wolves, lemurs – and then as a public nuisance under Wisconsin state law based on violations of animal cruelty laws and captive wildlife laws in Wisconsin.”
The zoo has denied all of the ALDF allegations and recently filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In addition, Special Memories Zoo shut down after the 2019 season. A statement from the ALDF states that it had offered to rehome all of the animals, free of charge. The owners said they would take care of it themselves. Some of those animals are housed at an off-site barn during the winter season.
Court documents show that on March 18th of this year, Special Memories submitted a letter to the court that “due to [Mr. Wheeler’s] health complications and this lawsuit, and the recognition that the ALDF will only continue to pursue claims against the zoo even [if they] prevail in this action, [the Wheelers] made the difficult decision to rehome its animals.”
The letter also stated “the only endangered or threatened animal in Special Memories Zoo, LLC’s possession is the Canadian lynx which they intend to re-home”. Other standard farm animals were still in their possession.
On March 24th, 2020, an accidental barn fire took place in Hortonville. It happened at Gene and Dona Wheeler’s residence.
Troubled Zoo: A Tiger King Connection PART 3
“When we got there it was fully engulfed at 11:45 on the 24th,” said Chief Chad Degal with the Town of Dale Fire/Rescue. “It was a big ball of fire when we got there.”
According to an investigation by the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office, “firefighters counted 10-11 dead animals in the barn. It appeared the fire may have started in the upper half.”
“There [were] animals that passed away in the fire,” Degal added. “I don’t know exactly what they were.”
The sheriff’s office report states that Gretchen Crowe, the zoo’s longtime keeper, was also at the home the night of the fire, and stated “there were cows, goats, 1 camel, 2 bobcats, antelope and other animals in the barn.” She also stated that “none of the animals are insured.”
During the zoo’s off-season, many of the exotic animals at the zoo stayed there – while others were transferred to the barn – 10 minutes away from the zoo’s location.
“There’s two major barns on that property,” Amy said. “One is an old machine shed that they had converted to what we called the monkey barn, and then there was the other old barn which had like a bottom part to it. Then the top part was all storage like hay and straw and stuff, and the bottom part is where all the animals were kept.”
The sheriff’s report states that Gretchen and Dona “feared the fire was set intentionally.”
Chief Degal contacted the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigations Arson Bureau to seek assistance from the state fire marshal’s office.
“Two state fire marshals came in there and didn’t find anything,” Degal said. “Barns that are over 100-years-old, and it burns for that long before the fire department gets there, it’s really hard to find out what caused it because it’s like a tinder box.”
The sheriff’s office investigation reports that “although a specific cause was not determined, contributing factors and other information gleaned from the investigation appeared to point in the direction of an accidental fire to the structure.”
The sheriff’s office report also states that they “saw a nearby detached shelter with dead animals inside laying on the ground. This shelter didn’t appear to be damaged by the fire.” It included “approximately 14 dead goats that appeared to be in various states of decomposition. Another fenced in area contained some box structures for shelter, and located two small goats decomposing in this area.” There was also “a tortoise in advanced decomposition with only the shell remaining.”
In a follow up report, the sheriff’s office interviewed veterinary Doctor Thomas Young who “has been a veterinary for the Wheeler’s for approximately 21 years. Doctor Young explained that he examined the animals that were discovered deceased on the property and suspected botulism – a naturally occurring event that likely came from contaminated hay.” The sheriff’s office “inquired if he suspected any neglect of the animals during his tenure with working with the Wheelers, and Doctor Young indicated that he did not.”
Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund in February of 2020 requests that the court “terminate Special Memories Zoo ownership and possessory rights in its animals,” and “prevent [it] from obtaining new animals.” The lawsuit also asks the court to “appoint an individual to identify and determine the appropriate placement for the animals consistent with their best interest.”
Troubled Zoo: A Tiger King Connection PART 4
When responding to the complaint, the zoo and the Wheelers notified the court that “due to Mr. Wheeler’s recent cancer diagnosis, and their view that the ALDF will only continue to pursue claims against the zoo even if [the zoo] prevails, the Wheelers have decided to rehome the endangered and threatened animals and cease their possession of endangered and protected animals permanently.”
On May 8, 2020, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a motion to preserve evidence, requesting that the court “prevent Special Memories Zoo from rehoming the animals without informing the court or ALDF where the animals are being sent.”
The Wheelers responded that “prior to the filing of ALDF’s motion, all of the animals had already been rehomed.”
Nonetheless, ALDF’s motion was granted by the court.
On May 20th, the Wheelers filed a motion to dismiss the case as moot, stating “the zoo has been permanently closed, the animals have been rehomed, and Mr. Wheeler is no longer seeking treatment for his cancer, and likely only has weeks to live.”
Although the lawsuit may be moot, the former zoo employees and the Animal Legal Defense Fund want federal and state laws to change.
Wisconsin wildlife laws “require a license to take a wild animal from the wild or to import one into the state. A license is also required to exhibit, breed, rehabilitate, hunt, and/or purchase wild animals.”
Special Memories Zoo is legally licensed. A DNR report states the zoo’s license is a “class A captive wildlife farm.”
According to Carolina Tiger Rescue’s 2019 report on state laws for keeping exotic cats as pets, “6 states do not ban or regulate keeping big cats as pets: Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, Delaware, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin is one of those states that has lax laws,” said Amy. “Pretty much anybody can go out and buy a tiger and have it, which is garbage but that’s just the law.”
“That’s kind of like the main argument that people bring up, is these animals shouldn’t be in these small cages, but then nobody can really do anything if they’re meeting the law,” said Haley.
“We need to look at these laws because they’re not protecting the animals right now, they’re protecting these people that are collecting these animals,” Bethanie added.
“Not only could the laws be strengthened, but certainly they should be better enforced,” said Tony.
The ex-employees say the public should support AZA accredited zoos, which stands for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These zoos, like the NEW Zoo in Green Bay and the Milwaukee County Zoo, enforce much stricter inspections than the USDA so that specific standards are being met.
Troubled Zoo: A Tiger King Connection PART 5
In 2015, Special Memories Zoo owner Dona Wheeler told Local 5 that the zoo was not interested in becoming AZA accredited.
“Just let me under the USDA, let me under the DNR, let me follow all the rules and regulations that they tell me to do,” she said. “I’m not interested in the AZA, I’m sorry.”
“A lot of people don’t know the difference between roadside zoos and real zoos, real AZA accredited zoos,” Amy said. “Which are fabulous, wonderful institutions of research and learning and education and conservation, and just beacons of awesomeness in the world.”
Amy now works for Cincinnati Zoo, which is AZA accredited, working with big cats.
“We’re fighting for endangered species and conservation, and these other places that muddy the waters are not helping,” she said.
“Some zoos play a really important role in that, they not only educate people about wildlife but they also can help different species, but more specifically the AZA accredited zoos,” Haley added.
“I want people to know that you should go visit your local AZA zoo, but you should also support legislation that shuts down these crummy zoos, and makes the better ones more part of the real zoo community,” Amy said.
“I think people need to really understand that yes, it’s really cool to be up close to these animals, but it’s not in their best interest,” Rachael said. “If you walk in to one of these places and they have to have signage up that says ‘USDA says that these are regulated cage sizes’ because of the amount of complaints you get saying those cages are too small, maybe head the other way and head back out.”
“The most important thing that could come out of this is a conversation on what needs to change,” Bethanie said.
Local 5 reached out to Gene Wheeler, Dona Wheeler and Gretchen Crowe multiple times for comment. None of them returned our calls.
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