Iowa Court Says Roadside Zoo is Public Nuisance
On August 4, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals released an opinion affirming a district court’s finding that a private zoo was a public nuisance.
For many years, the defendants owned a USDA licensed zoo on their property with different types of exotic animals. They also owned a livestock operation. Four visitors to the zoo filed a lawsuit against the defendants, claiming that the defendants violated Iowa’s animal neglect law and that the zoo was a public nuisance. The visitors, represented by attorneys from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, also petitioned the court to remove the animals from the zoo. After a bench trial, the district court granted relief to the visitors, finding the zoo to be a public nuisance, as defined by statute and common law. Specifically, the district court ruled that the zoo was “injurious to the health of the animals and potentially to the invitees due to the poor care and living conditions of the animals” and that “the zoo [was] unreasonably offensive to the senses in the inhumane manner of living of the animals.” The zoo owners appealed.
Doctrine of Mootness
The Court of Appeals first addressed whether the defendant’s appeal was moot. The visitors claimed that because the defendants entered into a Consent Decision with the USDA after filing a notice of appeal, the court’s decision “would have no practical force or effect.” As such, the visitors argued that the appeal should be dismissed.
In the Consent Decision, the defendants agreed to the revocation of their zoo operating license and to stop exhibiting wild and exotic animals. The district court decision, however, was much broader in that it prohibited the defendants from owning any wild or exotic animals. The defendants argued that the order interfered with their ownership interest in livestock and their livestock operation. They stated that the visitors were alleging that the district court order prevented them from owning their farm animals and that many of these animals were removed in response to the order.
The court rejected the visitors’ mootness claim, finding that because an opinion in the defendants’ favor would affirm their ability to own farm animals and prevent a collateral consequence of interference with their livestock operation, the appeal was not moot.
Impermissible Private Cause of Action
The court next addressed the defendants’ argument that the district court improperly allowed the visitors to bring a private cause of action under Iowa Code chapter 717B, “Injury to Animals Other than Livestock.” The law allows a “local authority” to petition for an abused or neglected animal to be removed from the owner’s possession, but does not provide a remedy for private citizens to do so. Iowa Code § 717B et seq. Additionally, livestock is specifically excluded from the list of covered animals. Iowa Code § 717B.1(a). The court did not decide this question because it found that the defendants did not preserve the issue for appeal.
Next, the court addressed whether the defendants’ zoo constituted a public nuisance. A plaintiff may base a public nuisance claim on statutory law or common law. “The elements of [common law] public nuisance are: (1) unlawful or antisocial conduct that (2) in some way injures (3) a substantial number of people.” Pottawattamie Cnty. v. Iowa Dep’t of Env’t Quality, 272 N.W.2d 448, 453 (Iowa 1978). To establish a statutory nuisance, Iowa Code § 657.1(1) requires proof of “whatever is injurious to health, indecent, or unreasonably offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as essentially to interfere unreasonably with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.”
The court did not review the evidence or reconsider the district court’s determination of the facts supporting a public nuisance claim. Rather, the court focused on several tangential arguments, ruling that the visitors had standing to bring the action, even though they were not local residents, because they were alleging a public, instead of a private, nuisance. While the visitors did not live in the immediate vicinity, a public nuisance claim does not require injury to the plaintiff’s property. Additionally, the court determined that the visitors’ failure to include the legal description of land was not a procedural error because the nuisance could be removed from the property.
In light of these determinations, the court affirmed the order finding a public nuisance.
Opportunity for a Fair Trial
Finally, the court considered the defendants’ allegations that the district court “did not act in a fair and impartial manner in deciding the case and instead acted as an advocate for the plaintiffs.” Specifically, they allege that the comments the judge made during a site visit to the zoo regarding the facility and her method of questioning witnesses deprived them of a fair trial. For example, the judge stated on the record, “well, I just want to say for the record that I have shared every emotion today that you have talked about seeing that facility today. It was very difficult for me to go to lunch.”
Acknowledging that the comments during the site visit “give us pause,” the court ultimately determined that the judge’s comments did not deprive the defense of a fair trial. The court also ruled that because this was a bench trial, much of the concern with judicial questions lies in its potential impact on a jury. The court did explain, however, that “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.’”
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