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Closing a Zoo: Infractions Large and Small

Karl Mogensen, 76, has owned and operated the Natural Bridge Zoo for 42 years. But as of early March – the month he typically opens for the season -- the Zoo lost its license to exhibit wild animals.The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries found multiple violations, as WMRA's Jessie Knadler reports in the first of a two-part series.  **Update: According to a letter to Karl Mogensen from the DGIF dated May 27, the zoo's license has been restored, and the zoo may now "reopen to the public."  This decision, according to DGIF, is based on a second inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which "verif(ied) that [the zoo] has corrected a majority of the violations identified during the initial inspection [on March 9], and DGIF is satisfied that [the zoo] is substantially compliant with the Animal Welfare violations."

Karl and his wife Debbie Mogensen have had no income since the middle of March.

KARL MOGENSEN: We should have had our parking lot full today. It should have been mobbed across the street. Obviously no cars here and I think it’s just a waiting game to see how long we can maintain the zoo.

The state revoked the Zoo’s license to exhibit wild animals based on a USDA inspection report from January that noted a total of 31 violations. The report took issue with, among other things, the zoo’s overall lack of a veterinary program. Thirty-five animals at the time of inspection were found to be in need of veterinary care, exhibited by hair loss, lesions and lameness. The report also cited the zoo’s practice of euthanizing guinea pigs by gunshot or hitting them against a hard surface. In its letter of suspension, the Game Commission concluded that, quote, “many of the animals are confined under unsanitary and inhumane conditions.”

The Natural Bridge Zoo has had a long history tussling with animal rights activists, specifically People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society. Karl Mogensen is convinced those two organizations have increasing influence over state and federal agencies.

MOGENSEN: Yeah, the Virginia Game Commission is really good but they’re being pressured. This is a thing called “the siege of the castle”: See how long the zoo can stay in business with no cash flow.

The zoo has been fined and had its license suspended twice over the years by the USDA. The Rockbridge County Sherriff’s Department has fielded many calls over the years from zoo patrons put off by conditions at the unaccredited zoo.  A particular bone of contention: Making their sole elephant Asha give rides to patrons around a small enclosure.  Elephants, critics say, are highly social pack animals that need to roam for miles each day.

The latest debacle kicked off when an agent for the Humane Society landed a job at the Zoo last summer. She recorded activity in an undercover video. Karl Mogensen has said that he himself was shocked by some of the footage.

MOGENSEN: We had an older giraffe that passed away. We had to pull her out with a tractor and a chain. She got that and she filmed everything in such a manner to make it look really, really terrible.  After this happened, the USDA came out in full force with three inspectors, two investigators, and went on a mission.  I think they were playing a game here. Who can find the most violations? Dust under your refrigerator, all these kinds of things. They went all around the zoo nitpicking.  Even the Game Commission when they were here said they were doing this.

Some of the violations were so-called nitpicky – rusty cages, improper food storage. But some were legitimately serious, like a program that allows patrons to pose for photographs while holding three week old tiger cubs, and confining an agitated monkey in an undersized pet carrier and repeatedly jabbing it with a stick to force it to move.

So now the 25-acre site that runs along Route 11 between Lexington and Roanoke is strangely quiet except for the occasional screech of monkeys, the crow of a rooster and the chirping of birds. It’s almost easy to overlook that literally hundreds of animals still live there, until you come across a caged tiger lying belly up snoozing in the sun, or five giraffes confined to a gravel enclosure with no trees or vegetation.

[JESSIE KNADLER, observing giraffes]: And is this their permanent home here?

MOGENSEN: Sure.

There’s just no paying public to observe the giraffes anymore.  Which raises the question—what happens to all the animals once a zoo is no longer allowed to exhibit them?  For now the answer is, nothing.

So while the current suspension is seen as a big win for animal rights activists, the status of the animals in the Mogensens’ care doesn’t change at all, except now they’re regarded more as exotic pets. The reality is that laws governing animal welfare – in this case, exotic pet ownership – are far from robust, says Kate Dylewsky of the animal rights advocacy group Born Free USA.

KATE DYLEWSKY: It is such a patchwork across the country of state laws related to exotic pet ownership and also exotic exhibition, that no state is the same as any other state. Great inconsistency. Then on top of that you have federal laws that provide some structure but are often difficult to enforce such as The Animal Welfare Act, and it has very minimal standards. And it can be hard to parse out where state laws are being followed or federal laws being followed or where they need a permit, where they can have a certain animal, so this situation demonstrates exactly that.

In Virginia, there is a “partial ban” on exotic animals. Meaning, if you want to go out and buy a giraffe, zebra or monkey, have at it. But you require a special permit from the Game Commission to possess a bear or a hyena, examples of wildlife the state considers predatory or undesirable. The intent of the regulations, according to the Game Commission, is to be as permissive as possible in allowing people to possess and own a range of wildlife.

It is in fact this permissiveness that gives rise to roadside zoos, says Kate Dylewsky.

DYLEWSKY: Unless the law changes, there’s absolutely nothing to stop the owner from keeping them as his personal property.

In Part 2 of this story, we explore the phenomenon of so-called roadside zoos, and why many owners of exotic animals believe their pets, as they often see them, are better off than in the wild.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag
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