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What Happens to the Animals?

Jessie Knadler
Karl Mogensen keeps a herd of zebra, as well as camels and other exotic animals at his 150 acre farm, located roughly 5-6 miles from the Natural Bridge Zoo.

In the second half of our series about the closing of the Natural Bridge Zoo, we explore what sometimes happens to all the animals once a zoo loses its license, and we take a look at the exotic animal trade.WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has Part 2.*

**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."

Since the USDA’s January report and a follow up inspection in March, Karl Mogensen, 76, and his wife Debbie, 51, say they have spent roughly $40,000 making improvements to the Natural Bridge Zoo. Among the changes: The creation of a new veterinary care program, the removal of guinea pigs, and getting rid of the exhibit that allowed patrons to be photographed while holding baby tiger cubs.

They find themselves in a weird state of limbo—spending $5,000 a month just on feed costs for all the animals while waiting around for the Feds to come back for a third round of inspections that may reinstate their state exhibitor permit.

A spokesperson for APHIS -- the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA – confirmed in an email May 6 that they have an open investigation into the Natural Bridge Zoo, but that, quote, “we do not conduct inspections based on licensee requests. Our inspections are conducted unannounced and on a risk-based basis.”

In the meantime, Karl, a longtime breeder of exotic animals, says he has been forced to sell off some of his stock to cover costs. 

Karl told me a giraffe can fetch anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000. On April 20, he posted an ad to an exotic animal website for the sale of two camels for $12,000 each and four spider monkeys for $9,000 each, or $35,000 for all four.  Yet he says the sale of exotics accounts for only 20 percent of his business.  He says he would never sell to anyone who didn’t have proper knowledge of these animals.  In captivity, he points out, care is monitored and controlled.

KARL MOGENSEN: When you see a lot of these animals, well they look like their confined, and it’s terrible.  [But] they’re in optimum condition and you have to realize none of these animals were caught wild. They were all raised in captivity….these animals nowadays, I hate to say it, but they’re almost domesticated, multiple generations in captivity.

KATE DYLEWSKY: It’s not uncommon that people who own exotic animals love them as pets, as family members.

That’s Kate Dylewsky of the animal rights advocacy group Born Free USA, talking about the buying and selling of exotic animals.

DYLEWSKY: I think that’s a very common phenomenon…. Many people will say that confinement is good for the animals because it’s an easy life. Because at least theoretically they’re being fed regularly, they don’t have any natural predators. Their entertainment is provided for them. But realistically these are wild animals whose needs go far beyond simply being fed regularl meals. These animals are very complex. They have natural instincts and behaviors that are expressed in the wild including often traveling long distances each day, including relationships with other members of their species, building family units, having children, and none of these natural behaviors can be expressed in confinement.

Since I met with the Mogensens, they’ve offloaded more of their exotic animals to shore up costs while continuing to wait for an inspection that may never come.

I asked Karl if there’s a paradigm shift at play here – if the situation illustrates the extent to which Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of big animals in captivity—even as many Americans are more divorced from the natural world than ever.

KARL MOGENSEN: Sure, they are. The children are more enlightened now with the Internet and everything else. We get the young kids asking more intelligent questions than ever….Debbie and I sit down and we do self evaluation all the time. Nothing is perfect. We’re always trying to make improvements here. We don’t mind criticism by our peers, someone who is knowledgeable and who looks at the animals and their conditions….the criticism we’re getting now is from people who have no concept, no idea of what they’re doing. They’re usually following the stuff that’s being put out by PETA or HSUS. 

DEBBIE MOGENSEN: Like Karl said, we’re always improving. Every year we’re trying to add new things, and redo other things to make the quality of the animals, the best of care, and nice exhibits, and all of that. We’re always doing stuff every year for the public to make them happy and enjoy the animals.

But Karl admits he’s not always optimistic, and he says he’s particularly worried about his wife.

KARL MOGENSEN: I have a little girl that sits here with tears in her eyes most of the day – my wife. And it’s a lesson in restraint on my part when the USDA comes and is very critical and overlooks the things we’ve done correctly and they’re constantly looking for something else and not even acknowledging the corrections we’ve made. It’s a matter of gritting your teeth and showing restraint. It gets a little difficult after a while.

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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