I’m writing with encouraging news about the Natural Bridge Zoo, the ramshackle roadside menagerie where our undercover investigation earlier this year exposed the disturbing mistreatment of tiger cubs, monkeys, giraffes, and other wild animals. Yesterday, following a legal complaint filed by The HSUS, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) suspended the public exhibition permit for the menagerie that puts hundreds of sad animals on display and offers photo ops with abused and neglected tiger cubs. This comes just weeks after a searing report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prompted by our investigation revealed 31 violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The zoo will now be unable to open tomorrow as scheduled.
The USDA has also confirmed it has opened a formal investigation and The HSUS has petitioned the agency to revoke the zoo’s federal license. A follow-up inspection in March by the USDA detailed a lack of veterinary care for numerous animals, filthy, foul-smelling, and rusty cages, and muddy enclosures.
The report confirms that zoo owners Karl and Debbie Mogensen, who are professional members of the discredited “Zoological Association of America” (ZAA), continue to pull newborn capuchin monkeys from their fiercely-protective mothers for sale, presumably to the pet trade. The ZAA accredits poorly run roadside zoos, traveling zoos, and private menageries, and promotes the private ownership of exotic pets. ZAA facilities, members, and activities include individuals convicted of felonies, wildlife trafficking, and cruelty to animals. The deceptively-named organization has no affiliation with the highly respected Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
News of the Natural Bridge Zoo’s state permit suspension is a hopeful development for the animals languishing there, but this case also highlights the need for much stronger laws to protect captive wildlife in Virginia and across the country. This past legislative session in Virginia, a bill to ban the possession and breeding of primates by roadside zoos was thwarted by the ZAA and its members. It is insane that these facilities can peddle primates as pets within the state without any animal welfare oversight.
The HSUS and a coalition of animal welfare groups have submitted a petition to the USDA to prohibit public contact with big cats, bears, and primates at roadside zoos across the country. The Natural Bridge Zoo is one of about 75 facilities around the United States that still allow children to pet wild big cats. At the Natural Bridge Zoo, our investigation documented so-called caretakers slapping two tiger cubs, Daxx and Deja. In our video you can see Deja’s head hit a concrete floor as she is disciplined by a man. Both of these cubs were sick with coccidia and giardia but never saw a veterinarian. They were also starved until photo sessions started up for the day, so that their bottle could be used to mollify them during handling.
Our investigator and the USDA documented other severe problems at the Natural Bridge Zoo: a dead giraffe, a dead Mandrill (an endangered primate), a baby camel who accidentally hanged herself, a dead capuchin monkey, and terrible injuries to other animals, including a bone-deep hand wound suffered by a spider monkey. We also found a lone elephant who is confined in a dark barn when she isn’t being forced to give rides to the public.
Both the federal government and the state are taking their oversight responsibilities very seriously, and that’s welcome news. So should consumers, who ought to avoid these operations at all costs. Since the 1970s, we’ve been investigating and exposing substandard wildlife attractions like these, which are responsible for some of the worst animal suffering you can imagine. The violence at a cockfight or a live pigeon shoot is certainly more acute and obvious, but the outcomes for animals at such roadside zoos is almost always bad – typically pain and death for animals who never deserved this kind of enduring privation and misery. We welcome this week’s progress at the Natural Bridge Zoo, but there’s still more work to do to end the abuse of wild animals in roadside zoos and private menageries.