A roadside zoo in Virginia will get back some of its animals that were seized by the state last month following allegations of animal cruelty and neglect. A judge ordered the return of 39 animals to the Natural Bridge Zoo, while upholding the seizure of 56 others.
State raid sparked by undercover investigation
The Natural Bridge Zoo, owned by Karl and Debbie Mogensen, was raided by state authorities on December 6, 2023, after a months-long investigation by the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares. The investigation involved confidential informants and undercover officers who observed poor conditions at the zoo throughout 2023.
According to court documents, the state seized 96 animals from the zoo, including monkeys, lemurs, giraffes, parrots, tortoises, and a tiger. One of the animals, a 12-year-old tiger named Zeus, was euthanized on site due to poor health. The state also found several deceased animals and animal parts in a freezer on the property.
The state argued that the animals were subject to cruelty or inadequate care, and that the zoo violated several provisions of the Virginia Animal Welfare Act. The state sought to keep the custody of the animals and to subject the zoo to unannounced inspections for the next five years.
Zoo owners denied wrongdoing and challenged seizure
The zoo owners denied any wrongdoing and challenged the seizure of their animals in court. They claimed that they provided adequate care and veterinary services to their animals, and that the state’s actions were based on biased and inaccurate information.
The zoo owners also called several zoo experts as witnesses, who testified that the conditions at the zoo were not as bad as the state portrayed, and that some of the animals’ health issues were not caused by neglect, but by old age or natural causes.
The zoo owners also argued that the state did not follow proper procedures in seizing their animals, and that the seizure was an unlawful taking of their property without due process.
Judge ruled in favor of state for most animals, but not all
After three days of hearings in December and January, Rockbridge General District Court Judge Gregory Mooney issued his ruling on Friday, January 19, 2024. The judge found that the state had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that 56 of the 96 animals seized from the zoo were subject to cruelty or inadequate care, and that they required seizure under section 3.2-6569 of Virginia law.
The judge ordered the “disposal” of these 56 animals, meaning that they will be released to a humane society or animal shelter for adoption. The animals that will not be returned to the zoo include 12 white-faced capuchin monkeys, four brown capuchins, six cotton-top tamarin monkeys, two gibbons, two sacred ibis, three ground hornbills, one kookaburra, four Amazon parrots, one sulphur-crested cockatoo, one serval, five red-eared sliders, one painted turtle, 14 tortoises, and four giraffes.
However, the judge also found that the state had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the other 39 animals seized from the zoo were subject to cruelty or inadequate care, or that they required seizure under the law. The judge ordered the return of these 39 animals to the zoo, subject to certain conditions and restrictions.
The animals that will be returned to the zoo include two red ruffed lemurs, three black-and-white ruffed lemurs, six ring-tailed lemurs, 15 macaws, two pink and grey cockatoos, two Burmese pythons, two ball pythons, one skink, one mini donkey, one donkey, two llamas, one sheep, and one Kuvasz dog.
The judge did not specify when or how the 39 animals will be remitted to the zoo, but he said that the state and the zoo owners should cooperate to ensure a smooth and safe transition. The judge also denied the state’s request to subject the zoo to unannounced inspections for the next five years, saying that the state already had the authority to inspect the zoo under existing laws and regulations.
Zoo remains closed for the winter, future uncertain
The Natural Bridge Zoo, which has been operating since 1972, is currently closed for the winter season. It is unclear when or if it will reopen in the spring, or what impact the court ruling will have on its future operations.
The zoo has faced several controversies and legal troubles in the past, including citations, fines, and suspensions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the Animal Welfare Act. The zoo has also been criticized by animal rights groups and activists, who have called for its closure and the relocation of its animals to sanctuaries.
The zoo owners have maintained that they love their animals and that they run the zoo as a family business and a conservation effort. They have also accused the state and the animal rights groups of having a political agenda and of trying to destroy their livelihood.