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Virginia zoo may not survive after 89 living, 28 deceased animals seized in investigation

Crystal Graham
elephant eye close up zoo
(Stock photo, elephant eye, © heyjojo19 – stock.adobe.com)

The Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County may close its doors permanently after 89 living animals and 28 deceased animals were seized from the facility last week.

According to court documents, on Wednesday, the first of two search warrants were executed at the zoo, resulting in the seizures. A tiger was also euthanized according to multiple reports.

A second search warrant was executed Thursday searching for medications including ketamine and gabapentin at the zoo and at the owner’s residence. Law enforcement seized 30 items.

Gretchen Mogensen, the daughter of the Natural Bridge Zoo owner and spokesperson, expressed her heartbreak over the seizures on social media.

“To all those whom have reached out in support, it means the absolute world to us. The animals and our crew are immensely overwhelmed right now,” said Mogensen. “Moving forward will be an immense mental and even more financial challenge. I do not know if we will survive as a facility or if we will fall at the cruel hands that have sought to bring us down.

“But I do know that I will continue to provide care and support for every single animal that resides with us.”

 

“I do not know if we will survive as a facility or if we will fall at the cruel hands that have sought to bring us down.”

 

The park closed to the public for the 2023 season on Nov. 27. The zoo planned to reopen in March 2024.

The Natural Bridge Zoo, located in 5700 block of Lee Highway in Natural Bridge, opened in 1972.

According to the Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, there had been a number of violations dating back to 1994 at the zoo. The USDA assessed civil penalties in some cases and suspended the license of the zoo temporarily for alleged violations.

A confidential informant was hired at the zoo as a farmhand and groundskeeper. The informant allegedly documented cases of dirty water, lack of food and physical impairments such as overgrown hooves and unaligned beaks at the zoo.

Another concern raised by PETA and the informant pertained to Asha, an elephant at the zoo, who provided rides to guests and allegedly was chained regularly, given cold baths and living in substandard conditions.

An additional court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 20 pertaining to four giraffes at the zoo. The court hearing will take place in Rockbridge General District Court.

Virginia State Police Public Relations Director Corinne Geller told AFP that the investigation is being led by the Office of the Attorney General.

The Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office said their office has no comment at this time.

“A special prosecutor from the state attorney general’s office has been appointed for this matter,” said Dennis Ayers, office manager and paralegal for the Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in an email response to AFP.

“State police conducted the search warrant at the zoo only in an assist capacity to the Office of the Attorney General,” she said.

AFP has reached out to the office of Jason Miyares, Attorney General for Virginia, but have not received a response at this time.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.