Nan Fariss says her heart breaks just thinking of Asha, the lone elephant at Natural Bridge Zoo, waiting in a tiny pen to ride children around a tight circle in the blazing hot sun, deprived of water lest she have an “accident” and, worse yet, deprived for most of her life of the company of fellow pachyderms.

“It is cruel to treat an elephant, a pack animal, like that,” the Roanoke woman said. She plans today to lead a protest of local animal rights activists at the Rockbridge County roadside zoo. They want Asha sent to an elephant sanctuary, and they want the 42-year-old zoo to close.

The zoo’s owner, Karl Mogensen, caught wind of an impending protest. Though he wasn’t sure of the day, he was preparing a surprise of his own. He declined to say what might await the protesters. “I’m going to have a little fun with them,” he said.

Animal rights activists have staged protests before at the Natural Bridge Zoo, where Mogensen thinks they intend to drive away his customers. More often, though, the zoo’s opponents engage in stealth visits, plunking down the $12 admission fee just like the 75,000 to 80,000 other annual patrons, so that they can go inside and report perceived deficiencies to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, he said.

Mogensen and PETA have tangled for many years. Recently, PETA has stepped up its complaints to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Both agencies license and inspect zoos.

“Natural Bridge Zoo is absolutely abhorrent with a record of physical and psychological abuse,” said Brittany Peet, counsel for PETA, noting that over the years the zoo has had more than 60 welfare violations and has paid $12,000 in fines. “There’s no excuse to house animals in cramped and barren environments. No excuse to allow tigers and elephants to go crazy from deprivation of their natural environments.”

Mogensen not only denies PETA’s allegations, waving off most of the violations as technical things like having the wrong type of perimeter gates or not quickly covering feed bins, he has launched his own attack, claiming PETA is cruel to animals.

“Everyone, when PETA gets after them, just hides,” he said. “But you know something — 90 percent of their cats, kittens and puppies are killed within 24 hours. … They don’t do a lot of good for animals. They take in tremendous amounts of money, but I think they use it for their own pension funds.”

PETA posts on its website the reason for euthanizing animals. It explains that most of the animals taken in at its lone shelter in Norfolk are so sick or abused that the only humane option is to end their suffering. And, the agency counters, it saves thousands more neglected animals through outreach than it euthanizes.

“The homeless dog and cat overpopulation crisis and how it affects cities across the U.S. is certainly an important story, but it’s not relevant to the Natural Bridge Zoo’s history of abusing animals and endangering the public, and we hope you won’t allow Mr. Mogensen to distract from the real issue here,” Peet said.

Mogensen disagrees and claims PETA kills animals and has no standing to accuse him of treating animals cruelly. He believes that he is truly helping animals by saving species from extinction, and was pleased to show a reporter and photographer around the zoo and the 2,300 acres of farms where the animals graze, breed and run when not on display at the roadside zoo.

Both he and his detractors describe the Natural Bridge Zoo, located along U.S. 11 between Interstate 81’s two Natural Bridge exits, as a “roadside zoo.” The term is applied mostly to privately owned, for-profit facilities and has been loosely used to refer both to gas stations with a caged bear or tiger and to facilities like the Natural Bridge Zoo that mirror the size and scope of nonprofit or publicly owned zoos.

Mogensen said that his zoo is no different from municipal zoos, but that PETA lasers in on private operators.

While he voices little respect for PETA, Mogensen does understand people like Fariss, who desire to see animals treated well.

“I really wish they’d just talk with me or ask someone here questions so that we can answer them.” Mogensen said.

More than what meets the eye

Take Asha, for instance. Fariss believes she was stolen from her mother as a baby and has lived a cruel life of isolation. Mogensen tells a different tale as he pulls his Suburban alongside the pen where Asha stands near a structure waiting for a mother and child to climb aboard her back.

She came to Mogensen’s zoo 30 years ago from Zimbabwe as a 3-foot-tall baby that had been rescued after her mother was culled. As he and her trainer, Mark Easley, talked, the afternoon sun raised the temperature well into the 90s; sweat seeped from the brows of humans as the elephant went to work, hauling her riders around the small enclosure.

Visitors who see just this part of Asha’s life could easily worry about her treatment. Last summer a state trooper, visiting with his family, was alarmed when the trainer jabbed the elephant in the mouth with a bullhook while uttering curse words. Though an investigation ensued, no charges were filed.

Easley said he didn’t harm the elephant but admitted that tempers were a little heated that day as he and his wife were arguing. Mogensen said bullhooks are “the equivalent of a hooked finger on a stick,” and allow handlers a longer reach to guide elephants. Though it can be misused, just as a dog leash or horse bit can, Asha showed no signs of abuse, he said.

What visitors see is just a snippet of Asha’s working day. Mogensen said that during her off hours, Asha is led out of the zoo to one of his four farms where she runs, exercises and plays with her two companion dogs. He said the elephant leads a good life and does not suffer from loneliness.

“People have a Disney version of animals in the wild. They don’t see the internal parasites, the external parasites, the starvation or water filled with animal feces,” he said.

He said he has seen such sights on his frequent visits to Africa. “So many animals are being destroyed in their natural habitat. A lot of these [zoo animals] you’re seeing now will cease to exist unless you have captive breeding programs. You can’t reintroduce them because the very things that are making them extinct are still there. We have more Himalaya bears than anywhere in the country, but you can’t take them back because they’re killed for aphrodisiacs or whatever.”

Accusations and rebuttals

About those bears — Fariss worries that they are penned in too small an enclosure.

Asiatic bears look like Virginia’s black bear except for white crescents of fur across their chests. At the Natural Bridge Zoo they live in a 50-by-20-foot exhibit. Back in 2003, two bears escaped from the zoo and were shot and killed. Last summer, a government inspector wrote in a report that while the bears had a large metal tub in which to play, they lacked a separate clean water bowl.

That’s a violation that PETA points to as mistreatment, but one that Mogensen said is in error since the bears, like most of the zoo animals, have a “lick it,” which is like a drinking fountain.

“They activate it with their tongue and get all the fresh water they want,” he said.

The other most recent complaint concerns the giraffes. Their enclosure has a gravel base that is designed to help grind down their hooves so that they do not become overgrown and painful. Last summer, the federal inspector found that one of the females had overgrown hooves. Mogensen said the zoo veterinarian was aware of this but the giraffe was pregnant and it would have been unwise to sedate the animal to trim her hooves. The inspector in a follow-up visit noted that a chute was being built to allow trimming without sedation. The most recent inspection on May 6, again to check on the giraffes, did not turn up any violations.

Mogensen said he breeds the giraffes for other zoos, selling the males for $12,000 and the females for $60,000.

PETA’s Peet said recent photos posted by the zoo to its Facebook page indicate that another giraffe’s hooves might be overgrown, and PETA recently submitted a complaint along with a photo of an open wound on a giraffe.

“We take all complaints seriously and look into the allegations made, either through an inspection or by working with the facility to gather information,” said Lyndsay Cole, the assistant director of public affairs for USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Accreditation

Inspection reports for the last three years are available online and show a dozen visits to the Natural Bridge Zoo since June 2011, most of them prompted by complaints, and then follow-up visits to check on the welfare of specific animals. Other facilities, like Mill Mountain Zoo, have had as few as three annual routine inspection reports to check on compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.

License holders must provide animals with adequate, sanitary housing that protects them from extreme weather and temperatures. They also must provide nutrition, water and veterinary care. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service turned down a request to allow a reporter to speak with the inspector who checks on the Natural Bridge Zoo’s animals.

During the last three years, inspectors in Virginia filed just nine reports for direct violations of the act; three of those violations occurred at the Natural Bridge Zoo. Another three concerned animals at the Reston Zoo. That zoo is owned by the Virginia Safari Park, which is just north of the Natural Bridge Zoo on U.S. 11 and is owned by Mogensen’s son. Attempts to interview someone at the safari park were unsuccessful.

Mogensen said there is no connection or affiliation between his zoo and his son’s.

In addition to federal oversight, wildlife exhibitors in Virginia are regulated by the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Some zookeepers also seek accreditation to show the public that they meet certain standards. The best known of those agencies is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, formed in 1924. Only its accredited facilities are eligible for membership. It reports that fewer than 10 percent of the 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have earned its accreditation.

Virginia facilities with AZA seals are Mill Mountain Zoo, Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia Living Museum in Newport News and Virginia Zoological Park in Norfolk.

Mogensen and his wife are professional members of the Zoological Association of America, which requires its members to adhere to certain standards. The ZAA states that it was formed in 2005 “to promote responsible ownership, management, conservation and propagation of animals in both private and public facilities through professional standards in husbandry, animal care, safety and ethics.”

The ZAA does have an accreditation process, but in Virginia only the Virginia Safari Park and the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia have gone through the process, an association spokeswoman said. A USDA inspector has written up both of those zoos for at least one noncompliance finding during the last three years.

PETA supports only facilities accredited through the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. GFA states that its accredited or verified facilities offer “a true sanctuary, rescue or rehabilitation,” have a nonprofit status, do not engage in commercial trade and allow little or no contact with the public. Its accredited facilities in Virginia are Project Perry Inc. in Louisa, White Bird Appaloosa Horse Rescue in Burkeville and Brook Hill Farm in Forest. Its verified facilities are Hoofbeats Therapeutic Riding Center in Lexington, Blue Horse Mukwa Equine Rescue and Retirement in Chase City and Central Virginia Horse Rescue in Brodnax.

Mogensen said that he adheres to ZAA’s standards but has not seen the need for accreditation. He said his opponents do not understand that there is more to the zoo than what customers see and that the animals often move from the enclosures to one of the farms. On each of the farms are houses that are used by the zoo’s dozen employees. He said that all of them have degrees in biology or zoology and that he finds no shortage of educated, qualified applicants. As long as they’re willing to work hard for a few years and learn, Mogensen said, he helps find them jobs at larger institutions much the same as he finds homes for all the animals he breeds.

On the farms, he said, the animals roam freely in natural settings much the way animal rights activists suggest wildlife should be treated, with two exceptions.

Mogensen’s set-up encourages breeding in order to keep species from becoming extinct. PETA frowns on breeding programs.

And the animals are taken to the roadside zoo, where they are put on display in enclosures that animal rights activists believe are cruel.

“What kind of life is that to be in little cages?” Fariss asks. She wants people to stay away from the zoo, saying their admission fees help to support the misery of dispirited animals.

Mogensen said the animals are not miserable; rather they are well cared for and would otherwise cease to exist.

Contact Luanne Rife at luanne.rife@roanoke.com or 981-3209. 

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