NATURAL BRIDGE — Asha the elephant lumbered over to the edge of her pen, seemingly eager to greet visitors to the Natural Bridge Zoo. From deep within her 9,500-pound body came a low-pitched, rumbling sound.

Zoo owner Karl Mogensen likened it to a cat’s purr.

“Hear that noise she’s making?” Mogensen said. “That’s a rumble of contentment.”

Asha and all the other animals at the roadside zoo in Rockbridge County are content and well cared for, Mogensen said — contrary to reports of mistreatment and neglect from government regulators and animal rights activists.

The Natural Bridge Zoo has been closed since April 4, its permit to exhibit wild animals suspended by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In finding that animals at the zoo were “confined under unsanitary and inhumane conditions,” the DGIF based its suspension on recent inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that licenses the zoo.

Unabashed, Mogensen says he is the target of a witch hunt.

He asserts that many of the 44 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, found during two USDA inspections of the zoo in January and March, were either minor infractions or situations that have been trumped up by overzealous animal rights groups and the agency they influence.

On Thursday, while giving a tour of the zoo for The Roanoke Times, Mogensen said all the problems have been corrected. USDA inspectors were back on Tuesday and Wednesday for a third visit this year, he said, and they didn’t find much to write up.

“It was very favorable, that’s all I can say,” said Mogensen, who hopes that regulators will allow him to reopen the zoo soon, maybe even next week.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswomen for the USDA, would not confirm that the agency had inspectors at the zoo this week, saying only that reports are posted to the agency’s website 21 days after the review is completed. But Lee Walker, outreach director for the state DGIF, said officials for that agency were present during a follow-up inspection by the USDA.

“At this time it is too early to comment any further until we receive the USDA report,” Walker wrote in an email.

Apart from the inspection process, the USDA has said it is investigating the zoo in a process that could lead to a hearing before an administrative law judge, who would have the power to suspend or revoke its license. That investigation continues, Espinosa said.

Even though the zoo still holds its federal license, it was unable to reopen as scheduled on April 4 after a winter break. In a March 9 letter to Mogensen, the DGIF said it was suspending the zoo’s state permit to exhibit wild animals because of the USDA citations.

“It is our understanding that you are working with the USDA to correct the identified deficiencies,” DGIF permits manager Jim Husband wrote. If there is “substantive compliance” documented by two consecutive federal inspections, Husband wrote, the permit could be reinstated.

One inspection began the day after the letter was sent; the second was this week. Once the DGIF gets a report from the most recent inspection, it will make a decision on the status of the permit, Walker said.

Undercover investigation

Over the past few years, federal inspections have turned up only a handful of infractions at the Natural Bridge Zoo, which is visited by about 70,000 people a year.

That changed after the Humane Society of the United States — which has called Mogensen’s operation a “ramshackle roadside menagerie” — infiltrated the zoo last summer when an undercover investigator got a job there.

Using a camera concealed in her safari vest, the employee obtained video footage that was then turned over to the USDA.

In a January inspection, the federal agency cited the zoo for 31 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, some of them based on the undercover video. Another 13 infractions were identified in a March inspection.

Among the findings: More than 40 animals at the zoo were in need of veterinary care for ailments that ranged from hair loss to lameness, a caged monkey was tormented by zoo workers who poked it with sticks, and old or sick guinea pigs were euthanized by slamming them to a concrete floor before their carcasses were fed to the zoo’s tigers.

Federal inspectors also criticized the zoo’s practice of photographing visitors while they held tiger cubs, a popular attraction that it promoted on its website. In some cases the cubs were too young for human contact, and could have been exposed to infections, the USDA report states. In other cases, they were so large that they posed a potential threat to patrons.

The guinea pigs are gone now, Mogensen has said in court documents, and the tiger cub photo shoots have been discontinued.

Dirty enclosures for some animals have been cleaned up, cages and pens have been repaired and a new veterinary care program has been created as part of about $35,000 spent to address the issues raised by the USDA.

Elephant allegations

Animal rights groups still have concerns — especially about Asha. The elephant is one of the zoo’s main attractions, and visitors line up to take a ride on her back as she is led around an oval-shaped enclosure.

A California-based group called In Defense of Animals has declared the Natural Bridge Zoo the worst place in America for an elephant to live.

That’s because Asha, 31, has essentially been held in solitary confinement for most of her life at the zoo, IDA asserts. African elephants are highly social, traveling in herds and forming bonds through sophisticated means of communication. As an only elephant at the zoo, Asha is lonely and needs the companionship of other pachyderms, the thinking goes.

Mark Easley, Asha’s longtime handler at the zoo, bristles at the idea.

The elephant enjoys the company of several dogs, he said, and thrives on the regular attention she gets from humans. She sleeps in a heated barn during the winter, and in warmer weather is taken to a nearby farm where she can romp through the pastures.

“We pretty much spoil the crap out of her,” Easley said while feeding Asha special elephant pellets from a five-gallon plastic drum. “She’s our baby.”

Besides, he said, how do other people know what an elephant is thinking?

“She doesn’t know anything else in her life but this,” he said of Asha’s existence at the zoo, where she has spent nearly her entire 31 years after Mogensen rescued her as a 3-foot tall baby whose mother had been culled in Zimbabwe.

Just like people, Easley said, elephants can have different preferences when it comes to social interaction. “We’re all different as human beings, and I don’t necessarily want you as a stranger moving into my home,” he said.

In 40 pages of USDA inspection reports, Asha is mentioned several times. Regulators wrote that the elephant needed to be more closely monitored, especially when being allowed to roam free on a 1,600-acre property near the zoo that is owned by the Virginia Conservation Legacy.

The report also stated that a double-stranded electric fence that encloses the elephant pen, which is also bordered by a more study metal fence, might not be capable of holding the five-ton animal if she were to become spooked.

As for the rumbling sound that Mogensen attributed to Asha’s happiness, those expressions could actually have a variety of meanings, according to Toni Frohoff, an elephant scientist for In Defense of Animals.

“And even if she was happy to see you, that doesn’t mean she is a happy elephant,” Frohoff said.

Corrections made

Although he doesn’t always agree with the rules, Mogensen said he has met the required corrections, which include making a 7-foot-high fence that surrounds the zoo a little higher to conform to a USDA-mandated minimum height of 8 feet.

“The tigers and the lions haven’t read the manual,” he joked when commenting on the difference an extra foot might make.

The way Mogensen sees it, government oversight of his zoo and others like it has been hijacked by groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Those organizations do little to actually help animals that may be in danger, he says, and are more interested in raising money from tender-hearted people to advance their own agendas.

“The Humane Society and PETA are on this vendetta,” he said. “They try to stir up your emotions to get your money.”

While admitting that recent USDA inspections have found some problems at the zoo that needed fixing, Mogensen said other allegations of animal abuse were blown out of proportion by the Humane Society’s undercover investigator, who used selective photography to mislead.

For example, he said, when a giraffe died naturally of old age, a photograph of its sprawled body lying in a cage suggested something far more sinister.

“She was taking all kinds of photographs, anything that would defame the zoo,” he said.

Critics of the zoo are unmoved, noting that a closer look at its track record shows repeated violations since 1994, fines of more than $16,000 and two previous suspensions of its USDA license.

“The question I would ask is how many second chances does the Natural Bridge Zoo get?” said Rachel Mathews, counsel for the PETA Foundation.

But during his recent tour of the zoo, Mogensen was eager to show off his animals and seemed hopeful that the latest USDA inspection will resolve any lingering concerns the government might have about his business.

If that’s the case, the “Closed; Please Call Again” sign that hangs at the zoo’s main entrance may soon be coming down.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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