Search warrant executed at Natural Bridge Zoo, PETA points to elephant's treatment

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of The Natural Bridge Zoo's legal problems starting with a Dec. 6, 2023 search warrant. To catch up from the beginning, click here.

LEXINGTON – A search warrant has been executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo, and the zoo’s opponents are celebrating.

The Virginia State Police confirmed in an email to The News Leader that “an investigative search warrant” was executed on the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County. As of 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, no further information had been released by the state police, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares’s office, or the zoo itself.

Although the reason for the search warrant is currently unconfirmed by the state police or attorney general’s office, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued a statement, thanking them “for executing an investigative search warrant at the Natural Bridge Zoo." They hope “this will bring much needed relief to the 40-year-old solitary elephant, Asha, and other long neglected animals held there.”

According to PETA and the zoo's social media, Asha is an African Elephant owned by the Natural Bridge Zoo and is central to PETA’s press release concerning the search warrant.

PETA’s Senior Vice President of Cruelty Investigations, Daphna Nachminovitch, explained that “though female elephants are highly social family animals who spend their entire lives together, Natural Bridge Zoo has kept Asha all alone – on a small patch of barren ground and chained at night in a barn – since 2005. She is the last solitary African elephant in North America exploited in such a facility for rides, during which her handler carries a heavy steel-tipped weapon resembling a fireplace poker, known as a bullhook, as a reminder of the pain he will inflict on her if she doesn’t obey his every command. For years, Asha has swayed and bobbed her head, recognized signs of loneliness, boredom, and stress.”

According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), this 2013 photo shows a Natural Bridge Zoo handler with a bullhook, "a heavy steel-tipped weapon resembling a fireplace poker."
According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), this 2013 photo shows a Natural Bridge Zoo handler with a bullhook, "a heavy steel-tipped weapon resembling a fireplace poker."

According to the Virginia Secretary of State’s office, the Natural Bridge Zoo’s Registered Agent is Deborah Mogensen. Previous News Leader writing notes Karl Mogensen owns the zoo.

PETA keeps an 11-page fact sheet on the Natural Bridge Zoo, with alleged incidents going back to October 1994. Included is reporting from the Roanoke Times, stating the Natural Bridge Zoo faced an inquiry by the Virginia attorney general’s office in 2015 due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report finding “31 violations of federal regulations, ranging from mistreatment of animals to more technical infractions that involved record-keeping.” Reporting from WSET in 2016 noted the USDA found more violations surrounding Asha and the other animals.

Information provided by PETA also pointed to a 2019 settlement with the USDA, costing the zoo over $40,000. The zoo allegedly failed “to properly euthanize a sick guinea pig, but instead forcefully threw the animal to the ground in an effort to end its life,” and failed “to have an elephant under the direct control of the animal handler during public exhibition," allowing “members of the public to ride, take photos with, and feed the elephant without the handler always nearby.”

According to the Natural Bridge Zoo website, African elephant rides were tentatively available on Thursdays and Fridays for $15 per participant, then on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays for $20 per participant.

“On this adventure ride you’re going to feel the gait of an elephant’s walk while appreciating a lofty perspective,” reads the website. “We are one of the few zoos in the United States to offer an African elephant ride with an opportunity for hands-on interaction.”

The Natural Bridge Zoo's African elephant, Asha.
The Natural Bridge Zoo's African elephant, Asha.

The park closed for the season Nov. 27, according to its social media, and planned to reopen in March 2024. As of press time, there is no indication if this plan will change as a result of the search warrant.

According to the Natural Bridge Zoo website, it opened in 1972 and “has never accepted any sort of federal, state or local funding.”

“The main purpose for Natural Bridge Zoo has always been the propagation and rearing of threatened or endangered species. … Many uninformed, but well meaning people, believe that all exotic animals belong free in their natural habitat. What they don’t realize is that in many instances, the wild habitat has been degraded due to lumbering, poaching, agriculture, and human encroachment. We, at the Natural Bridge Zoo, have been breeding threatened and endangered species for over 50 years.”

In 2017, in response to being asked if the zoo was cited or under investigation by the USDA for improper care of their elephant, the social media manager responded “every USDA inspection conduct passed flawlessly, most recent one (less then a month ago). The care and upkeep of our elephant all three USDA inspectors that have veterinarians degrees were more then impressed. [sic]" However, the writer goes on to say "a malicious agenda brought forth by the Humane Society of the United States, resulted in an investigation conducted by the USDA. All topics of concern have been addressed, and the park was brought into compliance with USDA regulations.”

The comments continued on to directly attack PETA, saying “we are happy to answer any questions brought forth in a polite and civil matter, but not the one's [sic] that falsely accuse us with out right [sic] slanderous lies. … [A video cited in news reports] was filmed by PETA, other Animals Rights Extremist Group to further their agenda as well. … These are the instigators, the trouble makers, that start rumors regarding the care that we give to the animals at our facility. Our staff works tirelessly, day in and day out to provide a safe and loving environment for all these animals.”

Even The News Leader’s own editorial board called for the zoo to be closed in 2015, writing “Nothing Mogensen has said inspires confidence that he can and will make Natural Bridge a safe place for animals. He allowed the abuse and neglect to occur before January and still had gross violations in March. Enough already. Permanently shut down Natural Bridge Zoo. Find good homes for the animals who suffer there.”

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Warrant at Natural Bridge Zoo, PETA points to elephant's treatment