Federal inspectors continue to find problems at the Natural Bridge Zoo, where they say a flimsy fence is all that separates visitors from a 9,500-pound elephant.
Inadequate veterinary care, deteriorating buildings, cramped enclosures, a lack of perimeter fencing and a rat infestation were also found during a June 20 inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Four of the seven violations of the Animal Welfare Act detailed in the inspection report were marked as recurring problems for the privately owned zoo just off Interstate 81 in Rockbridge County.
USDA officials said in January 2015 that in addition to regularly inspecting the zoo, they were conducting a more detailed investigation. That could lead to an administrative law proceeding to determine whether the zoo’s license should be suspended or revoked. A USDA spokeswoman declined to comment on the status of the investigation Friday.
“It’s very frustrating that this is taking so long,” said Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
The society has conducted its own undercover investigation. In the summer of 2014, an investigator got a job at the zoo and used a hidden camera to document what the organization called widespread abuse and neglect at the “ramshackle roadside menagerie.”
“We would like to see their license permanently revoked,” Leahy said. “We think there’s overwhelming evidence for that.”
When USDA inspectors visited the zoo in June, they saw Asha the elephant in an enclosure with her handler nowhere in sight. Regulations require that the handler be present with the elephant at all times when the zoo is open to the public.
Also lacking was an enclosure strong enough to keep the elephant from escaping.
“The barrier between the elephant and the public consists of either single-strand electric wire fencing or areas of livestock panel/gates that are not structurally strong enough to contain the adult elephant should she chose to get out of her area and into the public areas,” the report stated.
“Elephants do run amok,” Leahy said of the potential danger to zoo-goers.
Zoo owner Karl Mogensen has described Asha as a docile elephant who enjoys taking visitors for rides on her back.
Mogensen declined to comment in detail Friday about the latest inspection. “I hate it when you just kind of throw me under the bus,” he told a reporter.
But in general, he said, the bad inspections are the result of overzealous enforcement by the USDA, which he said is being influenced by radical animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Those groups are interested in drumming up support for donations with heart-wrenching stories of animal abuse, Mogensen said.
“They’re just trying to stir up controversy because we have no real problems with the USDA,” he said, repeating his prior position that animals at his zoo are well-treated and healthy.
Other problems identified in the June inspection included a deteriorating roof on a building that houses lemurs, an enclosure for two gibbons that was not tall enough for the small apes to move around normally, and the lack of a secondary fence around the zoo to contain the animals if they were to escape from their primary enclosures.
Several rodent holes were found in the zoo, and a rat was seen in a muntjac pen and in the feed pan used by the deer — raising concerns about the possible spread of disease, the report stated.
Animal rights groups have stepped up their criticism of the zoo since a January 2015 inspection that found 31 violations. Among the problems: More than 40 animals were in need of veterinary care for ailments that ranged from hair loss to lameness, zoo workers tormented a caged monkey by jabbing it with sticks, some animal enclosures were coated with grime and feces, and clutter throughout the zoo contributed to a rodent infestation.
At the time of that report, USDA officials said they were launching a more thorough investigation.
As recently as Aug. 1, spokeswomen Tanya Espinosa said the investigation remained open. But she declined to comment Friday, citing a new policy for the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“Although an investigation is a fact-finding mission generally aimed at learning more about the circumstances surrounding potential violations of the law, when it is reported in the media or on other sites, some may mistakenly presume that the individual or entity has already been found to have violated the law,” she wrote in an email.
“To guard against these inferences, APHIS will no longer confirm whether the Agency has open investigations.”