Nearly 100 animals are seized from Virginia zoo in animal cruelty investigation as authorities find severed animal body parts and 20 dead creatures in their search

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • A roadside zoo in western Virginia has become the focus of a criminal investigation, leading to the removal of nearly 100 animals, both living and dead
  • Search warrants executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County revealed that 89 living animals were confiscated, along with 28 dead ones
  • Warrants were issued in connection with allegations of animal care negligence and cruelty with numerous animals suffering from health issues

Almost 100 animals – both alive and dead – have been taken from a roadside zoo in western Virginia as part of what state authorities are calling a criminal investigation into abuse.

Search warrants executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County shows that 89 living animals were seized, while another 28 deceased animals were removed.

The warrants were issued in relation to the care of and cruelty to animals. 

Dozens of animals were found with various health problems and seemed to be living in ‘filthy’ habitats with many not receiving the appropriate care or adequate food and water.

The warrant cites several examples including deer that were seen to be fighting one another while food was being given to them by visitors in a tubed system.

A roadside zoo in western Virginia has become the focus of a criminal investigation, leading to the removal of nearly 100 animals, both living and dead

Search warrants executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County revealed that 89 living animals were confiscated, along with 28 dead ones

Search warrants executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County revealed that 89 living animals were confiscated, along with 28 dead ones

Warrants were issued in connection with allegations of animal care negligence and cruelty with numerous animals suffering from health issues

Warrants were issued in connection with allegations of animal care negligence and cruelty with numerous animals suffering from health issues

The zoo owner's daughter, Gretchen Mogensen, appeared to be blindsided by what had occurred

The zoo owner’s daughter, Gretchen Mogensen, appeared to be blindsided by what had occurred 

On another occasion, a bloated dead goat appeared to have been left for more than an hour having been unnoticed by staff. 

Other live animals that were taken away included lemurs, macaws, pythons and llamas, according to the warrant, filed on Friday in the county’s circuit court. 

Crime scene tape was wrapped around the property starting Wednesday of last week. 

Many crates and animal carriers were taken into the zoo in order to retrieve the animals.

The warrant said the raid at the zoo was based upon first-hand observations and investigations with investigators ‘believing there to be a direct and immediate threat to the health and safety of the animals’ at the zoo. 

Search warrants executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County shows that 89 living animals were seized

Search warrants executed at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County shows that 89 living animals were seized

Mogensen, was in tears as she gave an interview. 'They had a search warrant that was a confidential informant employed here that had supposedly seen according to him what he thought was cruelty and abuse and neglect by all the keepers and everybody'

Mogensen, was in tears as she gave an interview. ‘They had a search warrant that was a confidential informant employed here that had supposedly seen according to him what he thought was cruelty and abuse and neglect by all the keepers and everybody’

Local news crews captured the moments animals from the zoo were taken away in crates

Local news crews captured the moments animals from the zoo were taken away in crates

Officials worked for several days in order to remove the animals from the zoo

Officials worked for several days in order to remove the animals from the zoo

Some of the animals being confiscated was captured on drone video from overhead

Some of the animals being confiscated was captured on drone video from overhead

The state police were also on seen on site as Animal Welfare officers swarmed the place

The state police were also on seen on site as Animal Welfare officers swarmed the place

One of the dead animals taken was a 12-year-old Siberian white tiger named Zeus

One of the dead animals taken was a 12-year-old Siberian white tiger named Zeus

The white tiger had to be euthanized with consent of the owners to 'humanely end its suffering'

The white tiger had to be euthanized with consent of the owners to ‘humanely end its suffering’

Disturbing allegations of animal cruelty are detailed in the warrant. 

A confidential informant who worked at the zoo claims they were told by the elephant keeper that in order to get respect from the animals they needed to use a bullhook (pole with metal hook and tip).

The keeper made statements such as ‘always’ jab the animals where ‘bone is close to flesh. 

The warrant also details several phrases used by the keeper including: ‘make it count,’ ‘the only reason you hit an elephant is for intimidation’ and ‘you gain respect through fear.’

In the case of the elephant, the informant described the animal, names Asha, as living in substandard conditions with the animal was sleeping in her own urine and  given cold baths because keepers didn’t want to ‘baby them too much.’

The elephant was kept chained to a wall and shackled meaning she couldn’t move out of her own manure and urine.

The affidavits stated how Asha, ‘who has lived as a solitary elephant for decades, has very little enrichment. Asha sways and rocks from side to side in order to soothe herself and relieve boredom and stress.’

On June 3, the confidential informant documented, Easley said Asha carried 166 zoo guests on her back, affidavits read. The next day, she carried 191.

A sign at the zoo’s elephant ride area sets the ride weight limit at 250 pounds. But the confidential informant ‘regularly’ saw two adults plus a child riding Asha at one time.

The warrant looked at every single aspect of the zoo including records of donations (of animals) made or received, animal care records, veterinary records, animal feed records, certificates of veterinary inspections, transportation records, sales receipts, daily visitor logs, communications or documents about the care of and handling of any animals and all digital storage devices including cameras, computers, external hard drives and cell phones.

A giraffe could be seen in its enclosure while investigators were on site

A giraffe could be seen in its enclosure while investigators were on site

Camels could also be clearly seen in drone video shot from above

Camels could also be clearly seen in drone video shot from above

The roadside zoo is based in Rockbridge County in Virginia near Roanoke

The roadside zoo is based in Rockbridge County in Virginia near Roanoke

The warrant included a list of animals that detailed many as dead. They included everything from lemurs to birds, pythons, turtles, a donkey and an alligator, according to WDBJ.

Body parts were also listed including the head, tails and legs of a giraffe, and the legs of a zebra.

The office of Attorney General Jason Miyares is conducting the investigation with help from the Virginia State Police. 

The attorney general’s ‘Animal Law Unit offers support and prosecution of animal cruelty cases upon request of a local Commonwealth’s Attorney or law enforcement agency,’ Miyares spokesperson Victoria LaCivita said. 

‘Because this is an ongoing criminal investigation, we cannot comment further.’

LaCivita confirmed that one of the dead animals taken was a 12-year-old Siberian white tiger named Zeus that had to be euthanized with consent of the owners to humanely end its suffering. 

The zoo owner’s daughter, Gretchen Mogensen, appeared to be blindsided by what allegedly occurred and was in tears as she spoke with WSLS10. 

‘They had a search warrant that was a confidential informant employed here that had supposedly seen according to him what he thought was cruelty and abuse and neglect by all the keepers and everybody,’ Mogensen explained.

‘All the keepers stayed because they all wanted to provide care to the animals which speaks volumes for what they do but unfortunately they’re going to be painted as monsters by the state for simply trying to do their job and while the Animal Control Officers are going to be depicted as wonderful.’

Mario Williams, an attorney for the zoo’s owner, questioned the probe adding that the zoo would seek to halt any permanent seizure of the animals, which he said would be unconstitutional.

‘We’re going to challenge the criminal charges, one by one, show us where the neglect was, you got to show us all this stuff. You know, you just can’t run around saying stuff. And without any proof really,’ said Williams.

Four giraffes, three females and one male, ‘have not been impounded but there will be a hearing for seizure to determine whether the animals have been subject to cruel treatment or neglect’ at a hearing set for December 20.

In 2019, the USDA issued Natural Bridge Zoo over 150 citations for handling animals, sanitation, and housing facilities. 

A phone call to Natural Zoo Bridge went unanswered on Sunday and there was no immediate response to an email seeking comment. The zoo was already closed for the winter. 

ᴀʀᴛɪᴄʟᴇ ꜱᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ

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