Area zoos:  A benefit or liability to the community?

By Pat McGlone

In Rockbridge County you can feed zebras and giraffes or ride an elephant at one of the local zoos.

Both the Virginia Safari Park and the Natural Bridge Zoo are strong family attractions.  They serve, for the most part, as the regional zoos and are quite close to I-81.  They also frequently host field trips, especially in the spring.

Executive Director of the Rockbridge Partnership, David Kleppinger, says that financially, the Virginia Safari Park has far exceeded all projected estimates since it opened in 2000.  The two parks complement each other and, economically, a loss of one would be a loss for all. 

While both zoos pride themselves on extensive care programs and highly trained caregivers, many of whom have or are obtaining biological or zoological degrees, there have been some problems.

The Natural Bridge Zoo is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the national agency that governs zoos, according to Darby Holladay, USDA spokesman. Details cannot be disclosed, said Holladay, because of USDA policy on open investigations. However, zoo owner Karl Mogensen says this investigation is merely a matter of fencing that was not up to par with the USDA.

But this isn't the first time the zoo has been under scrutiny.  In November 2004, the USDA fined Natural Bridge Zoo $2,475 after two Asiatic bears escaped through an unlocked gate.  Both bears were shot and killed while they were on the loose in the community.

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has made numerous complaints to the USDA against Natural Bridge Zoo.  According to Amy Rhodes, PETA Animals in Entertainment Supervisor, a PETA elephant specialist received information from a  "whistleblower" that she recently passed on to the USDA.  The letter PETA wrote to the USDA said that Natural Bridge Zoo has a 23-year-old African elephant named Asha that has a history of causing injuries to employees.  The letter reported that in 2004 a keeper was hospitalized after being knocked unconscious by Asha's trunk during a feeding.  The whistleblower also reported that in 1996 Asha attacked another elephant in an action that led to its death.  PETA reports that Asha is currently giving rides to the public, including children. 

Karl Mogensen, owner of The Natural Bridge Zoo and of Asha, insists these allegations against Asha are completely false.

At this time there is no formal USDA investigation concerning an elephant at the Natural Bridge Zoo, according to spokesperson Darby Holladay.

Hollady also said that the Virginia Safari Park has never been under formal USDA investigation.  However, according to USDA documents provided by PETA, the Safari Park has come under some informal scrutiny from officials on routine walkthroughs for basic housekeeping violations.

Housekeeping at both zoos requires a major commitment.  Staff monitor animals and their habitats throughout the day, and attend to the creatures regularly.  Natural Bridge Zoo owner Karl Mogensen says he opened in 1972 to propagate endangered species for other zoological parks and to provide a local zoo for the community.  His staff includes veterinarians and students working toward degrees.  Natural Bridge Zoo and its breeding farms have training programs for these students working on biological and zoological degrees in order for them to gain experience with bigger primates before going on to work with larger organizations.  Many of the big zoos require hands on experience before they will accept applicants.  So Mogensen's zoo offers those students and young professionals the experience they need in order to continue on in the animal care profession. 


Watch         Video overview of the Virginia Safari Park and the Natural Bridge Zoo

 Listen Lexington Director of Tourism Jean Clark on the family value of local zoos

Listen           Jean Clark discuss the economic network surrounding the parks

Slide Show



Produced by Washington and Lee journalism students.

Lead supervisor:      Prof. Claudette Artwick

Reporting supervisor: Prof. Doug Cumming

Editing supervisor:  Prof. Pamela Luecke

Technical supervisor:  Michael Todd