A Rockbridge Circuit Court jury found after about 10 hours of deliberation Monday that 29 of 100 animals previously seized from the Natural Bridge Zoo due to alleged mistreatment will be returned to the property.

Among the 71 animals that will not return to the zoo, owned by Karl and Deborah “Debbie” Mogensen, are four giraffes, which will have to be transported off site, three pythons, one gibbon, six tamarins, 17 capuchins, 14 tortoises, three Southern ground hornbills, a dog, a mini donkey, six turtles, a blue-tongued skink, which has died since seizure, and 14 macaws.

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Among the 29 animals that will return to the zoo are an albino python, two sacred ibis, a kookaburra, four amazon parrots, a Poitou donkey, 11 lemurs, three cockatoos, two llamas, a serval, a sheep and one macaw. The jury also found that a male gibbon was not mistreated by the zoo, but the animal has died since seizure.

Jurors heard about four and a half days of testimony regarding the conditions in which the seized animals were found on Dec. 6 and 7, when the Office of the Attorney General executed a search warrant at the zoo with the assistance of the Virginia State Police.

Court documents: 89 living, 27 deceased animals seized from Natural Bridge Zoo

Law enforcement removed 96 animals, including several primates, tropical birds, reptiles and agricultural animals, and recommended seizure of four giraffes, which have remained on the property.

The county, represented by Senior Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch, called 17 witnesses, including several veterinarians and zoological experts, and introduced 88 exhibits into evidence. They did not rest their case until Friday, the fourth day of witness testimony.

The zoo owners, represented by a team of attorneys including Harrisonburg-based lawyer Aaron Cook and Roanoke-area lawyer Erin Harrigan, introduced 19 exhibits and called six witnesses.

Judge Christopher Russell did not permit the defense to call Gretchen “Sasha” Mogensen, Karl Mogensen’s daughter and the zoo’s facility manager, to testify Monday, because the lawyers neglected to include her on their original witness list.

Welch said the defense attorneys notified her team at 2:04 a.m. Monday that they intended to call Gretchen Mogensen, who appeared in the courtroom gallery later that morning. Welch said the defense’s witness list was due Feb. 23, the Friday before the trial occurred.

“It is a surprise,” Welch said. “They didn’t disclose it.”

Harrigan told Russell that leaving Mogensen off of their witness list was “inadvertent.” She argued that, based on case law, the commonwealth needed to prove that leaving Mogensen off the list was malicious and prejudiced.

Harrigan added that the seizure of the 100 animals in December was an “incredible encroachment on [their] clients’ property rights” and that Mogensen’s testimony was “essential” to the zoo’s case.

Russell ultimately sided with Welch, but he allowed Cook to read a proffer of what Mogensen’s testimony would have been onto the record after the jury had been dismissed to deliberate – “so that the record is protected on appeal,” Harrigan said.

Cook said that Mogensen would have testified as to the medical and transport history of the seized animals, their diets, the staff’s daily cleaning schedules and the conditions of the animals’ winter enclosures and daily activities.

She also would have said, Cook proffered, that several animals that were given to the zoo in years prior came with strange behaviors, including a python that self-harmed, or deformities, including birds with missing toes or nails and a turtle with a concave shell.

Among the seized animals was a Poitou donkey named Norman, which Manassas-based veterinarian Samantha Moffitt testified Tuesday appeared depressed when she was at the zoo on Dec. 6 and 7.

Natural Bridge Zoo jury trial testimony reveals new details about seized animals

Cook said Mogensen would have testified that Norman likely appeared sad or depressed because, on a regular day, staff would have greeted him with a treat. The morning of Dec. 6, law enforcement arrived at the property at about 7 a.m., and Norman didn’t get a treat.

According to testimony by state troopers that were on the scene in December, zoo keeping staff arrived at about 8 a.m. But, Harrigan said during her closing argument Monday, the keepers were interviewed and weren’t permitted to feed their assigned animals or clean their enclosures until after 1 p.m. – about 17 hours after employees left the facility the previous day.

“Is that actually pulling back the curtain on the zoo?” Harrigan argued. “Are you really looking at what the zoo looks like on a normal day? This wasn’t a normal day.”

Welch told the jury that she had shown them that the animals there were deprived and suffering, as she promised she would in her opening statement last week.

“They have been cared for in the last two months more than they ever were at Natural Bridge Zoo,” Welch said.

But Harrigan argued that the story the prosecution told “wasn’t the actual story.”

“I think that you’ve actually heard two stories,” Harrigan said in her closing statement. She encouraged them to closely examine the photographs presented to the jury, not all of which were published on screen during the trial.


Erin Harrigan, a Roanoke-based lawyer representing Natural Bridge Zoo owners Karl and Debra “Debbie” Mogensen, presents her closing argument to jurors Monday afternoon.

Among the photographs Harrigan drew their attention to was one picturing tortoises in their winter enclosure, situated underneath cages housing tropical birds. Several county witnesses had testified that the birds had defecated onto the tortoises’ shells.

“Look at their shells. If there’s bird feces, they have to be getting cleaned every day,” Harrigan said.

Cook proffered that some of the tortoises had been trained to stand up to be scrubbed clean, an activity that was rewarded with treats.

Harrigan also reminded jurors that law enforcement officers had seized two boxes of records from Blue Ridge Animal Clinic, or BRAC, which employed the zoo’s vet of record, Ashley Spencer. The attorney asked the jury to consider why those records weren’t shared with vets on Dec. 6 and 7.

“They’re not even passing on the names of these animals,” Harrigan said. “They’re just seizing them. … Why was it so arbitrary?”

Among the defense’s exhibits was a business record from BRAC that identified scheduled appointments associated with Natural Bridge Zoo. Harrigan said the document was evidence that care was regularly sought for animals on the property.

“Zoo care, zoo management, it’s in those photographs, it’s in those records,” Harrigan said. “This is not consistent with a zoo that is cruelly treating its animals.”

Welch argued that the document was simply a list of appointments with no indication as to whether the visits were completed. She also argued that the prosecution’s case was not about the condition or treatment of the Natural Bridge Zoo animals before or after seizure.


Senior Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch presents her final arguments to a Rockbridge Circuit Court jury Monday afternoon in the case against the Natural Bridge Zoo.

“What we saw on Dec. 6 and 7 is what was happening on a daily basis,” Welch said. She called the prosecution’s story one “of the seizure,” and the defense’s story a “fantasy.”

Since the seizure, defense witnesses testified, the zoo has sought advice from Colorado-based giraffe expert Liza Dadone. Dadone said Friday that the zoo had paid her $9,000 for her consultation services, which included recommendations about the giraffes’ diets, hoof overgrowth treatment and enrichment devices.

Welch noted that action plans, like the post-seizure one being executed by Dadone, were left by lead investigating veterinarian Ernesto Dominguez for about 400 animals not seized Dec. 6 and 7.

But instead of executing those plans, Welch argued, the remaining animals were moved off of the property. Witnesses testified Friday that many enclosures appeared empty in mid-February.

Welch argued that Dominguez was “conservative” when recommending animals for seizure in December, adding that law enforcement doesn’t “have to wait until they end up in this zoo’s freezer” to seize them.

But Harrigan found issue with the fact that one of the seized macaws, which Dominguez testified was healthy, was only taken because it was a companion to its cage-mate. She argued that wasn’t grounds for seizure.

The defense asked several veterinarians called by Welch whether they would seize unhealthy animals, perhaps one that is overweight, from their owners if brought into their clinic. Most of those veterinarian experts said they would not, but would provide an action plan.

Harrigan acknowledged that one sheep, which Cook said Mogensen would have testified used to participate in local nativity scenes, was clearly overweight and had a horn that needed a trim.

“That’s normal. It will have to be done again,” Harrigan said. “Why didn’t they all get an action plan?”

Among the seized animals was a male Southern ground hornbill, which vets testified had cataracts, and which Cook said Mogensen would have testified was caring for his mate, who was inside a nesting box tending to an egg that had been laid in late November.

Prosecution witnesses testified that the birds’ enclosure was unclean and dark, but defense witnesses said that cleaning the cage would have disturbed the nesting female.

Cook said Mogensen would have testified that after the male was removed from the enclosure, the female abandoned her egg. Mogensen cared for the egg and hatched the infant, but it later died.

The female hornbill laid a second egg, Cook continued to proffer, but the mother broke that egg and the embryo died. When she laid a third egg, which had not been inseminated, the bird was permitted to nest it to help her navigate the loss of her mate.

But at least two prosecution witnesses, including Dominguez, who said he entered the hornbill enclosure to capture the male, testified that there was not a female in the nesting box.

“We have a lot of breeding going on,” Welch said, “and we don’t know where the babies go.”

Expert: ‘It’s difficult to call Natural Bridge Zoo a zoo’

Harrigan and Cook also argued that a lack of enrichment was not grounds for seizure. Harrigan reminded jurors that Dominguez described enrichment materials through a furniture metaphor. He explained that a living room with simple folding chairs and tables lacks the engagement that a living room with a sofa and an entertainment system provides.

But Harrigan and Cook argued that a parent who doesn’t provide their child with an entertainment system is not charged with child neglect, and so a lack of enrichment should not amount to a direct or immediate threat to the health or safety of the Natural Bridge Zoo animals under Virginia law.

Harrigan argued that the expert vets called by Welch and the owners of Natural Bridge Zoo have different philosophies when it comes to caring for animals. She reminded jurors that some experts, who all came from outside Rockbridge County, recommended amputation or euthanasia for a sacred ibis with a deviated beak.

But a sign on the bird’s enclosure, Harrigan said, indicated that while the zoo housed animals that were aging or had a disability, the facility preferred to allow those animals to continue to live in their public enclosures where they would be most comfortable.

But Welch reminded jurors that Erin Bronson, a veterinarian at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, had testified that when her facility received the ibis Dec. 15, he was surprisingly thin for an animal that had been in human care.

Natural Bridge Zoo trial continues, locations of more animals revealed

Some animals died after seizure by law enforcement, including a blue-tongued skink and a gibbon. Harrigan argued Monday that the gibbon had a condition, ulcerative colitis, which was exacerbated by the stress of his capture and transport to Metro Richmond Zoo, where he arrived Dec. 7.

Now, Harrigan said, his enclosure “will be empty because of the county’s decision to seize that animal.” But Welch countered, “All the animals are better now, except for the skink and the gibbon.”

Jurors were asked to make findings Monday for each of the 100 animals, including the four giraffes, seized by law enforcement. To find that an animal should remain in the custody of the government, jurors needed to find that the animal had been cruelly treated, or deprived of adequate care in a way that caused a direct and immediate threat to the animal’s life, safety or health.

“The General Assembly did a very poor job of writing this statute,” Cook said Friday.

Welch told the jury during her closing argument that the definition of adequate care includes several aspects, including the feeding, watering and sheltering animals, according to Virginia code.

“If you don’t give all of them, then I win,” Welch said. “It’s not just one thing. Not by a long shot.”

In the end, Welch won 71. She requested that, in the case of appeal, a post-trial motions hearing be set for April 4.

By fersz