Many of the remaining 98 animals seized by Virginia law enforcement from the Natural Bridge Zoo in December are on the mend, testimony revealed at Rockbridge County Circuit Court on Thursday. But it also delved deeper into what experts called unclean and unsafe conditions found at the zoo during the raid.

It was the fourth day of the civil trial, in which the government is building a case of animal abuse and neglect against Karl and Debbie Mogensen, who own the Natural Bridge Zoo just south of Lexington. A jury will determine who will have custody of the animals, 39 of which were ordered returned to the zoo by a lower court judge last month. Both the zoo and the government appealed that decision.

Two of the seized animals died at Metro Richmond Zoo — a gibbon from a gastrointestinal tract disease and a blue-tongued skink from visceral gout, said that zoo’s attending veterinarian, Dr. Cheryl Antonucci.

The Metro Richmond Zoo also received about two dozen other animals from the seizure: four capuchin monkeys, another gibbon, several pythons, a kookaburra, two southern ground hornbills and 14 tortoises of varying species. Several of the pythons had upper respiratory infections and one wasn’t shedding correctly, both of which Antonucci said are issues stemming from animal husbandry and the temperature and humidity of their environments. 

The hornbills both came in with broken beaks, and the other gibbon tested positive for tuberculosis, but not until it had been at the Richmond zoo for several weeks. Antonucci said some of the animals were thin or underweight, but since diet changes must happen gradually, their weight has been slow to return to normal.

Much of the testimony from Antonucci and four other veterinarians focused on the animals’ care at the Natural Bridge Zoo versus after they’d been seized and relocated. Lawyers’ questioning also distinguished the timeline of injuries and health problems to determine in whose possession they occurred — whether they could’ve originated before, during or after relocation. 

Dr. Suzanne Billiar, a vet who has examined a number of seized primates brought to the Florida Exotic Species Preserve, said several of them were thin, and both of the capuchin monkeys had severe hair loss. A capuchin named Anne was anemic, mildly dehydrated and covered in urine and had cuts on her tail, which was “totally devoid of hair,” Billiar said. Under cross-examination, she said the urine could’ve come from Anne’s 7- to 8-month-old baby crawling all over her.

Dr. Ellen Bronson, who oversees animal health at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, received two sacred ibises and a southern ground hornbill. The ibises both have severe beak deformities and can’t eat normally — one requires amputation, which Bronson said she’s ready to do but is waiting on the trial’s result. Under cross-examination, Bronson said there are risks associated with the surgery, like anesthesia, and her team had previously discussed euthanasia if the deviated beak couldn’t be fixed.

All three birds were thin at arrival, she said, ranking them at twos and threes on a nine-point body condition scale. “I have rarely seen animals ever … in this body condition,” Bronson said. Since her staff has found creative ways to help the ibises eat, she said, all three birds are now recovering and seem brighter and more alert.

Two donkeys, two llamas and a sheep went to Dr. Chad Hundley, a mixed-animal vet who practices in Chesterfield County. A couple of them were underweight, and the sheep was overweight and had an erratically grown horn about to penetrate into its temple. Both donkeys needed dental care and hoof trims, but all those animals are doing better now, besides the sheep’s weight.

More details of zoo conditions described

Darren Minier, an animal welfare expert at the Oakland Zoo in California, testified for nearly four hours on Thursday, describing the December raid. Consulting for the Virginia attorney general’s office, he’d examined the Rockbridge County zoo’s environmental conditions and its animals’ behavior on site and recommended that the state seize some of them.

Opining on what he observed and pictures shown in court, Minier said many of the enclosures for birds, primates and tortoises were covered with both old and fresh feces and urine — one hornbill’s cage had “weeks’ to months’ worth of feces accumulation,” he said, and the cage was positioned so that the bird “essentially was living in the dark.” 

Erin Harrigan, an attorney for the Mogensens, said if a female was nesting in that cage the cleaning schedule would change to avoid disturbing the eggs. But Minier said that wouldn’t “negate” the cleaning standard.

One building emanated an eye-watering smell of ammonia from the urine, even from the outside, Minier said, which was “immediately concerning off the bat.” The tortoises’ spaces were caked with feces, he said, and he found evidence that they’d been fed on the dirty surfaces. The bird cages were too small and many animals weren’t being fed the correct diet for their species’ specific needs, he said, according to the zoo’s care logs.

“It appeared that those animals hadn’t been cared for in quite a long time,” Minier said.

As for the giraffes, Minier said the three female giraffes were overweight and the male was underweight. All of them exhibited concerning behavior, he said, and there was no water in the females’ enclosure. He also witnessed staff interact with the giraffes in ways that could’ve been dangerous for the staff and, in some cases, the animals. The giraffes remained at the Natural Bridge Zoo despite being legally seized by the state after the raid because the state didn’t have a way to transport them.

The raid also found a dead giraffe and more than 50 other animal carcasses and parts stored in the zoo’s walk-in freezer. While some zoos will store a few dead animals for a couple of days or weeks until they can be sent for cremation, Minier said these had been in the freezer for much longer.

Minier said that during the raid he found more records related to breeding and rearing infant animals than to actual cleaning and care. The minimum standard of care — and in some cases, below the minimum standard — was used across the board, he said.

“It seemed as though the animals were being maintained to the convenience of people,” Minier testified, instead of maintaining care to species’ specific needs.

The jury trial, which had been slated to end Thursday, will continue Friday and likely into next week.

By fersz